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Information - the driving force behind development

Structural adjustment is resulting in rapid changes in management responsibility and power structures, not only in the ACP countries but all over the world. The changes are affecting everyone from the state to the private sector. Governments are again focusing on steering and guiding the economic system, mainly by adopting sector-specific policies, now that they are free of direct responsibility for economic management.

In this new environment, economic growth is the direct result of many scattered and often individual efforts. In this situation access to information is vital to management decisions and is therefore a driving force for development. The type of information needed is, however, very complex and covers economic, social and technical areas. In order to ensure effective production and delivery of this information, all parties in the development process must be involved and must be supported by political commitment at national level.

In an earlier Spore article (Spore 61 p7), Bernard Njonga, A Cameroonian agronomist and founding member of Support Services for Local Development Initiatives (Service d'appui aux initiatives locales de dloppement) (SAILD) enquired "How can we improve the ability of small-scale producers to define their own development strategies if they have no access to the necessary information?"

In the same issue we reported on a group of rural people in Haiti who decided to invest in producing pasteurized fruit juices without even worrying about technical aspects or access to credit. How would they have taken this bold initiative if they had not been aware that their compatriots in the towns consumed large amounts of these juices, imported at great cost? This demonstrates the central role of information as a prerequisite for development and these questions are equally valid for all economic and social strata, not just small-scale farmers or the rural poor.

These examples may be caricatures but they reinforce recent findings about information needs for rural development, especially the deliberations at the CTA conference on the topic held in Montpellier in June 1995.

Rely on the supply or satisfy the demand?

Ten years after the first CTA conference at Montpellier there is a plethora of information and information products. These mainly come from the North, however, and are mostly concerned with technical matters ranging from research results to the so-called appropriate technology. Thus more than 4,000 books on development in the ACP countries have been published by development organizations, research centres and European NGOs and there are some 500 periodicals devoted to the subject.

Information systems currently available in ACP countries were initiated by the supply side to 'make available' and spread technical knowledge, usually generated in the North. They are mainly directed at target groups that include planners, research workers and extension agents who are supposed to pass on the information to the ultimate beneficiaries - usually small-scale farmers. These 'instructional' initiatives have had the same short comings as the closely controlled top-down development strategies, to which they are similar in concept. Raphael Ndiaye, a Senegalese participant at the Montpellier Conference, recalled the axiom that target groups are difficult to reach because they are constantly moving: "If they are mobile it is precise]y in order to escape from those who are targeting them." It must also be noted that attempts by village people to gain access to information are more than likely to fail in the absence of local linkages.

Felix Nadiedjoa of the African Institute for Economic and Social Development in Abidjan believes that current information delivery systems are somewhat ill-adapted to the needs of "those who transform information into action" and must themselves be transformed. "It is no longer a matter of supply. We must not supply but satisfy the demand. Let us have the courage to break with tradition and get to the bottom of things. Information needs must be defined by farmers' organizations themselves". We can no longer pretend that information transfer to passive beneficiaries or target groups is efficient. We must think more of them as active partners who while seeking information also have something to offer. Two examples illustrate this point: 'indigenous knowledge' of small-scale producers which is currently a trendy theme in research circles, and market prices, without which traders (who are normally very secretive) would not be able to carry on their business.

Tunji Titiola, a Nigerian working at the African Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge, has aptly said that it is no longer possible "to talk only of small-scale farmers but of the rural community in general which comprises various types of people and trades." Raphael Ndiaye adds that the "agricultural sector extends from hunter gatherers to managers of agribusiness. Many of these sectors have been neglected in the last 10 years. Access to information must be available to all. Many people now think that the most appropriate system is one that services the needs of the village or family and not just the farm or farmer." This is true, for example, for Kenya where the three thousand large-scale producers and the three million small-scale farmers do not have the same needs for, or the same reactions to, the supply of information.

The global game

The varied nature of real information needs makes it difficult to define them exactly. Analysis of requests received by Question/Answer Services in several European organizations, however, sheds some light on the matter. More than half the requests received relate to agriculture even though the organizations are broad-based and cover many areas such as management, energy, water supply, industrial development and construction. Within agriculture, however, there is a movement away from purely technical matters to economic aspects and especially rural credit, small-scale businesses, marketing, and organization and management of farmers' groups and cooperatives.

The way these requests are formulated shows that people are now targeting a much wider area of knowledge including the whole range of information needed for setting up and running a business. Education and health sectors, because of their effects on the standard of living, also contribute to development in the same way as increased production.

This shift in emphasis to obtaining a broader range of information is not due to disenchantment with technical matters. Indeed new technical areas, such as renewable energy sources, use of agro-industrial by-products and environmentally friendly production, are increasingly being explored. Incorporation of socio-economic studies in agricultural research for integrated development is itself evidence that improved technology is of little value if it cannot, for whatever reason, be used by the target group. To avoid the same fate as the 'technical packages' of the extension services which seem to have disappeared, information packages must be of more global concern and include economic data, especially on markets and market access, as well as technical information.

The imperative for interaction

With the exception of export crops and the export trade, which are mainly influenced by external markets, rural development is primarily dependent on information on experience at local and national level. Thus, a periurban dairy network in a provincial town in Mali may be an example for similar systems on the same geographic scale in many other places. In the same way the rapid availability of information about local demand and prices is important for periurban horticulture where these 'green belts' are favourably placed for supplying fresh produce. This information can be made available in rural areas by various means but especially by local radio.

Because it is meant to stimulate production and aid decision making, economic information must be accurate, up-to-date - especially with respect to price changes - and readily available. One of the main problems of the classic system is that in an open economy, this kind of information is held by buyers and because of its strategic value, these buyers have no interest in making it public. Consultation and dialogue between all parties are thus extremely important for development. These direct lines of communication must be encouraged at all levels, from local to regional, such that all those involved in the sector become the source of information. This would operate in a manner similar to the way it does now in rural areas through professional associations and groups (see Box 1).

PARTICIPATION INFLUENCES DEVELOPMENT

Following a conference in Panama in 1992, the six countries of the Central American Isthmus decided to set up a programme aimed at enabling ordinary people in the food industry to participate fully in the development process. Communication at all levels is a central element of this programme.

The programme was prepared jointly by IICA and CIRAD. The first step was to encourage everyone involved to participate in the analysis of the industry. At the beginning each group of participants described what the sector actually did and collected basic technical and economic data on how the sector operated. Groups then actively participated in verifying the results.

In addition to the poor technical standards, the absence of professional associations and the almost total lack of market data appear to be the main reasons for poor economic performance in the region. Lack of information on the activities of their competitors deprives the producers, and even the manufactures, of all powers of negotiation. The absence of interprofessional relations is perhaps even more important and prevents people from cooperating in defining ways of manipulating a market about which they know almost nothing.

This participatory approach, already well established in Costa Rica, provides the necessary information for equity and may make people realize that it is only by working together that they will succeed.

From local to international

The opening up of an economy means that priority must be given to policies relating to information supply. For institutions, such as CTA, which are helping to design communication strategies intervention at national level is crucial. Efficient operation requires a decentralized structure offering a variety of types of information in which local services work closely with the media such as the radio and local newspapers.

Because of the close and constant contact between rural organizations and local associations, public and private communication channels and development support services, the role of centralized information sources and professionals must be redefined. Access to important data banks and reference material is still important. At the local level, however, information staff must be more involved in mobilization and communication rather than with simply storing or classifying information coming from outside. The benefits of this approach are that they will be able to create their own information banks based on the needs of their users. These changes in the role of information professionals, involving direct communication and active information handling requires specialist training, especially in the analysis of information needs.


listening to the radio in the village

All the exchange channels with newspapers and media people must be improved throughout the chain from the rural or urban base to the national level. For example, as Paul Osborne of the Office of Network Enhancement in The Netherlands, points out "assistance for publication is mainly directed at European publishers, who already have considerable comparative advantage to their peers in the South."

At the regional level, cooperation between the people involved and national information systems will be supported by existing regional organizations and by the Regional Evaluation, Programming and Monitoring Committees set up with the help of CTA.

The communications business is far from being alone in helping to pump life into the privatization process. Lack of a system for measuring its impact on development strategies in the ACP countries nonetheless results in its effects being underestimated. In addition to their advertising campaigns, the best-managed large multinational firms devote a significant amount of their resources to collecting and circulating information. Motivation of their work force is the main aim of this exercise.

The example may not be directly transferable to the South but the ACP countries cannot be expected to increase the pace of development unless their people are well motivated. ·

A WATCHING BRIEF ON INFORMATION SYSTEMS

While the industrial countries are building their information superhighways across the world the question remains how this information can work for the development in ACP countries. New technology opens many avenues for the wholesale and rapid deployment of the mass of information in the world's data banks. Storage of digitalized data on CD-ROM is equally useful for supplying complete electronic texts (as just completed by the CGIAR system) as for interactive games and multimedia. The Internet also makes it possible to create networks or to hold forums, at least in theory, allowing direct communication between participants at the local level as it does on a global scale.

Paul Osborne of ONE Foundation is of the opinion, however, that "there are many obstacles to the generalized use of this technology in ACP countries." This is mainly due to the quality of local telephone systems and the lack of high speed data transfer equipment which permit little more than simple e-mail exchanges and make access to online services rather difficult. Equipment has been installed in about 20 African countries but shortage of operating funds or political objections mean that only a few African countries and a few Pacific nations are fully on-line to the Internet. Even for fully connected countries the information needed is still difficult to find. The UK's Natural Resources Institute (NRI) compares the system to "an enormous library with all the books laid out on the floor where the visitor has to find a specific page. "An observatory is therefore necessary to follow the very rapid developments and to help ACP countries obtain the best benefits. Information networks are certainly important in easing the way communications are made among scientists in national, regional and international centres. They are still, however, a long way from replacing other methods ranging from a simple meeting to the publication of national and regional development reviews and scientific journals. These traditional methods are still in need of support in the ACP countries.

The new technology is by no means a panacea. High performance international communications channels serve to support the natural desire of scientists in ACP countries to improve their relations with the international scientific community. However, this is being done at a time when they should be collaborating more closely with development and professional organizations.

For further information:
Robin Bourgeois
IICAPO Box 55
2200 Coronado
COSTA RICA
Tel: (506) 29 02 233
Fax: (506) 29 47 41