Pat Norrish
Agricultural Extension and Rural Development Department (AERDD)
The University of Reading
United Kingdom

New ICTs and rural communities

As development thinking has shifted towards sustainability and participation, there have been remarkable and rapid developments in computing and communication technologies which offer exciting po-ssibilities for rural communities to move into the information age. For this to happen there needs to be a concerted, multisectoral approach to information technology with a focus on rural populations as communicators and contributors to information and knowledge, rather than passive consumers. There also needs to be a move from looking at technology and asking, "What can we do with this?" to looking at people's needs and asking, "Which technology might help here?"

Critical and analytical work on the introduction of information technologies has to be drawn largely from reports of urban projects. In most countries this is where the introduction and use of information technology takes place. However, if we are to consider pushing the use of information technologies out to the rural areas there are lessons to be learned from these projects, and also from the introduction of technologies (e.g., video, radio, drama, print media) used to support communication in rural development.

What needs to be considered?

What comes through clearly from the literature and from discussions with those working with rural communities is the overwhelming need to focus on people (not technologies), on what people can do with technology, and on training. This applies whether implementation and use of technology is to take place at national or local levels, within organizations or communities, with large or small numbers of people, and whatever the particular technology. Focusing in this way means starting all thinking and decision making with the people who will use the technologies and on the context in which they will use them.

It means facilitating communities to define their needs in terms of communication (who wants to communicate with whom, why, how), information (what information is needed, who by, when, where, for what purpose, etc.) and education and training (who needs what, when, where and how would they prefer to have it delivered to them).

At a national level, needs may already be known and expressed. For example, a Pan African meeting expressed a need for pilot projects that allow for experimentation and demonstrated the use and costs of CD-ROM, desktop publishing, electronic mail and computer conferencing, and database development using personal computers and first off-the-shelf database management. Attention was also given to experiments with the "last mile" problem; that is the inclusion of rural or distant communities in the communication and information network via packet radios or other technologies.

In rural areas specific work has to be done to establish the accessibility of present communication media: how access is controlled and by whom; who decides what information systems can be made available and to whom; are local people consulted; will information systems have any measurable impact on individual, family, or community welfare; what will their effect be on employment, or migration; who will benefit most; to what extent will the system affect local work habits, practices and cultural norms; and what language will people have to work in to operate and use the technology?

Facilitating analysis which ensures that the communication and information needs of all sectors of the community (young/old, men/women, rich/poor, etc.) are known and can form the basis of decision making in concert with enabling and funding agencies takes time. But experience shows that it is a stage which cannot be left out. There are now well developed participatory appraisal techniques which can cope with needs analysis of this kind.

Understanding of the context in which technology will be introduced in terms of attitudes to information, to technology and to its products is vitally important. Once needs have been determined, it is necessary to ensure that there is strong community commitment which will:

There also needs to be a focus on training and a commitment to spend money on it both in the short and the long term. The proportion of project costs spent on training needs to be looked at carefully. Hanna & Boyson's study (1993) revealed an average of "24 percent of the total cost of a World Bank information technology component was for training and technical support". Figures from United States industry estimate that anything between 50 percent and 68 percent is spent on training, and these figures are for a country in which other factors are already acting to provide a climate in which technology is familiar and acceptable. Why should trainees in developing country have to make do with less?

At the national level information providers, organization directors and managers are quite capable of expressing their needs for training programmes. However, more work needs to be done to find out the best approaches to training for different technologies, situations and groups in rural areas. The one thing that is clear from surveying a range of projects is that lack of attention to training needs in the planning stages will often result in a failed project.

This emphasises once again the importance of local context. There is also the need to look ahead at financial implications for technology support and at whether the technology need is stable, or will require further development.


1992. Electronic networking in Africa. Workshop on Science and Technology Communication Networks in Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: The African Academy of Sciences; American Association for the Advancement of Science, August 27-29.

Hanna, N. and S. Boyson. 1993. Information technology in World Bank lending: increasing the development impact. World bank discussion paper No. 206. Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Mody, B. 1992. Energising the communication component in extension: a case for new pilot projects. Paper prepared for the 12th World Bank Agricultural Symposium, January 1992.