|SPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 38 (CTA Spore, 1992, 16 p.)|
Dr John Farrington has worked for extended periods as an agricultural economist in Malawi, Sri Lanka and Bolivia, and for shorter periods in many other countries. He has been coordinator of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Agricultural Research and Extension Network since 1987, and is currently Chairman of the Agricultural Administration Unit at ODI.
Networking is now a fashionable concept and has attracted much donor funding. Thirteen European-based networks concerned with sustainable agricultural development having an aggregate membership of 15,000, most of whom are based in the South, recently met to form an umbrella organization, AGRINET.
Recent donor interest in networking has stimulated a proliferation of newsletters and related publications. Whilst these meet some requirements adequately, it seems to be that it is now time for networks to consider opportunities, particularly those offered by electronic information technologies, for their members to take on more proactive roles.
At its simplest a network is a group of institutions or individuals who share information on themes of common interest. Networks perform many of the same "dissemination" functions as eg. professional journals and audiovisual media, but, for me, what makes them essentially different is their aim of generating interaction among members. Most networks publish a register of members and a newsletter containing editorials, viewpoints, interviews, news of forthcoming conferences and training courses, reports of work in progress and reviews or summaries of key literature.
In my view, networking has specific advantages: timeliness - Networks aim for greater immediacy than eg. journals, publishing preliminary results and news of work in progress in order to stimulate contact among members. focus and access- agriculturists are faced with two related problems: an enormous increase in the volume of published information, and increasing difficulty in identifying what is relevant and then having access to it. Networks seek to overcome these problems by focusing on a narrow subject area. responsiveness - Networks typically consist of self-selected groups of individuals who are motivated to contribute material to the Network, and the coordinator responds to members' requests for information. grey literature - Much valuable experience is not formally published and so never enters formal abstracting and literature search services. Networks stimulate practitioners, even those for whom publication is not a high priority, to share experiences which otherwise might remain unknown.
In my experience, networks can be distinguished according to: degree of formality- are they simply informal exchanges among like-minded individuals, or do they produce a register and/or newsletters and papers, if so, how frequently and of what type? hierarchy- do they aim to serve practitioners directly, or do they have a structured function in relation to other institutions or networks? principal activities - do they focus on a particular commodity, discipline or subdiscipline or do they treat wider problem areas? mode of operation - newsletters are a near-universal means of communication in networks. But other important fore exist such as workshops and the 'groupes de travail' of the Reseau Recherche Developpement.
Taking a look in the crystal ball, some of the preconditions for a steady and more sustainable expansion of networking in the future already seem clear: First, networks are not a panacea. Some services, such as abstracting and bibliographic search and retrieval, require specialist skills and facilities. Networks should link their members into these, and create user-demand on them, rather than try to provide them directly. Second, more information on networks' current and planned activities is needed not only by network members, but also by coordinators of other networks, to avoid duplication of effort and to identify gaps that need to be filled.
All networks aim to be interactive but my experience suggests that the extent to which members are allowed to influence network agenda is highly variable. A rarely recognized drawback of relying on printed output is that members are recipients of a limited range of information. Electronic information technologies (ElTs) of various types allow proactive access to a much wider range of information: E-mail allows transfer of documents and "conferencing" among numerous participants; databases, whether bibliographic, statistical or register-type information, are now widely accessible even to microcomputer users via modem links to "host" mainframes and allow individuals to search eg. Iiterature on particular themes of interest: CD-ROM allows disk copies of bibliographies or full-text information to be made and shipped to library centres in the South from which it can be accessed and selectively printed out (copyright permitting).
We all realize that some problems with ElTs remain to be overcome, such as the poor quality of some telephonic links and the limited access to ElTs outside urban areas in the South, but I am convinced that they have important potential for enhancing the networking power of South-based practitioners. How they can most productively and equitably be deployed is a major future challenge for networking.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CTA.