Communication for development Knowledge

Posted September 1996

The Internet and Rural Development: Recommendations for Strategy and Activity

Chapter 1. Communication for Development and the Global Internet: Conceptual Approach


Introduction | Table of Contents | Executive Summary | Preface/Acknowledgements | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Project suggestions | Bibliography/Resources | WWW sites | Glossary


"In some countries it is clear that the private sector will take the lead in developing information networking systems, but in others it may well take a combination of new policies and direct support by regional and international institutions to make networking a reality. The rationale for such support is strong. Unless African countries become full actors in the global information revolution, the gap between the haves and have- nots will widen, opening the possibility of increased marginalization of the continent. On the other hand, participating in the information society offers tremendous opportunities for Africa to leapfrog over passed development deficiencies into the future. African scientists and researchers can participate fully in the global scientific community through direct access to the Internet, the global network of networks. Throughout the region, particularly in rural areas, people will have dramatically increased access communications and information, accelerating and bolstering sustainable development."
- UN Secretary General's Special Initiative on Africa, Proposal for Harnessing Information Technology for Development (http://www.idsc.gov.eg/aii/tsgs.htm)

"It is surprising, but likely that almost all of the capital cities in Africa will have an emerging local information infrastructure (or "infostructure") in the next 12 to 18 months! This "infostructure" can now be defined as a permanent, real-time connection to the Internet, which emerged this year as the generally accepted platform for building the so-called "information superhighway"... Rural areas, where 80% of Africans are located and survive on minimal income, may be left out..."
- African Networking Initiative, "Study on the current and planned activities of development assistance agencies with respect to networking in Africa", November, 1995 (http://www.idsc.gov.eg/aii/sotc.htm)

There has been a rapid increase in the use of the Internet in developing countries. With regard to rural development and the Internet, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (http://www.fao.org ), as an organization supporting the betterment of rural populations and improvements in agriculture, has an important and historic role to play in assisting in the establishment and growth of Internet services for rural communities. In partnership with indigenous stakeholders and other agencies, FAO can help rural communities realize the benefits of improved communication and access to information.

The Internet is not a panacea for rural development, but it does bring new information resources and can open new communication channels for rural communities. It offers a means for bridging the gaps between development professionals and rural people through the initiating interaction and dialogue, new alliances, inter-personal networks, and cross-sectoral links between organizations. It can create mechanisms that enable the bottom-up articulation and sharing of local knowledge. Benefits include increased efficiency in the use of development resources, less duplication of activities, reduced communication costs and global access to information and human resources.

Current evidence suggests that to achieve sustainability and success, Internet projects for rural development must begin with the real needs of the local community of users. This requires an approach that catalyzes local participation, supports information and communication needs assessments, builds awareness of potential Internet uses, helps build communities of users, and builds locally managed, and ultimately, self-supporting communication and information networks (Richardson, 1995). It also requires attention to capacity building and institutional strengthening for the intermediary agencies that serve rural populations (eg. NGOs, extension services, health care agencies, various government bodies, and the private sector) (Richardson, 1996). At the policy level it requires dialogue with national telecommunication agencies to help transform and liberalize monopolistic telecommunication service environments, which are major impediments to the spread of Internet services in developing countries.

FAO is in the process of developing a rural Internet approach that begins with the needs of people in rural and agricultural communities. This approach is based on FAO's twenty-five year experience with a "communication for development" methodology which develops partnerships with local people and organizations to assist them in developing indigenous communication processes through the use of tools such as community radio and small format video. Within small pilot projects in Chile and Mexico a "communication for development" methodology is being used with rural communities and associations of small agricultural producers to assist in the appropriate development of sustainable Internet communication and information systems. On a small scale, these projects are achieving important economic and social benefits for rural users.

FAO's "communication for development" approach deserves wider understanding. It is not entirely unique, as it is related to more fundamental participatory development methodologies as well as to basic computer science systems analysis approaches which (should) start with the needs of computer users. The "communication for development" approach does however provide development planners with a conceptual approach that puts rural people and rural organizations in control of communication and information network development (FAO, 1990). A communication for development approach is a key component for sustainable development:

"People oriented development can only realize its full potential if rural people are involved and motivated and if information and knowledge is shared. Communication caters to the human dimensions of development: it establishes a dialogue with rural people, involves them in the planning of their own development, provides information as a basis for social change and conveys the knowledge and skills required to improve the quality of their life. Communication methodologies and tools can help overcome the barriers of illiteracy, language, intercultural differences and physical isolation." (FAO, 1996a)

This report outlines the elements of a communication for development approach applied to the Internet and rural development, together with recommendations for strategy and activity, and an overview of Internet activities in developing countries. The key recommendation is that FAO adopt 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. The cornerstone of this strategy is capacity building activities for rural and agricultural organizations in order to create and enhance locally managed Internet use, tools and resources.

Some of the recommendations in this report may be of interest to other development agencies which have adopted programmes focused on developing Internet infrastructure in developing countries. Collaboration among agencies supporting Internet and development initiatives can achieve important "multiplier" effects as agencies harmonize their efforts while insuring that their particular constituencies are served. Ideally, development agencies, in partnership with stakeholders, could make full use of Internet tools such as the World Wide Web and interactive discussion tools to assist in the harmonization of Internet and development efforts (eg. the Canadian International Development Agency's recent Internet and development discussion forum (http://www.bvx.ca/ict), or IDRC's Bellanet initiative (http://www.idrc.ca/bellanet/)). FAO can take an active role in encouraging collaboration through sponsoring workshops, publication of materials, production of audio-visual resources, catalyzing policy dialogue and providing forums for creative discussion of Internet and development strategy.

Rural communities represent the "last mile of connectivity" in both developing countries and developed countries, with regard to access to Internet services and the telecommunication connections that help transmit those services. This report challenges development agencies to coordinate their activities to assist rural stakeholders in completing the last mile of connectivity.

Possible Range of Project Activities and Outputs

"Already the Internet is making spectacular advances in the developing countries of the world. Africa is trying to break out of its scientific and commercial isolation, despite the mediocre quality of its public telecommunications networks, by making the most of new technology. By the end of 1996, only five or six African countries will have absolutely no contact with the Internet. The Conference felt that far from being unsuited for developing nations, the Net is well adapted. Its capital costs are low: all that is required is a personal computer, a modem and a normal telephone connection. And in many developing countries the culture of collective ownership and use of telephones means that only a small investment is required to get on the Net."
- Inter-parliamentary Conference on Education, Science, Culture and Communication on the Eve of the 21st Century (Paris, 3-6 June 1996)

The Internet is a medium of communication, and is perhaps the most flexible medium currently available. As such, it has the potential to be integrated within a wide variety projects that have objectives such as local participation, training, education, research (especially participatory research), technical support and institutional strengthening. Whenever a project involves people who need to communicate and share information across geography, across social groupings, between and within organizations, and throughout production systems, there is a need to create flexible systems of communication and information sharing. Thus, projects that might find a role for Internet applications could range from apiculture training to community forestry to veterinary medicine.

The Internet is a multi-purpose tool that, in its essence, enables people to learn from one another and work together. As a result, typical project outputs are not so much driven by technical concerns as they are by human knowledge and social relationship concerns. In the case of FAO, the following range of project outputs can be achieved, depending upon local circumstances, through the use of Internet applications:

When considering project outputs, the question is not simply "how do we provide Internet access and infrastructure," but "how can we use this flexible medium to help people meet their information and communication objectives in order to obtain their development goals?"

Internet initiatives for rural development need to be approached with a degree of caution. Different regions, organizations and communities will have different application, capacity building and technical needs. In some areas it is possible to have farmers and rural residents as direct Internet users (eg. Chile, Mexico). In other areas the challenge will be to help build the capacity of intermediary organizations or assist in the establishment and promotion of community information centres linked to the Internet. In all cases it will be important to link Internet activities with existing media and indigenous communication methods and patterns. Every initiative is likely to have its own unique characteristics as a result of the unique characteristics of the local people involved and their social, cultural and economic backgrounds.

Applying a Communication for Development Approach to the Internet

"Participatory development communication values process over product. With participatory video, the communication process is vastly more important than the damn video tape."
- Tony Williamson, Canadian development communication pioneer (personal communication)

FAO's twenty-five year experience with a communication for development approach to rural and agricultural communication (FAO, 1987, 1990a, 1990b, 1994, 1995a, 1995b), using media such as rural radio, small format video ("participatory video"), photography and print, is now being applied to the Internet in two small scale initiatives. This communication for development approach, when integrated within projects designed to achieve outputs such as those listed above, can help to ensure that the Internet is harnessed as an appropriate development tool. The simple and common-sense strategy of involving people in assessments of their knowledge and communication needs is the cornerstone of FAO's communication for development approach and is essential to achieving such outputs.

Much of FAO's historical success with communication for development approaches has involved the use of a medium that many development planners first dismissed as too "high-tech" and as being "inappropriate technology" when used by agencies working with rural and agricultural communities. This medium is small format video, in the form of consumer grade video cameras and portable television monitors, that enable rural residents to speak directly to remote decision makers and researchers, gain access to knowledge presented in audio-visual forms by experts (often other farmers!), and share their experiences with one another across distances. The most significant, but frequently misunderstood, aspect of this "participatory video" work is that for the people involved, the communication process is vastly more important than the video product that might be created. Integrated into national and local development planning activities, such communication for development approaches enable farmers and rural residents to actively participate, gain new knowledge, organize local activities, take part in decision making and fully recognize the value of the information they possess and their skills in articulating their own ideas.

Like participatory video processes, the Internet may help in meeting peoples' information and communication objectives in order to attain their development goals and objectives, but it must be integrated within human contexts and seen as a communication process tool and not simply a static "information technology" or uni-directional broadcast medium. Otherwise, Internet tools will be relegated to the junk heaps of inappropriate development technologies or dismissed because of previous failures to make the medium locally relevant and useful. If, for example, the information outputs derived from highly technical famine early warning systems are not made available to the people whose lives are the subject of those systems, then we are failing to fully leverage the large infrastructure investments involved, and we are failing to assist people in making appropriate decisions based on such valuable information.

We must avoid contributing to the gap between the information haves (experts, academics, researchers, policy makers, etc.) and the information have-nots (usually the ultimate beneficiaries of development work) that can emerge when we create Internet applications to serve only elite researchers and bureaucrats. In particular, we must strive to find ways to bring knowledge producers, such as researchers and policy makers, closer (in the social as well as geographical sense) to the other less recognized knowledge producers: the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of their deveopment programmes. (C.f. the Indigenous Studies WWW Virtual Library: http://www.halcyon.com/FWDP/wwwvl/indig-vl.html). The Internet helps make this possible: thanks to the Internet, farmers in Northern Mexico now have access to the same information, and many of the same information publication and dissemination tools, as researchers at major agricultural universities and research centres.

A fact that is well known to veteran Internet users is that the Internet has the power to cut across social and geographic distance and help people find new ways of facilitating the flow of information and knowledge. In many ways the Internet has always been a development communication tool. Within bureaucratic organizations it has a way of levelling hierarchies, facilitating new communication patterns, and helping enable activities that might not otherwise occur (Negroponte, 1995). This factor makes it an especially attractive medium within communication for development efforts. The key to achieving similar results in new Internet and development projects is to begin with a grassroots, beneficiary-inclusive communication for development approach during the planning process.



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