Posted November 2000
Information and Communication Technologies for rural development and food security:
Lessons from field experiences in developing countries
By Hilda Munyua
CAB International, Africa Regional Centre
Rural development and food security: a "community informatics" based conceptual framework, by Michael Gurstein
Information and communication technologies for sustainable livelihoods, by Claire O'Farrell, Patricia Norrish and Andrew Scott
El Papel de las Tecnologías de Información y Comunicación en el Desarrollo Rural y la Seguridad Alimentaria, by Manuel Calvelo-Ríos
Towards a knowledge system for sustainable food security, by V. Balaji, K.G. Rajamohan, R. Rajasekara Pandy and S. Senthilkumaran
Rethinking telecentres in the second world, by Scott S. Robinson
Information technology and poverty alleviation, by Gabriel Accascina
E-commerce and community economic development, by Michael Gurstein
Developing country governments are increasingly aware that they have a major responsibility for rural development and food security, but lack the capacity and solutions to meet the challenge. In 1996, the world’s heads of state meeting in Rome committed their countries to eradicating hunger and reducing the number of undernourished people by 50% by the year 2015 (FAO 1998). While on the one hand the agricultural yields in developing countries continue to decline, despite technological innovations, their populations continue to expand beyond food production capacities. This poses a great challenge for developing countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where it has been estimated that 50% of the total population would go hungry by the year 2000 (FAO 1998:2). Policy- and decision-makers thus have to identify possible and appropriate solutions that ensure rural development and food security.
Food security can only be achieved "when all people at all times have access to sufficient food for a healthy and productive life, and has three main components: food availability, food access, and food utilisation" (Haddad 1997). This entails creating effective and efficient agricultural systems that supply food and foster utilisation of natural resources in a sustainable manner. Although "agriculture is the principal engine of growth in many low-income developing countries, where it accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all employment" (CGIAR 1995), food security should also be linked to environmental, social, cultural, political and institutional aspects of society (Forno 1999).
Rural people constitute the greater part of the population of developing countries and often lack access to basic needs such as water, food, education, health care, sanitation and security, leading to low life expectancy and high infant mortality. These conditions, considered harsh by the majority of the rural population, result in their migration into urban areas, often in search of formal employment, as the only option for survival. The urban slum populations in which they find themselves are often not food secure either. Finding solutions calls for revolutions, including the biological revolution, which is one intervention that has been identified as having the potential to meet the increased food demands and to contribute to alleviating food insecurity problems (McCalla and Brown 1999:4). Although this whole area is still controversial, some of its techniques are not controversial and developing countries should reap the benefits of biotechnology.
The information revolution is another intervention with the potential to ensure that knowledge and information on important technologies, methods and practices are put in the right hands. The relevance of this revolution is supported by Balit (1996) who pointed out that the least expensive input for rural development is knowledge. Knowledge and information are basic ingredients of food security and are essential for facilitating rural development and bringing about social and economic change. According to Albert Waterson, as quoted by Cohen (1987:23), the purpose of rural development is "to improve the standard of living of the rural population – is multi-sectoral including agriculture, industry, and social facilities". Rural communities require information inter alia on supply of inputs, new technologies, early warning systems (drought, pests, diseases), credit, market prices and their competitors. The success of the Green Revolution in Asia and the Near East indicates that giving rural communities access to knowledge, technology and services will contribute to expanding and energising agriculture.
Traditional media and new ICTs have played a major role in diffusing information to rural communities, and have much more potential. There is need to connect rural communities, research and extension networks and provide access to the much needed knowledge, technology and services (Forno 1999). Studies on information systems serving rural communities have focused on specific sectors such as agriculture or health, instead of covering the rural community needs in a holistic manner. Rural information systems must involve rural communities and local content must be of prime importance (Mchombu 1993). Traditional media have been used very successfully in developing countries, and rural radio in particular has played a major role in delivering agricultural messages. Print, video, television, films, slides, pictures, drama, dance, folklore, group discussions, meetings, exhibitions and demonstrations have also been used to speed up the flow of information (Munyua 2000). New ICTs, however, have the potential of getting vast amounts of information to rural populations in a more timely, comprehensive and cost-effective manner, and could be used together with traditional media.
Potential of new ICTs for rural development
While the term ‘ICTs’ can be interpreted as including a wide range of media, ‘new ICTs’ is used to denote "the use of computers and communication systems between computers" (CTA 1999:4). These new ICTs are becoming more accessible, and users can obtain information from various sources, and one computer could meet the needs of a large rural community. A CTA seminar on "The role of information for rural development in ACP countries" concluded that "these modern technologies offer new and multiple perspectives, such as faster and better-focused access to information" (CTA 1998:13). Electronic mail is the most commonly used new ICT and has caused a cultural revolution in the way individuals and organisations interact, in terms of time, cost and distance. The second most significant use of new ICTs is the World Wide Web, which enables people to access information on millions of other computers.
Although the Internet is not a panacea for food security and rural development problems, it can open new communication channels that bring new knowledge and information resources to rural communities (Bie 1996). Traditional communication channels have been used successfully but these have been monologic and have not allowed for much interaction with users. Radio for example has been very effective for disseminating information to all types of audiences, but broadcasting times are sometimes not appropriate for most people. But radio could be linked to the Internet, and a few initiatives have been started on this concept, such as the project Internet Radio in Sri Lanka (http://www7.itu.int/itudfg7/fg7/CaseLibrary/ShowSummary.asp?contrib=35). This enables users to access programmes on the web at a convenient time, and send feedback through e-mail or chat. Broadcasters could then disseminate the latest information promptly. Some examples of areas where ICTs could play a catalytic role in developing rural areas include:
- Decision-making process - Sound decision making is dependent upon availability of comprehensive, timely and up-to-date information. Food security problems facing developing countries demonstrate the need for informed researchers, planners, policy makers, development workers and farmers. Information is also needed to facilitate the development and implementation of food security policies. E-mail and The Internet could be used to transmit information to and from rural inaccessible areas.
- Market outlook – farmers could promote their products and handle simple transactions such as orders over the web while payment transactions for the goods can then be handled off-line (O’Farrell et al 1999:4). It has been shown to be cheaper and faster to trade online than on paper-based medium, telephone or fax. Electronic-commerce could, therefore, enable entrepreneurs to access global market information and open up new regional and global markets that fetch better prices and increase farmers’ earnings.
- Empowering rural communities – ICTs can empower rural communities and give them "a voice" that permits them to contribute to the development process. With new ICTs, rural communities can acquire the capacity to improve their living conditions and become motivated through training and dialogue with others to a level where they make decisions for their own development (Balit 1998:30). Giving rural people a voice means giving them a seat at the table to express their views and opinions and become part of the decision making process. The approach should be participatory and could lead to improved policy formation and execution.
Improved policy formulation and strategies, however, require "an educated and informed populace … to reduce poverty, excessive population growth, environmental degradation and other factors that are most often the direct causes of hunger" (FAO 1998). New ICTs have the potential to penetrate under-serviced areas and enhance education through distance learning, facilitate development of relevant local content and faster delivery of information on technical assistance and basic human needs such as food, agriculture, health and water. Farmers can also interact with other farmers, their families, neighbours, suppliers, customers and intermediaries and this is a way of educating rural communities. The Internet can also enable the remotest village to access regular and reliable information from a global library (the web). Different media combinations may, however, be best in different cases - through radio, television, video cassettes, audio cassettes, video conferencing, computer programmes, print, CD-ROM or the Internet (Truelove 1998). Rural areas also get greater visibility by having the opportunity to disseminate information about their community to the whole world.
- Targeting marginalised groups – Most rural poor people lack the power to access information. ICTs could benefit all stakeholders including the civil society, in particular youth and women (UNDP 2000). Other disadvantaged groups that could be targeted include the disabled and subsistence peasants.
- Creating employment – Through the establishment of rural information centres, ICTs can create employment opportunities in rural areas by engaging telecentre managers, subject matter specialists, information managers, translators and information technology technicians. Such centres help bridge the gap between urban and rural communities and reduce the rural-urban migration problem. The centres can also provide training and those trained may become small-scale entrepreneurs.
Innovative application of ICTs in rural areas
There are examples of initiatives in several developing countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Chile, India, Mauritius, Mexico, Peru, South Africa and Uganda) supported by FAO, ITU, IDRC, IFAD, UNESCO, DFID, British Council, GTZ and others.
Examples from Latin America and the Caribbean
- FAO has developed a number of methodologies for applying ICTs to promote rural development. The "Pedagogia Audiovisual" project was set up to promote rural development and effective peasant participation through an improved communication system and has brought together "peasants, government representatives, researchers, technicians, banking services, construction companies and marketing and processing institutions" (Fraser and Restrepo-Estrada 1996). The project is based on the saying "What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I know" and was started in Chile and later spread to Peru. Since human resources are a key factor to ensuring food security, video-based packages and other traditional communication media were used to train farmers and intermediaries and to exchange ideas and information. A computer based information system was later established, which distributed "the bulletin" with information farmers needed - market, technical and weather, by fax. The information system also provided linkages to international sources and external databases. An evaluation of the bulletin indicated that it was an important tool but most of the information was not pertinent to specific user needs and it was not thought to be reaching enough farmers (Fraser and Restrepo-Estrada 1996).
FAO has embraced new ICTs with funding from the Government of Italy. The Internet-based project (1994-97) - "Comunicación para el Desarrollo en América Latina", of sharing knowledge and skills with small subsistence farmers developed national communication systems in Latin America. The project also trained a critical mass of national staff in the production and use various communication channels preferred by peasant farmers and semi-literate rural populations. The project proved very successful and soon spread throughout the region and beyond to China, Mali, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea (Balit 1998).
An evaluation of this project indicated that the methodologies and ICTs used were appropriate and cost effective. Farm families were the main beneficiaries of training and information activities. Intermediaries and extension workers had acquired more knowledge, skills and experience to train farmers and provide them with technical information. All stakeholders had access to better communication tools to facilitate transfer of knowledge and skills to the wider community, to access market information and to achieve an integrated approach to economic and social development, leading to interorganizational efficiencies (Richardson 1997). The project had developed national capacity in Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico and was operating in a sustainable manner and generating money for national and local institutions (Balit et al 1996).
- The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is supporting an Internet based system in Latin America and the Caribbean - FIDAMERICA - that has the objective of strengthening local capacities of poor rural communities and improving their quality of life. The system has used ICTs to assist the rural communities to access agricultural, market and technical information and to improve access to financial systems. It offers facilities for knowledge and information exchange through electronic conferencing, e-mail, databases and web sites. FIDAMERICA, now in its second phase, has 41 projects and programmes in the region and involves about 3600 community organisations and 500,000 families (IFAD http://www.fidamerica.cl/).
Examples from Africa
- Successful experience with "audiovisial pedagogy" from Latin America has led FAO to apply the participatory video approach to agricultural development projects in Africa to empower rural communities. The methodology mediates between the needs of rural people, sources of information and expertise to respond to the expressed needs through the production and use of documentaries and training presentations (FAO 1998).
- The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) works towards improving the dissemination of information for the benefit of farmers through improved adoption of new technologies. CTA has a programme - Rural Radio Support Programme that supports rural radio and development of audiovisual aids in ACP (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific) countries. The programme was launched in 1990 and distributes information packages consisting of taped interviews accompanied by a complete transcript and radio talks. Audio files are hosted by ONEWORLD (http://tv.oneworld.net/cta/) and can be downloaded and re-broadcast. Text by WRENmedia is available at http://www.new-agri.co.uk/cta/indexen.htm. Four packages are produced each year and are distributed to rural radio producers, broadcasters and farmers. Technical information and photocopies of relevant articles on each subject are also provided as a back-up (CTA http://www.agricta.org/icdd/radio.htm)
- In Uganda, the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) and CAB International (CABI) are implementing a project titled "Electronic Delivery of Agricultural Information to Rural Communities in Uganda". The project, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) under the Acacia Initiative, aims to improve access to agricultural information by rural communities through use of selected traditional media and modern ICTs such as radio, video, television, print media, e-mail, CD-ROMs and The Internet to increase agricultural production. The project will accelerate the delivery of appropriately packaged agricultural information using existing telecentres at Nabweru, Buwama and Nakaseke as information resource centres. Information needs and ICT preferences will be identified with special focus on women, community leaders, youth, frontline workers, NGOs and CBOs. Local content will be developed and building the capacity of the local communities will be a priority. The evaluation and learning systems approach (ELSA) developed by the Acacia initiative will be used to ensure continuous learning and evaluation.
- FAO has recently prepared a proposal for a National Agricultural and Rural Knowledge and Information System (NARKIS) and network for Uganda, to increase "farmer access to information, knowledge and technology through an effective, efficient, sustainable and decentralised extension with increasing private sector involvement in line with government policy". The project hopes to assess user needs and facilitate agricultural and rural information flows and knowledge building, as well as capacity building. The programmes to be implemented include the building and management of an agricultural Web portal, packaging of multi-media publications, rural networking and ICT deployment and support services. The project will be managed through contract arrangements (Van Crowder and Fortier 2000).
- The Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Mauritius has developed a computer based information system - the Potato Extension & Training Information System (PETIS). PETIS uses the Internet and will test whether rural communities can use the web to access information. The system, destined principally for the small-scale potato growers, is equipped with audio files that provide information in English. Illiterate users have an option that reads the summary of the content in Creole and Bhojpuri, and icons and pictures that enable most rural users to navigate easily the basic levels on the site. The system has been rated very successful and the research team is now exploring touch screens (Lukeeram et al 2000).
Examples from Asia
- In Bangladesh, ICTs have transformed the lives of rural people and village women. The women have started small-scale enterprises through small loans from the Grameen Bank to buy mobile cell phones that have been used to provide telephone services and earn them good income. "Much of the voice traffic over the cell phones is commerce directed - access to agricultural market prices, access to agricultural trade information, facilitation of remittances from foreign workers, information on work opportunities, using the phone to reduce substantial travel costs" (Don Richardson, personal communication 1999 1). The Grameen Bank has been so successful in providing jobs to poor rural entrepreneurs and connecting the community to the world, and "is being replicated in dozens of other countries". Most borrowers are women, and meet weekly to discuss loan payment and other health and development issues (Yunus 1997, Grameen http://www.grameen-info.org/bank/index.html, http://www.grameen-info.org/mcredit/ timeline.html).
- In India, the British Council and partners, including bilateral and multilateral donor agencies, NGO’s and government departments are planning the establishment of India’s Development Information Network (INDEV). A proposal drafted by OneWorld has been discussed with partners, and the project hopes to disseminate different forms of information to different target audiences using the Internet and web technology. Project outputs will include a web site, e-mail digests, printed reports, exhibitions, CD-ROMs and discussion lists (Global Knowledge http://gkaims.globalknowledge.org/projects/index.cfm?fuseaction=info&record_identifier_001=914
- UNICEF developed the Meena Communication Initiative in South Asia and the governments of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal have come out in support of a mass communication project aimed at changing perceptions and behaviour that hamper the survival, protection and development of female children in the region. The Initiative involves the production of multi-media packages, including animated films, videos, radio series, comic books, posters, discussion guides, folk media, calendars, stickers and other materials. The package aims to put across gender, child rights and educational messages using the medium of popular entertainment. Topics for the animated film episodes and other multi-media materials were identified through field research. http://gkaims.globalknowledge.org/projects/index.cfm?fuseaction=info&record_identifier_001=549
ICTS for improving linkages
Weak linkages between researchers, frontline workers and farmers have been a major constraint that has resulted in research findings not being applied by poor rural farmers. ICTs can improve and strengthen these linkages and ensure knowledge and information, which are essential for improving food security are communicated to all stakeholders.
- FAO’s Research, Extension and Training Division and the World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) recently developed a prototype network - the Virtual Extension-Research Communication Network (VERCON) concept that aims at improving linkages between agricultural research and extension institutions. The Internet tool allows network members to capture and develop local content, share, store, retrieve and disseminate information and connect geographically dispersed people from research and extension institutions, faculties of agricultural education, NGO workers and agricultural producers. The tool can also facilitate communication, sharing information and supporting improved agricultural production and can further broaden and strengthen collaboration through facilitating co-ordination of rural, local, national and regional development programmes. (Van Crowder and Fortier 2000, FAO http://www.fao.org/waicent/vercon/default.htm).
- In Latin America, FAO has applied ICTs in a project to establish farmer information networks – FARMNets - involving agricultural producers and farmer associations, extension services and NGOs in Chile and Mexico. Essential information on inputs, prices, markets, weather and credit are exchanged through the electronic network (via the Internet) to farmer organisations, co-operatives and local government. The project also provided training on how to analyse, retrieve and disseminate information of local relevance using ICTs (Van Crowder and Fortier 2000).
An evaluation of the project indicated that the Internet was found appropriate for transmitting information across the network. Farmers and their associations were able to sell their produce at much higher prices than they could fetch in the local market and strategize on what quantities and when to produce. Users of the centres found the Internet to be a cheaper, timely and appropriate communication option (Balit 1998, Masias 1996). Knowing the future prices for cereals and oilseeds also enabled the association to better plan the quantities to plant. In addition vegetable producers reported that the information on weather conditions informed them of climatic conditions faced by competitors in other states and countries. This enabled them to plan markets for their products" (Van Crowder and Fortier 2000). The Chilean network has developed and published local content on its web site with most of the information in Spanish. This made it more accessible to the entire Lusophone community (Richardson 1996).
- The Farmers' Information & Technology Service (FITS - Techno-Pinoy) is a web-based information service initiative in the Philippines. FITS aims to contribute to the empowerment of farmers, processors, entrepreneurs and traders and provides information and technology services that facilitate decision-making by rural communities. This leads to improved production, processing, trading and marketing. The initiative intends to link with organisations, networks and technology services and existing resources into a centre near the farmers and uses the Internet, traditional media, and face-to-face information delivery and access at the local level (PCARRD http://www.pcarrd.dost.gov.ph/fits/fits_home.html).
- The Mango Information Network (MIN) is a web-based information service that provides information on market outlook, pest management, directory of players in the mango industry, a virtual meeting place and extension/research. MIN is relevant to farmers, farmer organisations, co-operatives, frontline agents and entrepreneurs and offers a question and answer service. Simple "fact sheets" are also available in print or accessed on the web (PCARRD http://min.pcarrd.dost.gov.ph/).
Constraints in the establishment and management of community-based ICT projects
Some general problems that have been experienced in a number of ICT-based rural projects and initiatives include:
- Policy considerations - In most developing countries, especially in Africa, the formulation and implementation of policies in the ICT sector is still very rudimentary and calls for an integrated set of laws, regulations and guidelines that shape the generation, acquisition and utilisation of ICTs (Marcelle 2000). Most countries lack policies and strategies that facilitate the harnessing of new ICTs for rural development and where policies have been formulated, proper implementation plans are needed (Fillip 2000:4). In addition, review strategies are often lacking. At present, the regulations are rigid and telecommunication tariffs and import duties on ICT equipment are high. The situation is compounded by lack of political good will.
- High telecommunication costs in some developing countries - The cost of basic Internet remains a strong deterrent in many developing countries such as Angola, Kenya, Cuba and India. Although market liberalisation has led to the entry of several private sector ISPs, service provision is through government phone companies, whose service is inadequate in terms of robustness, low bandwidth, congestion and noisy lines. Others make international calls to ISPs in the United States or elsewhere in Europe, which renders the service rather expensive.
- Infrastructure - The telecommunication and electricity infrastructure in developing countries is lacking or is poorly developed in rural areas. Satellite and wireless technologies are now in use in some developing countries, but these are largely developed around urban cities and even here, the infrastructure is often inadequate. There are problems of low bandwidth and there is a need for strengthening the Internet backbone.
- Lack of local content and language barrier - Information available through ICTs is mostly in English, which the majority of developing country rural communities cannot read. There is a marked shortage of relevant material in local languages that responds to their needs and this calls for "significant investment and support for local content" (O’Farrell et al 1999). Bartechi has described one example in India – the Village Earth Project and its Consortium for Sustainable Village Based Development. The project works with NGOs and individuals to help connect rural villages and develops appropriate content for individuals or organisations using ICTs and living in rural areas. The project has a library of books, microfiche and CD-ROMs that provide appropriate information resources but most of these materials are in English, and may not be appropriate for every region or culture. Thus, there is need to develop more local content in appropriate languages (David Bartecchi, personal communication 19993, Villageearth 2000).
Various local, national, regional and international organisations have useful information resources (statistical, bibliographic, factual and full text) of relevance to rural communities, packaged as print, audio tapes, radio and television programmes, videos, CD-ROMs and on the World Wide Web. For many of these, there is lack of bibliographic control and there are no commonly agreed standards.
At the international level, FAO, through its WAICENT web site, makes available many of FAO’s own published sources, including FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS), the AGRIS and CARIS databases, and the FAO Statistical database. A CD-ROM – "FAO on the Internet" - makes this important information accessible to users that have no Internet facilities. Other bibliographic database producers such as CABI, Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), The Centre de Cooperation Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), the US National Agricultural Library (NAL) (which also hosts the gateway AgNic site), and the Inter American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) in Latin America provide data in a variety of formats, including via the Internet. CABI and others have also developed multimedia knowledge bases such as the Crop Protection Compendium, the Forestry Compendium and the forthcoming Animal Health and Production Compendium which can reach beyond the research community. CIRAD has produced similar products: Entodoc, Cotondoc and le Dromedaire. The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has produced several multimedia products and institutional databases which could be very useful to intermediaries and literate farmers in rural areas. One important web resource designed to help the exchange of information for Internet users in the agriculture community is the Agriculture Internet Users Association (AIUA http://www.aiua.org). Now the challenge is to find ways of making these and other sources accessible to rural communities.
- High rate of illiteracy in rural areas – "Illiteracy is a fundamental barrier to participation in knowledge societies" (Mansell 1998:35). A large proportion of the rural population of developing country nations, majority of who are women, is illiterate and most pictographic and audio-visual information usually has some text that goes with it. This means that these individuals are disadvantaged and lack the basic skills required to harness the benefits of ICTs. The assistance of intermediaries may thus be required.
- Gender insensitivity – Developing country men and women play different productive and community roles in rural development and have different needs and preferences. Women produce more than half the world’s food (World Bank 2000, FAO 1999) and face many problems in addressing food security and rural development. These include weak extension services, non-adoption of technologies, low status and therefore non-involvement in decision- and policy-making varied and heavy workloads, poor access to credit; and lack of access to education and training (Munyua 2000). When new technologies are introduced, they are seen as a domain for men, and women have often been left out of initiatives associated with new ICTs. Rural women, however, have wisdom and indigenous knowledge that is rooted on culture, traditions, values and experience. Their methods of communication and information exchange should thus be harnessed and be complemented with new ICTs (FAO 1999). Women also spend most of their income on family welfare and have a greater impact on increasing agricultural productivity and improving the quality of family life.
The youth are another special group that deserves special mention. In Kenya for example, out of the present 28 million people, about 50% are youth, below 18 years of age. The youth have been given little opportunity to contribute to rural development issues, despite their numbers, fresh and innovative ideas. The School Net model has been used in some developing countries (South Africa, Uganda,) to connect the youth to the Internet to enable them to move into information and knowledge based societies and develop young talent.
Women, youth and the disabled will, therefore, require special treatment (affirmative action), and should be deliberately integrated into all ICT projects and initiatives through gender sensitive project development and implementation (FAO 1999). It is only by so doing that a critical mass of information aware people, and leaders of tomorrow can be developed to ensure that their countries realise food security and rural development goals.
- Inadequate human resources - To ensure more meaningful participation in rural development, and to pave way for the creation of a critical mass of people that effectively harness ICTs in developing countries, training and capacity building must be an integral part of all ICT projects. It has been observed that "a critical factor in meeting the challenge of ensuring food security in Africa is human resource development through knowledge building and information sharing" (Forno 1999). Users of ICTs have to be trained in the use, application and maintenance of ICTs before they become confident and comfortable enough to use them (Richardson and Rajasunderam 1999).
Most staff managing ICT-based projects lack adequate training that would enable them take full advantage of the new technologies. There is need to invest in training and advisory services for information intermediaries, telecentre staff, frontline workers and women’s groups. Norrish (1999) has pointed out the need to identify the best training approaches for rural communities targeting different user categories and different technologies. Such training could be done through conferences, workshops or training of trainers’ courses. Introductory and sensitising workshops could be organised for different categories of users and local experts could provide ongoing on-line support. People in rural communities of developed countries are already reaping the benefits of electronic distance education and developing countries could offer similar services through selected centres (Richardson 1999).
Focus should be on such skills as how to use ICTs through practical and participatory approaches. The ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’ in India, for example, has trained rural women in the production and use of video to generate income, disseminate new skills and to advocate for changes in policy (Balit 1999:21). Some key players in the training activity have been FAO, CTA, IDRC, IFAD, UNESCO and ministries of agriculture. Traditional media will remain important and should continue being used alongside new ICTs. "It is through the use of a variety of media and their integration with local communications networks that more people throughout Africa can be heard and can be reached" (FAO 1998:20).
- Sustainability of projects - Most projects established with external funding face major challenges after the project period has ended. Sustainability of these projects should be considered right from the outset and, where possible, should have government, private sector and community support. Users should also pay for services but the cost will depend on how much they can afford. There are as yet few examples of success in attaining such sustainability, and there is an urgent need for viable models to be developed and tested.
Role of FAO in ensuring appropriate use of ICTs
FAO is an international and membership organisation with intergovernmental status. It is recognised as one of the leading agencies in alleviating poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development, improved nutrition and the pursuit of food security. This means that FAO has the potential to assist governments of developing member countries to attain food security. Rural people will, in turn, themselves then have to adopt new technologies. FAO could assist developing countries to harness the benefits of ICTs to facilitate sharing and exchanging of relevant knowledge and information. FAO can, however, not achieve this on its own and international, regional, national and local partners will need to work together to ensure that rural communities participate in the ICT revolution. Some areas where FAO could play a role include:
- Influencing policy in the food security/rural development context - Weak and inadequate policies have led to lack of development (social, economic, political) and to problems of food security in many developing countries. This underlines the need to address policy constraints (Jensen 1997). FAO could play a much greater role in facilitating agricultural and ICT policy formulation and implementation in developing countries. Its status makes it much easier for it to seek audience with key decision- and policy-makers within the government sector and the international community. FAO could work with both the public and non-public sector (involving all possible stakeholders concerned with food security) to advocate for the formulation and adoption of policies that have gender considerations to support and empower rural people, and in particular women and youth groups. FAO could also assist developing countries in strengthening policies and institutions. There are a number of success stories in the ICT sector, and these could be shared and discussed with policy makers and be considered as best-practice guidelines for formulating ICT policy. There is also a need to advocate the institutionalisation of communication as a vital component of rural development policies of developing countries.
- Telecentres - There is evidence that telecentres have played a major role in mobilising communities to address their development problems. Telecentres can be used as information hubs that capture, repackage and disseminate information to rural communities (FAO 1998). Bie (1996) recommends "an Internet and development strategy focused on rural and agricultural communities and the intermediary agencies that serve those communities with advice, project support, research, extension, and training". FAO could take the lead and work with like-minded partners to further develop the concept of multi-purpose community information telecentres into information and knowledge systems, aimed at meeting food security and rural development goals. FAO and partners could establish pilot projects in selected countries to demonstrate the power of ICTs in addressing rural development and food security problems. A mix of media - traditional and new ICTs could be used to meet different user categories, needs and preferences. Lessons learned by FAO and other partners from the use of different communication media could be applied to deal with rural development and food security problems in developing countries (FAO 1998).
- Capacity building and training - One major constraint for delivery of food security initiatives in rural areas is weak institutional capacity and insufficient co-ordination. Non-governmental organisations and the private sector in particular possess a vast but often untapped potential. FAO could seek partners to fund capacity building activities. The partnership could also assist with building the required human and institutional capacities at national and regional level to provide training and education to rural communities on how to manage local knowledge and information, using ICTs. Training materials produced could be availed as electronic archive of training resources, and could be repackaged in preferred media such as the successful video-based model used in Latin America. The resources could then be translated into major languages to ensure that most developing countries benefit.
- Harmonisation of standards - Common standards are a prerequisite for sharing information. FAO could work with relevant producers and disseminators of knowledge and information to develop standards for managing information and knowledge targeted at rural communities. Some tools and methodologies such as Participatory Rural Communication Appraisal (PRCA) have already been developed and have been used to "uncover local skills and knowledge" (Anderson et al. 1999:2) and to fully understand the information and knowledge needs of rural communities. These could be promoted for adoption by other actors in rural areas. FAO could for example, provide simple guidelines on how to develop local content using the VERCON model to capture indigenous knowledge. Other useful tools that have the potential to enhance networking, such as FARMnets could also be promoted. FAO’s multilingual thesaurus (AGROVOC), categorisation/classification scheme and guidelines for bibliographic analysis have been widely adopted and adapted in developing countries for managing agricultural information. These could be harmonised with other existing standards (such as CABI’s and UNEP’s thesauri), for processing and indexing agricultural information at national level and on the World Wide Web. Standardisation would facilitate the pooling of relevant resources from different rural communities on the Internet, as successfully demonstrated in the case of AGRIS. Intermediaries could then tap this resource and repackage the information in different media to suit their needs.
- Repackaging and local content development - The African Development Forum (ADF’99) underscored the need to harness indigenous knowledge for development. This is further supported by OneWorld, who have stated that "a country’s knowledge base needs to be developed and fostered to both improve its competitive position and to contribute to human and sustainable development goals" (OneWorld 2000). FAO has played a major role in helping developing countries to manage local scientific and technical agricultural information and could in the same vein, provide technical assistance to national and regional institutions managing rural knowledge and information systems. Special emphasis could be placed on developing and disseminating local content, "improving the relevance of the information to local development" (FAO 1998:3), as well as capturing and auditing all relevant local resources using ICTs. Resources produced should involve the participation of local communities and be packaged in local languages, to make the services offered more valuable and accessible. An electronic co-operative agricultural information resource could be established and be hosted on the WAICENT site. This resource could also be repackaged in media such as CD-ROM, to ensure access by communities whose "last mile" has yet to be connected.
- Use of FAO’s own resources - FAO has a vast body of knowledge and experience and can now build on its many successes by championing, facilitating and enhancing the use of new ICTs to support this new information revolution. These include the David Lubin Memorial Library resources, FAOSTAT, GIEWS, CARIS and AGRIS databases on the WAICENT site and other invaluable resources such as the Global Plant and Pest Information system (GPPIS). The challenge to FAO is to tap all the organisation’s resources in a holistic manner, and add a component of information dissemination using appropriate ICTs to all FAO programmes. These products could be packaged by subject, commodity or by country, and be adapted to a less technical level for wider dissemination through both traditional communication media and new ICTs. Regional and national institutions could then access these resources and provide continued flow of information and knowledge by remote and impoverished rural communities and provide answers to many questions.
- Promoting use of traditional and new ICTs - FAO and partners could play a key role in raising awareness of the power of appropriate traditional and new ICTs in facilitating rural development and food security. This could be done through workshops, visits to telecentre models, radio, video, television and print. FAO and member countries could also produce and disseminate documentation on development and use of ICTs and electronic information management systems.
Conclusion and the way forward
It has been stated that "achieving an integrated rural Internet development approach in a given nation or region requires the collaborative participation of agencies, organisations and government services" (Richardson 1997:15). The Strategy for Co-operation would thus be to work through international co-operation to harness synergies of the respective partners. FAO could, therefore, forge alliances and coalitions with other international, regional, national, donor, multilateral and development agencies, public and non-public institutions and rural groups. The partnership could then work jointly in planning and implementing initiatives that seek to harness ICTs for food security and rural development. The partners could include IDRC, CABI, UNDP, USAID, IFAD, CTA, World Bank, DfID, IICD, British Council, GTZ, national governments, regional organisations, private sector, NGOs, farmer associations and specialised ICT bodies such as ITU and telephone companies.
Following a recommendation from one of its seminars that a ‘technology watch’ be established to track the evolution of ICTs, CTA has established an electronic "Observatory" with experts from ACP countries and Europe, that has the task of informing the agricultural community on appropriate ICTs (CTA 1998:13). Similarly, ITU has created a Global Case Library of reports on on-going projects using ICTs, planned projects using satellite and wireless technologies and examples of equipment adapted for use in remote disadvantaged rural environments (ITU http://www7.itu.int/itudfg7/About/Means_Methods.html, http://www7.itu.int/itudfg7/fg7/CaseLibrary/Case_Library. html). FAO could work with these groups and others, to build on the existing body of knowledge on ICTs, provide wider resource bases, increase economies of scale and put agricultural growth on centerstage.
Multipurpose community telecentres could play a key role in the "information renaissance" in developing countries and ensure universal access. Locations for telecentres must be carefully selected, and should take into consideration the "level of potential demand for communication and information services from a large number and wide range of users", its proximity to other organisations and institutions, infrastructural considerations and socio-cultural issues (Anderson et al 1999). The information systems established should be multi-sectoral (agricultural research, extension, training and education, and health) and use a mix of appropriate traditional media and new ICTs depending on preferences of the users. All relevant stakeholders should facilitate the evolution of appropriate ICT policies in developing countries and work towards a common goal of ensuring rural development and food security. Where the infrastructure is not yet developed, the Internet could be used from a central point (telecentre) for online broadcasting and for exchanging relevant information from developing countries. The telecentres will also provide a stage for rural communities to address their training and development needs and vision (Anderson et al 1999).
Local content and expert systems developed in different countries could also be shared through an electronic agricultural network over the Internet.
New initiatives should avoid fragmentation and duplication of costly infrastructure against the challenge of an ever-diminishing resource base and projects developed should respond to needs of small scale farmers and entrepreneurs. There should also be more consultation and active involvement of private sector and civil society organisations that produce and use knowledge and information.
Food security attainment is, however, unlikely to be realised by provision of information alone and developing country governments must invest much more in impoverished rural areas where the greater population lies. "Governments are much better placed to formulate overall objectives and priorities, and to articulate a coherent strategy at the national level" (CTA 1999), as they have the machinery to bring about food security and rural development through a wide range of mechanisms. Organisations advocating for the use and application of ICTs for information sharing and exchange must therefore work closely with developing country governments.
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