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close this bookCERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)
close this folderCenterpiece
View the documentWiring the south
View the documentA promising solution fraught with peril
View the documentA public good, a private responsibility
View the documentStuck in the ruts on the Information Superhighway
View the documentMaintaining connection
View the documentWireless connections
View the documentPage One for Progress

A public good, a private responsibility

by Bernard Woods

Currently only 2 per cent of the world population has access to computers and the Internet. The world’s poorest regions can make a great leap forward in terms of communications technology by creating Community Utilities which would establish and manage information systems on a pay-per-use basis.

Agriculture and its development have progressed from the “pioneering” phase of subsistence farming through the “production” phase of early scientific applications to crop and livestock husbandry, then to a “productivity” emphasis with its high-input/ high-output philosophy and on to the “sustainability” emphasis of the past decade. Each step in this evolution has called for different attitudes and skills and new knowledge and information among everyone involved in agriculture.

Now the environmental crisis has brought other priorities: 40 countries are approaching the limits of their freshwater reserves; salinity has rendered 20 per cent of all irrigated land unusable; for a great many rural communities, traditional sources of fuelwood and fodder are approaching exhaustion; rural unemployment and poverty are increasing. Simplistic approaches to the traditional disciplines of agriculture, forestry, health and education and prevailing economic theories are insufficient to cope with these wider problems. They require more comprehensive approaches founded on the social realities and the perceptions and priorities of the people concerned.

At the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in March 1995, more than 120 heads of state and government committed themselves to the priority of social development. Their declaration places the role of technology in achieving social development goals on the international development agenda for the first time:

''[We] recognize that the new information technologies and new approaches to access to and the use of technologies by people living in poverty can help in fulfilling social development goals and therefore recognize the need to facilitate access to such technologies.”

What will this mean in practice?

Currently, about 2 per cent of all people, schools, clinics, small businesses and communities in the world have access to computer-based technologies and to Internet and information superhighways. Numerous new documents on information superhighways define their capabilities in relation to national and global needs - but do not focus on how the technology can be made affordable for the poor on a large scale. This is not achievable within current traditions. So far, these technologies and information superhighways are separating the “haves” further from the “have-nots.” Until now, there has been no alternative.

The Information Age is well upon us in seven major fields - learning, diagnostics, management, physical planning, finance, entertainment and communication. The technologies to achieve a major advance are already here in the communication capabilities of broadcasting, telephony, cable and satellites; the processing and interactive abilities of computers; prodigious electronic storage capability and in the abilities of these technologies to communicate in sound, pictures, symbols, graphics, video, numbers and script - and to do so on demand. These capabilities will continue to improve and the costs of the technology will continue to fall.

Programs at village level in countries around the world are showing how people of ail ages and all levels of education - including, particularly, poor and illiterate people - can use these technologies. These examples include applications for education and training; for diagnosis of human, animal, plant, soil, machinery and other ailments; management by communities, small businesses and local governments; physical resource planning and environmental management at local levels and rural credit and savings. Low orbit satellites can now make inexpensive, two-way digital communication possible with any point on earth using radio.

These initiatives are showing the extraordinary potential of the technology for empowering people for their own development. However, most are small, isolated and independent. Very few have spread widely. Even fewer have established a basis for the sustainable funding of the technology on a large scale. These projects also show that the full potential of the technologies lies in combining their separate capabilities into “integrated systems.” An advance in approach to funding the technology can make it accessible and affordable for everyone.

Poor people can never have access to the potential of these technologies if they have to own them in order to use them. This obstacle can be overcome by a new utility.

All utilities - water, electricity, gas and telephone, and railways and bus companies too - operate on the basis of large numbers of people each paying small amounts for usage. Most also reallocate revenue from commercial and wealthier users to subsidize small and poorer users. The same can be done with the combination of digital technologies. We can create a new form of utility: a digital utility - or Community Utility - which can install, operate, maintain and upgrade the technology and make it accessible on a pay-to-use basis. Such a utility would offer access to hardware, software and through them, to information. Users can be identified and their use of services and equipment metered. Differential user rates can be charged for different users and categories of use. Revenue from private sector users and governments can be reallocated to subsidize use by the poor.

No new technology is involved. Community Utilities build on ongoing programs, provide a basis for widespread replication of successful initiatives and permit, for the first time, sustainable funding of the social applications of the technology.

Key features include:

a. An emphasis on software. For example, agricultural recommendations and diagnostic material can be converted into interactive software with which people can interact by entering their own data to solve their own individual problems. (This can be done without the need for literacy by using the capability of computers to communicate in sound - in any language.)

b. Local Community Utility companies (like local water companies) establish “community resource centres” with very large storage and processing capability where people can have access to the technology. Schools, clinics, small businesses, local agricultural offices and others can all be linked to the “resource centres.” Initiatives in many countries have established “community information centres” using printed, tape and video materials. The “resource centres” can build on these.

c. The “resource centres” are linked to the Internet, the World Wide Web, specialist networks, data bases and other sources of digital material - and thereby increase use of all of them.

Community Utilities can be profitable. Investment in the intellectual product is made for the utilities by software producers who receive royalty payments for use of their software, and that product does not deplete with use. Being profitable, the new utilities can attract private sector investment and expertise for their establishment and operation.

Using the utilities, activities which until now have been generally regarded as public sector responsibilities e.g. education, rural extension, community health, local management can all generate revenue. We can link private sector funds into achieving these goals and thereby escape the confines of public expenditure.

Governments have funded the suppliers of information and knowledge - teachers, extension agents, health workers, etc. By funding use of the technology and reallocating revenue from higher income users to poorer ones, funds for development can be channelled directly to the poor on a large scale. Maximizing use of Community Utilities will reduce usage rates.

Economic/production-centred approaches to development have placed emphasis on crops, livestock, forestry, fish, irrigation, soil conservation, healthcare, education and so on. In Third World countries particularly, governments have employed trained people to be the primary embodiment of knowledge and medium of communication to achieve the learning and behavior change needed for each of these and have built up big bureaucracies to support them. The intended “trickle down” effect has failed to reach and benefit poorer people, the “bottom 40 per cent,” almost everywhere.

This approach is inevitably limited by the numbers of staff governments can employ and manage; each individual's knowledge, communication skills, attitudes, age, gender, language, mobility, social acceptability and other human factors; the confines of the governments' (and aid agencies') traditional disciplines, and sectors which follow from the reductionism of Western education systems. Approaches and funding of learning, diagnosis, management, physical planning and communication have been fragmented among the separate disciplines. The technology can provide information and software for any of these five fields of activity (and for finance and entertainment) irrespective of discipline or sector.

The principles of Community Utilities apply worldwide. Programs to introduce them have commenced in 14 countries; they are most advanced in China and India as well as the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and South Africa. The European Union and the Inter-American Development Bank are the first major donor agencies to have received funding requests for Community Utility initiatives.

Community Utilities are new. They are not a part of current conventions or existing organizations. In every country in which programs have begun, leadership has come initially from the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) - not from central governments. Community Utilities require: (a) new institutional structures and funding mechanisms in every country; (b) action at local, national and international levels to create the environment of understanding needed for the advances which are now possible; and (c) critical seed funds to establish a focal point of responsibility in each country for initiating planning, building upon existing experience and conditions.

NGOs have a central role in helping communities to introduce the uses of the new Community Utilities.

As it was put by American management guru Peter Drucker, “Technology is important primarily because it should force us to do new things, rather than because it enables us to do old things better.”

We can rethink approaches and funding of the seven major fields of social application of the technology (referred to above) for rural sector development. The implications are far-reaching and profound. The following are a few:

· No government or donor agency vet has a comprehensive policy to guide new investment in the social applications of information technologies.

Programs are going forward in many countries to establish parallel information systems for water, agriculture, livestock, forests, health and others. No single sector can meet the cost of owning, maintaining, upgrading and operating an integrated technology system for its exclusive use. None would think of doing so for telephones. We recognize telephones are generic and everyone can use the same system. The same applies to a locally managed system which integrates the capabilities of all digital technologies.

Community Utilities provide a basis on which government and donor agency policy can be built to coordinate new investment in the technology and its social applications.

· Utilities need to maximize usage.

This calls for a multidisciplinary approach; individual utilities to seek out successful initiatives and make the software involved accessible through their systems, and involvement of all members of communities, rich and poor alike.

The development paradigm has altered to include a people perspective encompassing off-farm employment, women's development, the needs of children, community management, relevant reaming and communication, entertainment and education. These were all peripheral to the physical/production/economic emphasis of rural development 20 years ago. A new medium for helping address all of these will generate new activity and employment. Success will reverse rural to urban migration.

The need to maximize use in order to reduce user charges has a subtle and important aspect for involvement of the poor. Where use by the poor is funded from reallocated revenue from private sector and other users and by governmental funds for specific social goals (e.g. education), the poor can attract that revenue for their utilities and thereby benefit their communities. The poor can become an asset to their communities.

· Governments need to promote private sector involvement.

Use of new utilities will depend heavily on the quality and relevance of the software they provide. To be relevant, software must respond to local needs so it must be designed from the point of view of the users. This calls for rapid development of software production capability in every country. Simple software already exists for identification of plant and animal pests and diseases, common human illnesses, machinery maintenance and repair, bookkeeping and other universal needs. This can be adapted relatively easily to local conditions. Governments can provide incentives to accelerate local software production and help in partnership arrangements with foreign companies. (India's software industry may have a particular contribution to make in this regard.)

Governments need to promote use of the new utilities for employee training, management development and other private sector uses as revenue from these will be important for reallocation to assist use by the poor.

Governments need to create investment environments to attract private sector capital to help install and operate the new utilities. China has provided a lead. The government of China has guaranteed a percentage of use of Community Utilities for education and rural sector development for the next 10 years. This has removed the risk for private sector funding sources. They are now formalizing a major investment program in a national utility program for China through public/private sector partnerships.

As for the UN technical agencies (e.g. FAO, World Health Organization), they are already promoting technology applications in their separate domains - but all inevitably limited to current conventions and the confines of public expenditure in individual countries. With the removal of those constraints, the uses of information technologies in their respective fields can become a central and urgent focus of attention.

As Peter Drucker stated above, the greatest potential of the technology lies in enabling us to do new things. This applies particularly to the people-centred approach to rural development. It calls for a review of priorities and goals by FAO. As many of the social prerequisites of sustainable development have fallen between rather than within any one of the traditional mandates of the UN technical agencies, new cooperative programs are called for to focus on these needs - using the technology, the Internet, the WorldWide Web and the World Press Centre to do so. At country level, coordination among the different agencies is needed in their support for new utility programs. NGOs and the private sector will lead this new generation of development, the reverse of government-led development investment to date.

Where to begin?

The first step everywhere is to create awareness and understanding of the nature of the fundamental advances which are now possible in development, their practical implications and how they translate into operational terms for individual organizations. Every government and donor agency needs to address the new generation of policy which these advances call for and the new public/private sector relationships they require.

Initial utility programs can build on existing colleges, universities or large private sector concerns that are already operating networks and open and distance learning techniques. In rural areas, they can build on existing initiatives already using technology at local levels. Virtually all existing programs use the technology for narrow purposes. Utility programs can widen the uses of that same equipment and build on the local acceptance of the technology which has already been achieved.

Best sites for the first utilities are in concentrations of population: e.g. irrigation programs, plantations, mines and successful community development and local government programs which have strengthened local decision-making and communication processes. The early focus should be on private sector usage to build up revenue; then the utility operators should reach out to surrounding rural communities.

- A former FAO agricultural extension specialist, Bernard Woods was the World Bank’s first senior communications specialist from 198 to 1991 when he left to become a communications consultant working with governments and donor agencies to establish Community Utilities.

For more details, please consult the author’s paper prepared for the UN’s 50th anniversary, and video “The World is at a Turning Point” prepared for the Preparatory Committee for World Food Summit on Social Development. For copies, write Bernard Woods, Elephant House, Chilham, Kent CT4 8DB, U.K.