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close this bookCERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)
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FAO Review on Agriculture and Development

Chief Editor: Thomas Pawlick
Associate Editor: Kate Dunn
Art Editor: Christian Besemer
Copy Editors: Dominique Hoeltegen, Medhat Makar, Enrique Yeves
Editorial Assistant: Laure Calderan
DTP Assistant: Emelyn Alazard
Managerial Assistant: Isabella Moretti

Collaborating on this issue: Lorenza Manzi

Editorial Policy Board: P.J. Mahler (Chairman), M. de Francisco, B. Huddleston, K. Killingsworth, J.P. Lanly, R. Lydiker, T. Pawlick (ex officio), M. Randriamamonjy, R.L. Welcomme, M.S. Zehni, M. Zjalic.

Published bi-monthly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISSN 0009-0379. The opinions expressed by the contributing authors are not necessarily those of FAO or Ceres. The designations employed and the presentation do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Individual articles and photographs not copyrighted may be reprinted provided the credit line reads: “Reprinted from Ceres, the FAO Review”, and two voucher copies are sent two the Editor. Unsolicited manuscripts and art work not accompanied by return postage will not be returned.

Editorial Offices: FAO, Via delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy.
Tel.: (6) 52254094
Fax.: (6) 52253152/52255155/5782610

ISSN 0009-0379

Centrepiece: Wiring the South

A promising solution fraught with peril Mike Holderness A public good, a private responsibility Bernard Wood; Stuck in the ruts on the Information Superhighway Dr. Samuel Inyang Maintaining connection Lishan Adam Wireless connections Anamaria Decock Page one for progress Electronic Bulletin Board

Trade: Bovine hormone stunts growth of cattle trade

by Helene Stavrou

There is an uneasy consensus among cattle-producing countries and scientists that it is safe to eat meat and dairy products from animals treated with natural and artificial hormones - if properly used. Yet as of this writing, the European Union (KU) has continued to ban the sale of meat and milk from hormone-treated animals, and arguments for and against invoke an unlikely mix of science, trade, economics, consumer sensibilities and animal welfare.

The agricultural practice of using hormones to fatten cattle and stimulate lactation first drew fire in the 1970s when the synthetic sex hormone diethylstibestrol (DES), then prescribed for both humans and cattle, was linked to cancer in the daughters of women who had taken it to prevent miscarriage.

The use of DES was drastically curtailed in medicine and banned outright as a growth promoter in cattle because residues of the hormone remain in meat after slaughter. Many countries did continue, however, to use other hormones as veterinary growth adjuncts. But not the EU countries, which banned all growth-promoting hormones - and consequently the sale of domestic and imported meat from cattle given those hormones. When the milk-stimulating hormone bovine somatotropin (BST) came into use, the EU banned it as well.

In 1984, several governments asked FAO to examine the question of hormone residues in dietary meat in order to determine once and for all whether any health risks were associated with growth-promoting hormones.

The issue went before the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international body through which FAO and the World Health Organization evaluate, adopt and publish food safety standards. The commission asked its Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives to test three natural and two synthetic sex hormones used to speed growth in cattle and the milk-stimulating hormone BST.

The panel found meat from cattle implanted with the synthetic growth-promoting hormones zeranol and trenbolone acetate safe for human consumption if drug residue in the meat did not exceed a specified, minute amount.

The natural hormones estradiol 17B, progesterone, testosterone and BST were deemed safe without any residue limit if used in accordance with “sound veterinary practice.” The panel said only an insignificant amount of hormonal byproduct is consumed in the meat and milk of properly treated animals. Because these byproducts are indistinguishable from chemicals already present in the human body, they pose no threat to human health.

In June 1996, the Codex Commission voted to postpone a decision on BST but adopted the other recommendations for the growth-promoting hormones as international standards of food safety.”

The EU countries generally accepted that the hormones in question, when properly used, do not present a hazard to human health. But they did not back down.

One European concern, according to FAO's Alan Randell, session secretary of the June Codex Commission meeting, was the difficulty in enforcing the “sound veterinary practice” fundamental to safety. All the hormones considered safe when used in accordance with sound practices can be dangerous if misused. Moreover, says Randell, “there is a major problem of illegal use of untested substances in meat production in Europe.”

Scandinavian countries argued on the basis of animal welfare. “Many countries do not want hormone use because it is unnecessary,” says Stuart Slorach of the Swedish National Food Authority. “They don't believe it is justified on the basis of animal welfare: it does affect hormonal balance in animals.”

Finland, Norway and Sweden maintained that the use of hormones to promote growth “did not, in itself, comply with the principles of good agricultural practice.” They said “there was no demonstrated need” to subject animals to hormonal implants.

The Europeans also claim consumers simply do not want to eat meat from hormonally treated animals. Ever since a consumer boycott of veal as a result of illegal use of DES in 1979, consumer sentiment has been decidedly against all hormone additives in meat.

Consumers International, a pan-European watchdog organization, points out that “the consequences from long-term consumption of meat containing hormones remain unknown.

“Even if the health risks from hormones in meat production are minuscule,” the organization contends, consumers should be permitted to avoid any marginal risk should they so choose. “In order for them to be able to make this choice, meat containing hormones should be clearly labelled.”

Proponents of hormone use cried “foul.”

“They are safe, so why prevent their use?” asks Christian Verschueren of Consultation mondiale de l'industrie de la santnimale (COMISA), an international veterinary drug trade organization. COMISA, he says, is “trying to educate the consumer” to acknowledge the safety of hormones administered with established veterinary safeguards.

There are compelling economic arguments in favor of hormones in commercial husbandry. It is far cheaper to feed hormone-fortified cattle. They are more efficient in converting their feed to beef, grow at a faster rate and produce leaner meat, yielding more beef per kilogram of feed. These “production efficiencies'' translate into “savings which should be passed on to consumers,” says Randell. But COMISA's Verschueren and others acknowledge that economic arguments carry less weight where agricultural industries enjoy government subsidies, as in the EU countries.

Some hormone supporters contend, in fact, that EU objections on grounds of safety, economics and consumer preferences are specious arguments used to hide unfair trade practices. They suspect Europe is violating the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. A product of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the agreement unequivocally holds countries to imposing only those trade restrictions needed to protect health and “based on scientific principles.”

At a meeting last June, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman pressed European Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler to lift the ban. He contended there was no scientific evidence to support it and threatened to take the case to the WTO. Fischler argued that the fears of consumers must be respected but said the European Commission would re-evaluate its position after an EU scientific conference on growth promotion in meat production. The conference came to the same broad conclusions as the Codex panel.

Local conditions: A middle-class revolt in Mexico

Early last June a group of Yaqui farmers overturned a truckload of seeds outside the Secretariat of Agriculture of Ciudad Obregon in the state of Sonora. They were enraged over a wheat price that was low even for that farming region of northern Mexico. At roughly the same time, desperate campesinos began occupying banks, sometimes taking employees hostage. They blocked the main highways with protests, organized mass demonstrations in front of the national Parliament and local government offices and registered by the thousands with the debtor's movement El Barzon.

El Barzon, which takes its name from the yoke ring to which a plow is attached, has 2.5 million members - from credit card holders ruined by a tenfold increase in interest rates to borrowers, who have not realized the return they expected on their investment in irrigation, machinery, fertilizers, terrains.

Members of the movement are not the poor. They include farmers trying to practice a modern, capitalist agriculture as well as urban, middle-class Mexicans. They are willing to pay their debts - but only at mutually agreed interest rates and not under what El Barzon considers usurious conditions imposed by the banks.

Why have these relatively privileged producers rejected the unrestrained neo-liberalism introduced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and gone into battle against the banks' interest rates? It is because Mexican agriculture has just suffered the blow of a socio-economic earthquake intensified by a drastic devaluation of the peso in December 1994. Underneath the rubble, a whole sector of the middle class, both rural and urban, is struggling against sudden pauperization.

Forced to watch their agricultural production sink under the terrible impact of foreign imports, rural, middle-class Mexicans feel particularly offended by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few bankers. Their methods of showing their outrage are radical. They burn tractors due to be repossessed by the banks, interrupt bank auctions and retrieve goods and properties repossessed by government officials.

Due to the combined effects of NAFTA and drought, 400 000 hectares of farmland were left unsown. Mexico had to import 4 million tons of corn in 1995, compared to 2.5 million tons in 1994. Nearly 10 per cent of the US$8 billion in loans to the agricultural sector are in default, and the total grows by 29 per cent monthly.

In the newspaper La Jornada last 29 June, Jose Rodolfo Farias Arizpe, president of the Agricultural State Council of Nuevo Leon, blamed the crisis on a model of development that provides for “commercial liberalization favoring consumption and protected importers.” He cited “a lack of definition as to the role the agricultural sector should take within the context of the national economy.”

Between 21 December 1994 and 21 April 1995, 12 000 companies went under, and the total of loans in default rose to US$20 billion - 20 per cent of the banks' capital - according to Jose Quirino Salas, president of the National Assembly of Rural Agricultural Producers, Merchants, and Service Lenders of El Barzon.

Even more disturbing is the growing concentration of wealth. Out of a national population of 92.2 million, 24 193 Mexicans control 56 per cent of bank deposits. Of the 14.2 million Mexicans who manage to save anything at all, 0.17 per cent possess 91 per cent of all fixed-term deposits.

The Mexican Catholic Church has expressed strong concern over the situation. Asserting that Mexicans' standard of living has fallen by more than 50 per cent over the past six years, the Mexican Episcopate asked U.S. bishops to lobby in Washington for a “discount” on the Mexican debt. The Catholic leadership fears that worsening unemployment and poverty will breed unrest. “A starving population is capable of trying anything,” said Bishop Jose Maria Hernandez of Nezahualcoyotl.

NAFTA was signed in January 1994, and in the autumn-winter cycle of 1994-95, production of the 10 principal grains dropped by 21.6 per cent from the previous cycle, the Secretariat of Agriculture reported. Oleaginous production doubled, mainly because farmers in Tamaulipas near the United States began producing safflower seeds instead of grains. Overall, while production of rice, beans, corn and wheat dropped from 9.5 to 7.5 million tons, oleaginous production (cotton, sesame, safflower and soy) rose from 85 to 169.5 million tons.

The government has formulated plans for the rural sector under its Procampo program. The president of the National Agricultural Council, Jorge Mazon Rubio, gave the program his qualified approval but said it contains inconsistencies in design and application. The government, he said, must find “a long-term solution for the geographic areas that are unable to convert their lands to other crops, and to put into effect legislative changes that would allow the program full guarantee of enforcement for the next 15 years.”

Modifications in the Constitution to legalize reconstitution of large landholdings known as latifundios aim, in true NAFTA spirit, to speed up the capitalization of agriculture and regulate landownership. But laws alone are not enough to stimulate investment in agriculture. The low profitability of these investments, high inflation, soaring interest rates, fluctuating exchange rates, drawbacks of liberalization, the threat posed by imports and political instability all affect commercial agriculture as well as poor and middle-class indigenous groups.

Except for large companies with the capacity to reconstitute latifundios, diversify their production, assure their own distribution or heavily influence markets, there are few who can invest today in Mexican farmland. This makes NAFTA's effect in Mexico more of a looming question mark than the hoped-for panacea.

Agribusiness: Milk's own bacteria works as a preservative

Milk from a cow's healthy udder contains few bacteria, but between milking and processing the germ count increases considerably. If the milk isn't cooled and doesn't reach the processor within five hours after milking, as can easily happen in developing countries, it isn't suitable for processing. Time, labor and valuable nutrition are lost. This is a serious problem but, unlike many others facing Third World farmers, this is a problem that has a cheap, simple and safe solution - treating raw milk with its own antibacterial system created by nature for the benefit of the organism.

Countries with advanced, large-scale dairy industries have facilities for cooling raw milk during on-farm handling, storage and transportation to keep down the bacteria count and preserve its quality. Through much of the developing world, however, most of the milk is produced by smallholders, and constant refrigeration is not only too expensive but technically and logistically impossible.

The usual procedure is for dairy farmers to deliver small quantities of milk to a local collection point, where the amount by volume or weight is recorded and, sometimes, the quality is checked. The milk collected is transported by bicycle or donkey to a larger centre, which may or may not have refrigeration facilities, then trucked in bulk to a processing plant.

If the trip from milking stool to processing plant takes more than five hours the milk quality suffers. If it hasn't been chilled at all along its route, it will probably be unacceptable both to dairy processing plants and to potential consumers.

What the dairy industry in developing countries needs is a method, other than refrigeration, to protect raw milk from bacterial deterioration on the way to the processing plant. And that is exactly what lactoperoxidase (LPS) offers.

LPS is a protein naturally present in milk. It has an antibacterial effect in the presence of hydrogen peroxide and thiocyanate, which milk also contains. Studies have shown small additions of hydrogen peroxide and thiocyanate stimulate LPS's bacteria-fighting system in milk and considerably extend its shelf-life.

To activate LPS in raw milk, the natural level of thiocyanate present in milk is increased to about 15 parts per million (ppm) and an equimolar (8,5 ppm H2O2) amount of hydrogen peroxide is added. This is approximately 100 times less than the amount of hydrogen peroxide often used for the unauthorized conservation of milk and three to 20 times less than the level of thiocyanate found in human saliva or in cassava or cabbage. Toxicological studies have confirmed the modest levels of thiocyanate recommended would cause no health problems.

In experiments and field trials, the treatment produced an antibacterial effect that lasted five to six days on refrigerated milk and increased the shelf-life of raw milk by three to four hours in an ambient temperature of 30°C, depending on the quality of the raw milk when it was treated.

Effective, cheap, safe and easy to apply at milk collection points, the method would be of particular benefit to countries with warm climates. It provides a safety margin for delivery of unrefrigerated milk to processing centres and makes it possible to collect milk from remote areas where collection is not feasible at present. It can also preserve milk for longer periods in countries with refrigeration facilities.

Many developing countries, however, have followed the lead of countries with industrialized dairy industries and enacted legislation requiring refrigeration of milk, thus barring the use of any alternative method of preservation. This is impractical and counter-productive where milk-producing areas are widely scattered and refrigeration is not technically or economically possible. The laws impede development of milk production and, even worse, encourage consumption of raw milk which is not properly treated and may be harmful to the consumer.

LPS is a far more effective solution, proven safe by decades of exhaustive research and testing.

The idea of using chemical additives to preserve milk was first officially broached on an international level at an FAO Expert Consultation in Rome in 1957. Research in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, the former Czechoslovakia and other countries had already pointed to the LPS system as one of the most promising methods available.

At its 20th joint session in 1967, the FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) Committee of Government Experts on Milk and Milk Products turned to the International Dairy Federation (IDF) for technical advice. IDF carried out its own studies and concluded the LPS system was an acceptable alternative to refrigeration to prevent raw milk from deteriorating in countries in the early stages of organized dairy industry development when the installation of cooling facilities was impossible for technical or economic reasons.

Field trials by national research institutes in Kenya, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Mexico, the Philippines, Pakistan and Cuba in cooperation with the Swedish University of Agricultural Science and FAO confirmed the merits of the LPS system.

At its 21st session in Rome in 1986, the FAO/WHO Committee of Government Experts on the Code of Principles concerning Milk and Milk Products asked IDF to prepare a code of practice for the use of LPS to preserve raw milk. After circulating the code among its national committees, IDF presented it to the FAO/WHO Experts' Committee on Food Additives at its 35th meeting in 1989. From there it went to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which gave final approval at its 19th session held 1-10 July 1991 in Rome.

FAO is now working with scientific and development institutes to find the best ways of exploiting this applied biotechnological process to the benefit of milk producers throughout the developing world.

Jan Barabas is dairy technician officer in the Dairy Group of FAO's Animal Production and Health Division.

For further information: Meat and Dairy Service, MO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy, Tel: (396) 52254368; Fax: (396) 52255749

Home front: Rain shadows offer opportunity

A rainy day can be good weather for households in need of a free supply of water. The origin of all the fresh water the world uses, whether from surface or underground sources, is precipitation. A simple way to collect this precipitation is to rig up pipes to carry rainwater from rooftop gutters to a cistern, but that means making do with whatever water happens to run off the roof. A far better way is to design a more efficient catchment system by modifying the position of the house and construction of the roof.

The first step is to understand something of the physics of rain. Each raindrop has a diameter of 0.5 to 5 millimetres. Each rainfall has a spectrum of drop sizes with most of the larger drops being 2 or 3 mm in diameter. Drops of 0.04 to 0.5 mm are called drizzle, and of 0.001 to 0.04 mm form clouds or fog.

In still air, a drop with a diameter of 0.1 mm falls vertically at about 25 centimetres per second, a 0.5 mm drop at 2 m per second and a 5 mm drop at 9 m per second. The effect of a wind of even a few metres per second is to push the drops sideways so they fall at an angle. The stronger the wind or the smaller the drops, the closer to horizontal will be their path.

When it is raining and there is a strong west wind, it is logical to seek shelter on the east side of the house. By the same logic, it is from the west side that the most rain can be collected.

· Positioning the house. The house should stand free of any trees or taller buildings that would intercept precipitation. Its length should face the wind, and it should have an eaves-trough (rain gutter) at the bottom of the west wall to collect the rain striking and running down the wall.

· Designing the roof. A flat roof is an efficient rain collector only if the rain falls straight down, which is not normally the case. A centre peaked roof is better for collecting rain falling at an angle. Even better would be to eliminate the peak and have a roof with a single slope rising up from the windward side. This, however, might look a little odd so a more reasonable approach is to put a vertical panel along the peak of the roof. Even a small panel 1 m high can significantly increase the amount of rain collected in windy weather.

· Making use of “rain shadows.” The reason for the increased collection is the existence of a “rain shadow” behind each vertical part of the house - the west wall, the peak of the roof and the panel on the roof. When the wind blows rain against one side of the vertical wall, the rain-free area on the other side is known as a rain shadow. The wall will collect the rain that would have fallen in the rain-shadow area in the absence of the wall. The rain collected by a house designed to make use of rain shadows can be two or three times as much as the rain collected by a house with a simple flat roof collection system.

· Taking the measurements. The sizes of the rain-shadow areas can be determined by measuring the wind speed and inferring the droplet sizes from the measured rainfall rates. Once the rain-shadow area is determined, it is possible to use a rain gauge to measure the rainfall on the ground and calculate the amount of water that should be collected. Climatological data for the locality will reveal the prevailing wind direction during rainfalls and average wind speed and rainfall rate. Then, informed decisions can be made on how to orient new villages or individual buildings and which buildings are best suited for modification to improve their rainfall collection.

Using the rainshadow concept can improve any effort to collect precipitation. In particular, it can make a critical difference in semi-arid or mountain areas where there is frequent drizzle but little heavy rain and, not only is the total amount of precipitation low, but the drops tend to move toward the horizontal.

- Robert S. Schemenauer is a scientist in the Cloud Physics Research Division of Environment Canada's Atmospheric Environment Service.

Commodities: The gathering wheat crisis - Middle-East may suffer

Bread is fast replacing rice as the staple food in the crowded urban centres of developing countries, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time. Soaring wheat prices threaten to cause balance-of-payments deficits reminiscent of the energy crisis of the 1970s. The difference this time is that the Arab nations - including petroleum exporters - face serious economic consequences along with the rest of the developing world.

The price of wheat per ton shot up from US$140 to $210 between November 1994 and November 1995 and, according to the international Wheat Council (IWC), should reach US$250 this spring. To compound the problem, food security has already been undermined by a drawdown in strategic stocks because of poor harvests and reductions in food aid in line with post-Cold War policy orientations. The entire southern hemisphere, including the Arab countries, is feeling the effects.

FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) estimates 1995-96 cereal imports will cost low-income, food-deficit countries an extra US$3 billion, up 25 per cent from 1994-95. There is growing concern, FAO says, that “many of these countries will not be able to finance in 1995-96 the additional cost of cereal imports.”

The wheat bill of 11 Arab wheat-importing countries, as estimated by IWC, would be up at least 20 per cent by this spring - totalling US$6 billion, compared to $5 billion in 1995. The worst hit in terms of balance-of-payments deficits would be the three largest importers, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Egypt and Algeria could also face heightened political instability if basic food supplies were jeopardized.

Richard Woodhams, vice executive director of IWC, says much of the price rise has nothing to do with production. He cites cutoffs in government subsidies to wheat producers, especially in the United States and European Union, and hikes in shipping costs, which alone added US$30 a ton to the price. The Final Act of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which took effect in January 1995, provided for the phasing out of subsidies paid to domestic producers. And, Woodhams says, rising demand and falling supplies made producers more than happy to comply.

The effect of this change in the demand-supply rates has already been staggering. The price of American Reed winter wheat jumped 70 per cent to US$210 a ton last April when Washington lifted subsidies of up to 45 per cent - or almost US$100 a ton.

Last year's drought in North Africa left some Arab countries in a vulnerable position. Morocco's wheat harvest plunged from 9.4 million tons in 1994 to 1.6 million last year, and plans to buy 2.8 million tons in 1995-96. Egypt, which lacked reserves, was forced to buy 700 000 tons of wheat in 1995 - at a free market price that had reached US$200 a ton.

Saudi Arabia, until recently one of the world's top 10 wheat-exporting countries, expects its 1995-96 wheat production to just cover its domestic needs, but this is by choice. With oil prices falling, the Saudi government decided to relinquish the subsidies with which it had encouraged wheat production. The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office in Riyadh said the area sown to wheat fell from 581 000 hectares in 1994 to 465 000 ha in 1995. The newspaper Al-Quds reported from Dubai last 7 September the Saudi government is expected to cut the subsidized price at which it buys wheat from Saudi farmers from the 1995 rate of 2 000 riyals (about US$533) a ton to 1 500 SRIs (about US$400). The indications are that within two to three years, Saudi production will stabilize at about 1.5 million tons annually - enough to cover local demand and provide surplus for strategic stocks.

For a low-income, food-deficit country like Yemen, the cost of wheat imports is putting a severe strain on hard currency reserves. According to government figures, Yemen spent US$423 million for wheat during the first nine months of 1995, compared to US$400 million for the whole of 1994 - and each US$1 paid out was subsidized by the equivalent of 9 cents in Yemen's currency, the rial.

The overall consumption of wheat in the developing countries has been growing at the rate of 5 per cent a year since the 1960s. In the Arab world, the per capita consumption of wheat has jumped from 100 kilograms a decade ago to 142 kg today. Aggregate production increases of 2 per cent annually can hardly keep pace with population growth of 3.5 per cent annually. IWC put total Arab wheat imports in 1994-95 at 21.1 million tons compared to 18.4 million tons in 1992-93. Imports in 1995-96 are expected to exceed 22 million tons.

Overall, Arab countries paid US$33 billion in 1994 to import basic food commodities, including wheat. Given the expected price rises due to the dismantling of trade barriers and the projected population rise from 240 million at present to 295 million by the year 2000, keeping food imports at the current per capita level will cost the Arab world US$50 billion a year.

Although forecasts agree the cost of wheat will continue to rise, estimates vary as to how drastic the rise will be. The Economist Intelligence Unit said late last year that 1996 prices could reach record highs as the world wheat supply drops to crisis levels due to drastic reductions in production by the United States, Canada, EU countries, Argentina and Australia, which together harvest almost 90 per cent of the world's wheat. In the case of the United States, Canada and EU trade factors are at work; for Argentina and Australia, there is fear of continuing drought. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said it expects the United States and Canada to withdraw support they paid to farmers to take large areas out of wheat but predicted only gradual price rises until the year 2000.

As a further strain on supplies, a sharp rise in demand is expected in the second half of the 1990s in Russia, which had its worst harvest in decades in 1995, and China is expected to import almost 10 million tons of wheat due to water shortages (see Ceres No. 155, pp. 26-35).

As a result of rising demand and falling supply, both IWC and OECD warn that world strategic stocks could drop to 92 million tons this year, the lowest in 20 years. In EU countries alone, OECD said stocks collapse from 33 million tons two years ago to only 3 million tons in 1995.

Medhat Makar, an Egyptian journalist, is editor of the Arabic edition of Ceres.

Lab results: Sweetening the bitter fruit

U.S. and Japanese scientists are cooperating in an attempt to remove the bitterness from the juice of navel oranges by genetic engineering. All citrus fruits contain a substance that turns into bitter-tasting limonin when juice is extracted or the fruit is processed into fresh segments or slices. Taste-panel studies indicate about 30 per cent of consumers object to the taste of juice with as little as two parts per million of limonin.

The bitterness is far more pronounced in navel oranges, and their juice has to be diluted to make it saleable. But the bitterness of limonin and the closely related compound nomilin can be neutralized in some kinds of citrus by an enzyme that attaches to each bitter molecule a molecule of glucose, which transforms them into non-bitter compounds called limonoid glucosides. Shin Hasegawa and his team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, have identified the enzyme in navel oranges that links the glucose molecule on to limonin or nomilin and isolated about 20 liminoid glucosides thus produced. Hasegawa's group is cooperating with Mitsuko Omura of the Japanese government's Fruit Tree Research Station in Okitsu, Shimizu, in an attempt to work back from the enzyme to find the gene that directs the enzyme's production. “The Japanese group is a pioneer in transgenic work with citrus,” Hasegawa said. “It is doing the genetic engineering part of the research.”

The Japanese scientists will introduce the debittering gene, perhaps modified to increase its power, into single navel orange cells growing in laboratory petri dishes. From these engineered single citrus cells trees can grow and bear fruit with the modified genes at work.

Field findings: Farmers embrace a creeper

Farmers in southern Benin have found the best way to deal with their biggest problem, a grass weed, is to smother it with another plant, a ground creeper. And in doing so, they have taught researchers once again the valuable lesson that working with farmers rather than for them is the key to increasing production.

The problem arose in the mid-1980s. The traditional farming system with a long fallow period had collapsed because of pressure to produce more food. The ultimate result was a drop in production because soil fertility took a nosedive. As soils degraded, fields became infested with the grass weed Imperata cylindrica, known as spear grass, and were then abandoned.

Researchers at the Institut national des recherches agricoles du Bn joined forces with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in looking for a leguminous cover crop to improve soil fertility. They selected Mucuna pruriens, the velvet bean, brought in from Latin America.

Mucuna, an annual leguminous, ground-creeping plant, produces a lot of growth, and when it dies down during the dry season, it leaves behind large amounts of organic matter. Initial trials in 1988 and 1989, showed that if maize is planted into this thick mulch at the beginning of the next rainy season, grain yields more than double. The maize crop benefits because the mucuna debris provides nitrogen and helps the soil retain more rainfall.

Demonstration plots with farmers produced some sensational increases in yields - as much as tenfold. But that didn't convince most farmers to plant mucuna. They weren't interested in a crop that yielded no food.

Some farmers did persist with mucuna, however, because they saw its potential in another more important direction. They found it could eliminate imperata grass from badly infested fields. If they cut down the grass just before the rains and then planted mucuna, the creeper had the chance to outgrow the imperata and smother it. In its search for light through the thick carpet of mucuna, the imperata uses up its root reserves, and by the end of the season there is very little left in the field. Next season maize can be planted into the mucuna mulch.

That finding, spread from farmer to farmer by word of mouth, was enough to get more people to plant mucuna.

Because imperata does creep back within three to four years, farmers will have to re-introduce mucuna periodically to suppress the imperata once again, and this also ensures soil fertility is maintained. So in a roundabout way, the researchers have achieved their objective.

Experience has shown when maize follows mucuna, yields are increased. Some farmers have got yields of 2 000 kilograms per hectare, others have seen yields treble. But mucuna only supplies organic matter and nitrogen, so it may be necessary to apply phosphorous and potassium if these nutrients are deficient.

FAO in action

GLOBAL ACTION ON PLANT GENETIC RESOURCES

FAO, working in close cooperation with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), is organizing the most ambitious program ever undertaken in the field of plant genetic resources. At this year's Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources experts and officials of some 140 countries will review a comprehensive report on “The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources” and consider for formal adoption a pioneering “Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.” The aim is to put into operation the Convention on Biological Diversity approved at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro - particularly as it regards plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. In preparation, each country has spent two years putting together a country report, and scientists and representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector plus independent scientists attended 12 subregional meetings around the world. The conference will be held 17-23 June in Leipzig, Germany. For further information, contact: The Secretariat, Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome. Fax: (039-6) 5225-5533. E-mail: ICPPGR@fao.org

AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING WORK

FAO has honored three national institutions and four individuals for outstanding contributions in the field of food and agricultural development. The awards, named for former FAO directors-general, were announced during the Organization's 28th biennial conference held in Rome last 20 October to 2 November. The Edouard Saouma Award recognizes institutions that have implemented with particular efficiency projects funded by FAO's Technical Cooperation Programme. The 1994-95 award went jointly to the Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias of Chile for introducing biological control technology against the immediate threat of a Russian wheat aphid invasion (TCP/CHI/0153), to the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health for creating a process that improved food quality and safety in Calcutta (TCP/IND/0155) and to the Horticulture Crops Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Horticultural Research Station in Kenya for reversing a decline in the production of Asian vegetables and creating a dynamic new sector satisfying local demand and export requirements (TCP/KEN/0054).

The Boerma Award singles out journalists who have helped to focus public attention on important aspects of food problems and stimulated interest in and support for measures leading to their solution. The joint winners for 1994-95 were Fawzia El-Moualled of Egypt “for her strong commitment and significant contribution over the past 40 years, both on radio and in print, to development issues, particularly with regard to the rural population,” and Michael Pickstock of the United Kingdom “for the dedication shown throughout his career to covering agriculture in developing countries, particularly with regard to increasing food production through sustainable agricultural development and for the contribution he made to improving public awareness and understanding.”

The annual B.R. Sen Award recognizes the achievements of FAO field officers. The 1994 award went to Seiichi Etoh of Japan for his work in fisheries development in Eritrea and the 1995 award to Roberto Samanez-Mercado of Brazil for his work on the Amazon Cooperation Treaty in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - BUT COMPLETED

It was more like another sequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than your usual internal audit. In true Indiana Jones style, one intrepid auditor crossed the Congo by boat. Another braved the Syrian Desert in a car. And still another arrived at his destination in the midst of a coup d't. The more fortunate only had to contend with airline strikes, flight cancellations and travellers' ailments. It was all in the interests of completing what G. Peter Wilson, director of the FAO Office of Internal Audit, Inspection and Management Control, calls “perhaps the most comprehensive global internal audit undertaking ever performed in the United Nations system.” In order to assess the overall quality of management of field operations, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf had requested an up-to-date audit of the five FAO regional offices and 75 field offices around the world - in the space of five weeks. It was July, and due to vacations, illness and unfilled posts, only four of the 14 auditors the project required were on hand. Leaves were cancelled, auditors were borrowed from other departments and two were brought out of retirement. Each was assigned a “cluster” of offices according to geographic location, logistics and language. They were briefed, supplied with visas, medical clearance, travel advances and tickets and sent on their way to 54 countries. Twenty days after the office had received the request, the first reports started coming in on a special fax set up for the purpose. Rome staff reviewed and cleared the drafts as they arrived, delivering them to the director-general's office with a daily status report. Not only was the deadline met, Wilson reported in the International Journal of Government Auditing, but “the enthusiasm displayed by the whole audit team has had a powerful impact on other staff members in terms of their acceptance and
support for the changes being made in the Organization.”

Wiring the south

Dipping into a data base here, contributing to a development policy paper there, debating with scientists, extensionists, teachers, agitators, journalists, presidents everywhere - this is the promise of the Internet. It seems the perfect solution to the South's information and communications needs. Communicating with peers is facilitated by the Internet; there's no need to buy, transport and store and update “dead tree” versions of reference material many Southern libraries can no longer afford.

But as development dreamers have often found in the past, there are no simple solutions to such critical development dilemmas as information exchange and delivery.

In this Centrepiece, journalist Mike Holderness canvasses Southern journalists and development NGOs for their views on the promise and peril of spreading Internet connectivity in developing countries. Bernard Woods, the World Bank's senior communications specialist until 1991, describes his ideal solution to Southern information and communications needs: Communications Utilities which would be privately run for public benefit. Samuel Inyang, a Nigerian health worker, painstakingly details his struggle to get an electronic mail connection running in the city of Jos, Nigeria. Lishan Adam is helping the UN establish computer networking in 16 African countries, and warns that such systems must be designed with sustainability in mind.

To round out the discussion, FAO communications specialist Anamaria Decock reminds us that “no magic wires have appeared to connect rural Africans,” and the old ways of communicating remain the most effective. Plus we give two regular contributors to Ceres, the Southern news agencies SYFIA and Panos a chance to explain how grassroots news media play key roles in development.

As always, Ceres welcomes your opinions on the views expressed by the authors in this Centrepiece.

A promising solution fraught with peril

by Mike Holderness

Can the whole world simply go digital, or do we still need magazines, newspapers and books to communicate? The London-based

Panos Institute surveyed NGOs and journalists in developing countries to gauge the potential for information technologies to compensate for information shortages and communications difficulties in the South. The Internet, it seems, is a double-edged sword.

A delicatessen in Oakland, California, survives by tickling its patrons' jaded palates. Once a week the manager connects her computer, through the Internet, to the Earth Market Place service. She is given prices of products from a farmers' cooperative in Suriname, via a computer in Nairobi. She reads the description of their products and then negotiates a deal which will put more money directly in the pockets of farmers. This concerned restaurateur knows the methods of producing, manufacturing and transporting the products have been “certified sustainable” by Earth Market Place inspectors.

That's an example of the long-term potential of the Internet in encouraging sustainable development in the South. (As it stands now, Earth Market Place deals only with bulk orders.)

On the other hand, imagine receiving a note saying that, in future, an environment magazine to which you subscribe would be available only on the Internet. It would save trees, save money and allow people almost immediate access to information as it is compiled. But the rub is it would cut off its readers who do not have access to the Internet for lack of computers, good-quality telephone lines, electronic mail connections and affordable telecommunications.

So while increasing amounts of information about scientific and technological developments are now available only on the Internet, the big question is: Has “information poverty” been added to the many other gaps separating developing countries from the rich North?

For the developing world, exclusion from sources of information is nothing new. Like the balance of power, the flow of information worldwide is essentially North to South rather than the other way around, or South to South. But many believe the industrialized world is moving from the age of industry into an Information Age.

The believers include people at opposite ends of the political and development spectrum: from Newt Gingrich, conservative Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to the man known as Sub-Commandante Marcos of the Zapatista rebel movement in Chiapas, Mexico. (In a vivid example of what author Tom Wolfe termed “radical chic,” Marcos agreed to be interviewed in 1994 by the glitzy U.S. celebrity magazine Vanity Fair. In exchange he received a laptop computer and printer which, with the help of couriers, he used to transmit his viewpoint to newspapers, magazines and support groups around the world from his Mexican jungle base.)

The development of the Internet is changing the way communications operate at a global level. There are the slow and the fast lanes of the Internet: from the simple transmission of text on electronic mail to the “information superhighway” through which graphics, sound and moving pictures can be piped into home computers.

Because it is cheaper than other forms of telecommunication and gives access to a huge amount of information, the Internet has the potential to narrow the existing North-South information gap. But it relies on technology that is much less accessible and much more expensive in the South than in the industrialized world.

The Internet doubled in size in 1994 and has done so every year since 1988. It is the fastest-growing communications medium ever. Millions of people are finding their working lives, and increasingly their recreation, changed beyond all recognition.

In the North there are new magazines and television programs devoted to the Internet, cafes where Internet beginners can learn to play in “cyberspace,” news groups and bulletin boards on subjects ranging from alternative politics to sport or pornography. Users homeshop and “telecommute” to work without leaving the house.

The Internet - or Net, or Infobahn - is nothing more than a means of transport for digitized information. But it makes radically new patterns of human communication possible through its speed of transport and the fact that once a link is established it becomes very cheap to send information to one person or to a hundred.

The Internet is more of a concept than a thing. It is best thought of as a new means of transport for information - the “tracks” over which actual information services “run.” In the same way railways made regional and national newspapers possible, the arrival of the Internet (and its successors) makes new information services possible.

The first physical manifestation of the Internet was in September 1969. U.S. military planners were deeply worried about the prospect of what they called “decapitation” - a nuclear attack on a central command post which would leave their forces “headless.” Their first attempt at a solution was linking together four computers on the West Coast of the United States as part of an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) experiment.

The ARPA researchers determined that the way to make a communication system attack-proof was for it to be totally decentralized. So their design for ARPAnet - the basis for the Internet - had each computer connected by high-speed data cables to a number of neighbors.

When computer A wants to send a message to computer B, it divides it into “packets.” Each packet is sent to the neighboring C with a note of the “address” of B.

Computer C looks up the best available route in the general direction of B and forwards the message. If computer C disappears, A tries its other neighbors. In this sense, each packet is thrown into the net and left to “swim” to its destination.

The Internet has become dominant in the development of new communications services because it is so open, because by design it connects disparate computer systems and because it has been largely free at the point of use. It rapidly spread to U.S. universities and in the past three years into universities across the globe and into offices.

The Internet is particularly accessible in the North where computers are commonly available and telecommunications costs are low and falling. It's far less accessible in countries where people are lucky to have typewriters, let alone computers, and where there is no direct access to the Internet - i.e. no “host” computer directly linked to the Internet through high-speed connections - and where people have to pay for the international communications to reach an access point. It is much faster and cheaper to access the Net with a good-quality telephone line (and a fast computer and modem) readily available in the North. Old and unstable lines, such as are often found in developing countries, are slower to transmit and receive data and therefore more expensive to use.

The Internet allows users to transcend time, distance and old-technology cost constraints. They can form working groups or “virtual clubs” with the people who share their interests, regardless of where they live. Bittu Sahgal of the Ecologist magazine in India has developed a worldwide network of contacts to feed him, by electronic mail, information on foreign-funded industrial and development projects.

Users can access enormous quantities of information, although not all of it is reliable and useful. Using Internet services in countries with up-to-date telephone systems, it takes perhaps half an hour to complete research that would previously have lasted weeks. But local access varies enormously. Bittu Sahgal is waiting impatiently for an affordable link that will enable him to do the same.

In India, relatively high user fees, especially for business Internet providers, restrict access to the Net: Internet provider Business India Information Technology in Bombay, for instance, has to pay the Department of Telephones US$83 000 a year as charges. “The number of subscribers needed to pay the licence fee is very high,” says the company's vice president, Anil Garg.

The products of academic research are generally made freely available, and this exchange has been dramatically enhanced by the Internet. Now the Internet is infiltrating the private sector and vice versa.

Many newspapers and news agencies in the North put summaries of their content on the Net each day to entice readers into subscribing regularly. In the South, many journalists and editors see the Net as a way of building South-South news linkages and thus bypassing the filter of Northern news agencies.

This kind of “South-to-South communication is a distinct possibility - but is not happening at the moment because the service itself is rather new,” according to John Mukela of the Centre for Development Information in Lusaka, Zambia. The bi-weekly Lusaka Post is one of only two African newspapers on the World Wide Web. Said Mukela: “Two other newspapers in Zambia have access but don't actually use the capacity...they haven't really got the hang of it.”

Kanak Dixit, a Nepalese journalist believes “Southern journalists themselves would have to educate themselves a bit more to be interested in Southern issues. The tendency - which applies to me as well as others - is to look to the North for exciting new stories.”

Babacar Fall, for example, has been relaunching Pan African News Agency (PANA) from Dakar in Senegal, and in July 1995 PANA went on line. Soon they expect to have a World Wide Web page as well, providing an information service for a subscription.

The Internet is the ideal solution to developing countries' information needs. No one can afford to fill Southern libraries with books, journals and other necessary publications on paper. But ideals are not easily realized: the infrastructure is not in place for quick expansion of the Internet in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

Two countries, Finland and the United States have more than one Internet host computer per 100 population. In comparison, in 1992, 49 countries from China to Cambodia, had fewer than one telephone per 100 people, and 35 of these were in Africa. India, for instance, has 8 million telephone lines for 900 million people.

Last February during the G-7 conference of industrialized countries, South Africa's Deputy President Thabo Mbeki pointed out there were more telephone lines in New York City's borough of Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. “Half of humanity has never made a telephone call,” he said. And in many parts of the South, what phone networks exist don't talk to each other. Calls from Dakar in Senegal to Lusaka in Zambia are still routed from Dakar to Banjul, Banjul to London and London to Lusaka.”

At a global level, at least 80 per cent of the world's population still lacks the most basic telecommunications. Within countries, urban areas may be better served, but entire rural areas are left out.

Telecommunications is now recognized as an essential tool for development: an unpublished study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development charts a direct relation between growth in telephone-line density and economic growth.' The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is launching the WorldTel project to try to overcome the North-South gap. It estimates that, worldwide, investment falls short of needs by US$30 billion a year even though it predicts a real rate of return of 25 per cent a year.

Following an ITU-sponsored study, the U.S. corporation AT&T is soliciting investors for Africa One - a US$1.9 billion very high-capacity fibre optic cable around the continent. Such a grandiose scheme is reminiscent of Cecil Rhodes' Cape-to-Cairo railway - and indeed Germany's Siemens “denounced Africa One as an exercise in new-tech colonialism,” according to London's The Guardian newspaper. Siemens has a rival proposal to wire Africa piece by piece.

Most of the capital cost of telephone service, though, is in the “local loop” between the subscriber and the exchange office. Technology could help here: cellular radio technology may soon be cheaper than laying copper wire in cities. For example, a licence has been granted to Ratelindo to provide 250 000 “fixed cellular” telephone connections in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Ratelindo is a joint venture between Indonesia's state-owned telecoms operator and a private company called Bakrie Electronics.)

Cellular systems, however, are likely to remain extremely expensive in isolated areas of low population density because the radio base stations that service the cellular phones have a limited radius.

The U.S. company Motorola plans to extend mobile phone coverage to the entire surface of the planet with its Iridium scheme. This involves launching 66 satellites into low earth orbit. Two years ago, Motorola was predicting that a hand-held satellite phone, capable of high-speed data transmission, would by the end of the century cost US$2 000.

Relative costs are an important consideration in assessing how realistic are the Internet's prospects for use in developing countries. David Dion works for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. He spends the equivalent of US$400 a month on food and US$200 a month on telephone calls, including those his computer makes to the Internet. Harry Surjadi works for the Kompas Morning Daily newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia. He estimates that he spends the equivalent of US$4.50 a month on food and US$27 on telephone and Internet access.

In real terms, Internet access time is 12 times more expensive for Harry Surjadi and his neighbors than for David Dion. The differential is higher for the computers they need to compose, send and read messages - although the cost of hardware will also exclude a high proportion of people in the North.

For the 10 per cent of Londoners who are unemployed, a new US$1 500 computer would represent about six months' total income. For 45 per cent of Indonesians who arc “underemployed” it represents several years' cash income - and prices for imported electronic goods are often much higher in developing countries. A modem in India is about four times the cost in the United States, even without taking into account the huge differences in standards of living.

Tony Rutowski is executive director of the Internet Society's U.S.-based International Secretariat. In expanding the Internet southward, he sees the main problem is “the availability of capital to purchase capital-intensive goods and services.”

Africa is particularly badly affected. Tariff rates on information technology products are more than 40 per cent in most African countries, restricting access further in a continent already poor in infrastructure.

Wide, dependable, affordable access to the Internet would address one perennial problem for developing countries - the “brain drain.” For example about 6 000 highly qualified Indians emigrate to the United States every year. If Internet access allowed them to stay in daily contact with the best authorities in their fields and access libraries and new publications wherever they may be, would they need to go abroad to do PhDs?

“If the Internet does halt the brain drain it will do so precisely because people will feel adequately in touch,” said John Mukela. “Many find the lack of exposure at home more debilitating than the low income - and many will prefer to work from their own communities if the possibility for international exposure exists.”

Technology is not the only barrier to full enjoyment of the Internet. Much of what's available on the Net is in English. Unknown numbers of people do communicate in other languages, but for now it is only practicable to send e-mail in languages which use the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets. Software programs that handle different scripts are common, but files generated in a language like Hindi or Japanese by one program are not readable by other programs. The International Standards Organization adopted a scheme called Unicode in 1993, providing interchangeable representations of every language and script from Japanese to Cherokee, but practicable software to generate and read Unicode files doesn't look likely to arrive until later in 1996.

I think in English,” said Ranil Senanayake of the Environment Liaison Centre International in Nairobi, Kenya. His mother tongue is Sinhalese, “which makes a huge difference to what I think. If you read and think in the language and you have the cultural and social values ingrained in you, the way you interpret that information may be totally different.”

It's not just that the English language dominates the Net. Commentators currently define the most common political position expressed on the Net as a sort of anarchist-capitalism, at the extreme individualist end of the U.S. spectrum, reflecting the spontaneous and anarchic growth of the medium to date.

As to what that implies for other cultures Kanak Dixit says: “One has to be realistic and realize that this is the situation. You have to respond by accessing the Net more, not less. It's exactly like the argument about satellite television: do we roll over and say the battle is won or produce better programs in the South?”

The impact of this cultural dominance “depends on how much of a sponge you allow yourself to be,” says Dorothy Munyakho of Interlink Rural Press Service in Nairobi, Kenya.

Amadou Mahtar Ba from the Pan African News Agency believes: “There is a need for our countries to propose specific services on the Infobahn so that they can have a presence in it and become information providers.”

Adds Ranil Senanayake: “The homogenization of humanity that's going to happen through radio and the published media is only going to be accentuated by this.” John Mukela does not see “homogenization” as all bad. “As technology advances, so too does the notion of 'one world' and the general breakdown of barriers, both physical and intellectual.”

The Internet has been particularly adroitly used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which in many parts of the South are at the forefront of electronic communications. In countries such as Ghana and Tanzania, the majority of electronic mail accounts are on hosts set up to meet the needs of NGOs, according to information from provider GreenNet.

The “instant response” facility offered by the Net is a boon to development - when it is available, dependable and affordable. A women's group in Mexico City uses electronic mail to ask sympathizers in California to do research for them. When a new textile factory was announced, management was approached by the women who came bearing a bulky portfolio of information on the company, its profits and its ownership. And a London women's group called Living Bosnia uses e-mail to keep in contact with women in Bosnia. It can be extremely difficult to make a phone call to find out what aid they need, but e-mail keeps on trying until it finds a way through.

Trade unions have used the Net as a campaigning tool: global networks played a crucial role in helping unionized Guatemalan workers gain recognition and wage increases from Pepsi-Cola a couple of years ago.

Education, training, debt relief, democratization, investment in infrastructures, improved and cheaper telecommunications all have a part to play in an eventual narrowing of the information gap. But the opportunities offered by the Internet are also identified as positive elements in an already unequal world: clearly, the South has much to gain from increased access to information, and no time to lose.

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.

Stuck in the ruts on the Information Superhighway

Theory is a wonderful thing...until it has to be put into practice. How practical is it to bring the Information Superhighway to Africa? We got one answer off the Internet itself from a development worker in Nigeria trying to improve telecommunications in a country where conditions can only be described as excruciatingly difficult. Dr. Inyang delivered his paper during the African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development, held by the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in April 1995.

By Samuel Inyang

Jos is the capital of Plateau state, one of the 30 states making up Nigeria. The climate is mild and pleasant and so attracts a lot of expatriates with mission agencies and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One such NGO is the River Blindness Foundation (RBF).

RBF's headquarters in Houston commissioned Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA) in 1991 to look into improving communications between RBF's U.S. head office and Nigeria.

VITA suggested a radio-based communications system within Nigeria. For communications between Jos and Houston, VITA suggested three alternatives:

1. Standard C-lmmarsat satellite terminal (a satellite dish) for transmission of text-only messages from remote areas. Disadvantages: non-text files such as graphics files, word-processing or spreadsheet files could not be transmitted. Although the cost of the terminal was reasonable, the cost of air time was exorbitant.

2. Telex for text transmission had the advantage of being cheap, but there was no practical way to bridge data gap from a computer to the telex terminal. Therefore, all messages generated locally using the computer would have to be re-keyed for telex transmission.

3. A telephone-based e-mail system using a computer, a modem and ordinary telephone lines. This setup would allow transfer of all types of files - word-processing, spreadsheets and graphics files. Unfortunately, the speed of the modem available would limit the size of files transferred.

The last was the option chosen when in 1993, I was doing some computer consulting with RBF and was asked to set up and troubleshoot a pilot e-mail system in Jos in association with VITA. E-mail is cheap and convenient - a 50-page document could be transmitted in less than three minutes, which is obviously cheaper than sending it by fax via Nigeria's expensive telephone system.

The main problem with an e-mail system for us (and much of Africa) is the unreliability of electricity and telephone lines, which are often out of order for days on end. Even when they're working, power surges and poor telephone connections can dash attempts at communicating through telematics (a term denoting the convergence of computing, telecommunications and information).

Local conditions meant we would be in the slow lane on the Information Superhighway. E-mail messages in the First World zip between sender and receiver in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Ours would be a “stored and forwarded system:” communications would be gathered, stored, then forwarded a few times a week at predetermined intervals to take advantage of slack time on telephone lines and lower calling charges in off-peak hours.

The equipment and software were already available: a Toshiba 286 laptop computer with an external Hayes 2400 modem. (Computer signals are digital, while telephone signals are analogue. Modems convert one to the other for transmission via telephone lines or radio microwaves to telecommunications satellites for transmission.)

Because Jos does not have an international direct dial service, the system would be based on the calls originating in Houston. Using one of the many e-mail software packages available, the computer would be set up to receive calls and upload (send out) and download (receive) files and messages without any human intervention. The only requirement was that the computer and modem remain on at night. This setup also eliminated the need of a dedicated machine as the computer could be used for normal work during office hours.

The system was set up with the laptop, modem and software configured to await incoming calls. Gary Garriott of VITA handled the U.S. end and using its software (Frontdoor), the computer in the United States was programmed to call the Jos computer at regular intervals. (Phone calls from Nigeria to the United States cost two to three times the amount of placing a call from the U.S. to Nigeria.) Once the phone link is made between the two, information can be sent either way.

We made some voice calls to sort out the configuration and the timing of the calls. At first we wanted the U.S. computer to call at 5 a.m. to take advantage of low calling volume and low telephone tariffs, with the dialing computer programmed to make at least 20 tries to connect with the Jos computer.

However, for the convenience of VITA, whose computer was running communications with other groups around the world, it was decided the U.S. computer would call Jos at 9 p.m. EST three times a week and limit retries to a one-hour window.

The first time transmission was tried, I stayed awake to monitor the call and transmission, and both were uneventful. The computers connected after two or three tries of unsuccessful “handshaking” and were able to download and upload the messages Gary and RBF-Jos had left each other.

Back in Nigeria, we continued testing and were able to transfer word-processing files and binary files. Line quality was fair but sometimes it got so bad that the modems did not connect after many tries, or the lines would fail halfway through transmission.

As mentioned, the lack of adequate infrastructure is the key problem in establishing telematics in Africa. Nigeria's phone lines can go off for days or weeks on end, and it takes persistence and follow-up by repair technicians with NITEL, the national phone company, to get the lines fixed.

Power supply is also a problem - too little and too much. We lost a modem during one power outage which was followed by a power surge: the next morning, we found the modem all burnt up and melted. Luckily, there was no combustible material nearby so the fire didn't spread.

To protect against this and other hazards, a surge protector for the modem and the phone line itself were acquired. We also got a UPS (uninterrupted power supply) to maintain power for some minutes in the event of an electricity outage. Even though we were using a laptop with a battery, the UPS was necessary because the external modem would need power in the event of a power failure.

Sadly, after the initial test period of three to six months, RBF did not follow the project up, and the e-mail was not implemented for them. With many of the bugs worked out, it would be worth giving it a second look. Jos does have one private e-mail system, operated by the Sudan interior Mission.

Our most basic goal remains the establishment of a limited e-mail setup between Jos and the United States. Drawing from the experience with RBF, a “notebook” computer with an integrated fax-modem and surge protector would be the computer of choice. If a desktop system is chosen, it should include not just a UPS and surge protector but also a device turning the system on when the telephone rings and off when communication is finished. This reduces the risk of fire or other damage to the computer or modem.

An intermediate-level plan is to set up an Internet AIDS information centre in collaboration with European and U.S. organizations. However, we have not yet received any funding.

Our larger dream is to set up a national E-mail system for Nigeria. This is even more of a priority now that postal services are unreliable and very slow. Jos could be the main “gateway,” collecting e-mail from the rest of Nigeria for transmission internationally.

Rates for international telecommunications out of Nigeria remain discouragingly high. One way around this is to subscribe to one of the companies that offer “call back” services from the United States through which callers around the world can access U.S. telephone services which cost less and offer better service. (See the bulletin board page, this issue.)

One hold-up in establishing e-mail in developing countries is their phone lines cannot handle rapid data transmission, calculated in “bps” (bits per second), which has made e-mail so affordable. While the norm in the First World is 56 000 bps, in Nigeria our phones can handle just 28 800 bps. Happily, both Compuserve and America On-Line will soon be offering 28 800 bps access, which improves prospects for general e-mail access and opens the door to “real time” conference calls on computer.

The city of Jos will soon get a digital telephone network and International Direct Dial (IDD) will be possible. One would like to find out from NITEL whether the digital services offer “ISDN” capability (through which phone lines can carry video, telephone and computer-generated information) and at what extra cost. This would make on-line access much faster.

It would be great if funding for such a project could be obtained so that an experimental system to provide e-mail could start. This could be expanded over time to cover the major towns and would help Nigeria join the technological revolution faster, an increasingly crucial advancement in light of growing economic crisis in the country.

Maintaining connection

by Lishan Adam

How sustainable are current efforts to introduce and promote telematics in Africa? Will be the “tractor graveyards” story re-told - piles of broken-down computers and burned-out modems abandoned in offices vacated by foreign consultants who didn’t train the local people to keep information systems going? Sustainability also means governments must get on line by reducing telephone tariffs and impediments to equipment imports that are choking the homegrown information revolution necessary to fire economic development.

Books and periodicals - their production, transport and storage cost too much to be affordable to African libraries all but done-in by years of structural adjustment programs. As for individual communications, rural researchers cannot depend on deteriorating postal services. Telephone calls are too expensive, the phone systems too unreliable.

It is beguiling to suggest African researchers look to telematics, a term denoting the convergence of the computing, telecommunications and information sectors, to replace the printed word with data bases, CD-ROMs and electronic mail. To connect to electronic communications networks rural researchers need networking tools (software, hardware, etc.) proven to work hard and long under adverse climatic or isolated conditions. African decision-makers, researchers and field workers also need the resources to maintain electronic information systems. Sustainability is the key concern as, sooner or later, local resources will have to replace short-term external funding and technical expertise.

According to the World Bank Group Vision statement, a global society is “emerging with pervasive information capabilities that makes it substantially different from an industrial society: much more competitive, more democratic, less centralized, less stable, more able to address individual needs and friendlier to the environment.”

Is this a “wish list” to a rural researcher in Africa?

Over the last few years, low-cost store-and-forward electronic communications links* to African countries have been established through small local networks. For the moment, most Africans wanting access to e-mail or larger Internet services are dependent on the telephonic intervention of third parties, usually in the United States. African network users are now lobbying their governments to improve and augment telecommunications infrastructure, particularly to spend the US$100 000 to $500 000 necessary to buy each country a “leased line connection.” These lines eliminate the need for that third-party middleman (or his preprogrammed computer) and allow direct and almost instantaneous links to the Internet.

As of 1995 seven African countries (Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tunisia) had direct links to the Internet. Uganda, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Tanzania are currently making plans for full Internet connectivity. There are, in addition, over 10 initiatives to build capacity in networking and put African countries on the Internet.

The cost of leased lines is high for research institutions to bear alone but would be relatively cheap if borne at the national level, as the cost can be shared among thousands of users (see pp. 23-27). Of course, competition for development dollars is intense, and the needs of hungry children and sick villagers may be more compelling than the country's information needs. But paying for a direct link to the Internet can aid a country in utilizing meagre resources more effectively. For example, communications between agricultural researchers and extensionists will encourage dissemination of new approaches ultimately leading to better maize harvests. And fast Internet communications will improve response to emergencies: drought, locust infestation, epidemic.

It is difficult to introduce and maintain electronic networks in Africa, but it is not impossible. Their use will empower isolated researchers. Some of the world's poorest countries, such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Angola, have already made substantial progress.

The cost of equipment necessary for connecting to a national e-mail central (called a “node”) is about US$800; a phone line is the only additional resource needed. Using such equipment, an irrigation expert 700 kilometres from the capital of Ethiopia can connect to a node each day to contact his colleagues worldwide, to send greetings to his family in the capital city, to develop joint proposals with an international NGO office in the United Kingdom and Uganda, to follow up on the procurement of lab equipment from Germany and to access data bases on the Internet.

Speed, convenience and low-cost communications are some advantages of electronic communications. A letter sent from Morocco takes weeks to reach Ethiopia.

An e-mail message takes less than a day to arrive. Transmission via fax costs US$7-$15 a page; a faxed report can cost the whole monthly salary of a researcher. The same report can be transmitted via electronic mail for a fraction of a dollar. The ability to broadcast one message to multiple users facilitates more cost savings and on-line discussions.

An electronic network is a town square and library all in one: a repository of knowledge and an opportunity for interactive discussion. As opposed to libraries and the mass media, electronic networks engage millions of users in interactive learning in a “virtual college.” The availability on the Net of thousands of news groups on almost every topic, mailing lists, on-line data bases, files and on-line books creates conditions under which a veterinarian in remote regions who has access to a telephone and a laptop can participate in knowledge generation and use. An African forestry researcher in Point Noire (Congo) can work on a collaborative research with others in the Amazon. Improvement in the quality of research and education in agriculture can be achieved by linking agricultural colleges to the Internet. African researchers can participate both in use and in the generation of knowledge on the network.

Failure to bring telematics to Africa will leave the continent farther behind than ever, according to a communiqussued during the Symposium on Telematics for Development in Africa held in Addis Ababa in April 1995:

“Unless African countries become full actors in the global information revolution, the gap between the haves and have-nots will widen, opening the possibility to increased marginalization of the continent. The gap will increase the likelihood of cultural, religious and tribal ghettos leading to regional and inter-regional conflicts.”

Digital information about developing countries but residing in developed countries can “come home” through telematics: through the Internet an African biodiversity researcher can access research undertaken by foreign consultants working in their own country.

Most of the technical challenges in building links to Africa stem from the region's poor telecommunications infrastructure and unwieldy bureaucracy.

Several experts on telecommunications development suggest that liberalization and privatization of telephone networks are the cures for these problems. But African governments fear their national telephone companies will lose revenue if telephone tariffs are reduced. However, the reverse is usually true: low tariffs encourage telephone use and overall revenue can increase, affording improvements to the system.

Although the situation is changing, explicit permission is usually required from national telecom operators before one can install any kind of telephone device. In some countries, only certain brands of communications equipment are permitted and users are forced to buy or rent modems from national telecom operators. Getting computer equipment cleared by customs is another major barrier to network expansion in Africa. Sometimes the equipment is “lost.” Refusal to clear imports of computing/communications equipment is sometimes seen as an attempt to limit effective communications, feared as a challenge to official control of information.

Most telecom operators regulate everything, including themselves, but they lack the expertise needed for modern networking technology. There is a fear that electronic networks established by national telecoms would be expensive and unreliable. Experts from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) believe telecom operators should not get into networking until they are divested of their regulatory function and the telecoms market is liberalized.

Lack of foreign currency to purchase equipment and subscribe to networks is the major resource problem facing most researchers. Even when resources are available, information on the use of existing communications and computer equipment is not always disseminated. Institutions that do have modems do not necessarily know how to use them. Once equipment is received and installed, maintenance becomes an issue. All these negatives aside, the private sector computer business is flourishing in Africa and should mean better, more dependable services and greater dissemination of the values of electronic networking.

Illiteracy and the multiplicity of languages in Africa are barriers to network building. As well, the collegial habit of sharing information is not well established between researchers, institutions and governments.

To what extent can radio technology meet demands of researchers and extensionists working in remote areas? Modem radio equipment is unavailable in most countries and too many people give up when faced with Africa's tiresome licensing processes. Winning a licence to operate a radio frequency can take over six months - even when it is needed for relief operations! Some countries do not allow importation of communications equipment for “security” reasons. Demonstrating the technology and involving telecom operators in its promotion can sensitize governments and make radio technology accessible to rural communities in Africa.

African governments pay little attention to national needs for communications and information. Resources are swallowed up by pressing concerns over health care, education, population, food security and defence. The strategic importance of information and communications has yet to be realized by government officials. The apparent correlation between poverty and access to information needs to be made clear to African decision-makers.

Many institutions launching communications networks do not realize users have to be trained in the basics of computing before they dive into the Internet, which requires further instruction. A widespread approach to training encompasses introductory and sensitizing workshops for policymakers and managers, troubleshooting and systems maintenance, training for technicians and national plans for computer education in colleges and schools. Ongoing on-line support is also needed.

The absence of clear, concise documentation covering basics and frequently asked questions slows network usage in Africa. Many local networks are installed by experienced consultants with little time or motivation to write adequate documentation. The absence of indigenous experts in networking is another fundamental problem in Africa. Most countries face a high turnover of experts in computer support and networking.

There is also general ignorance about the potential of networking and the existence of some African facilities to do so. A survey undertaken on communications needs for agricultural institutions in Ethiopia and the Sudan showed that most institutions do not realize they can communicate via their computers and telephone lines. In Zimbabwe, national telecom experts did not know they could access a high-speed Internet link to South Africa from their own country. Some experts of the national telecom operator in Ethiopia believed the maximum data speed of their local telephone link was 9 600 bps when in fact connections to 28 800 bps were possible. Obviously popularization and demonstration of available facilities are crucial.

Existing servers, most of them inspired and funded by foreigners, show little long-range interest in widening interconnectivity in Africa. Out of 101 nodes operating using different technologies, less than 20 responded to a current survey on connectivity in Africa undertaken by the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) for the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Donor dependency is a major threat to sustainability of information systems in Africa. Many national nodes started with donors' funds covering initial running costs with little effort to generate income from active users. Donor dependency and competition for short-term subsidies undermine sustainability of any effort, including networking.

Marketing strategies and cost recovery measures should be devised from the very beginning. Competition for foreign resources has resulted in several different, competing initiatives in the same country - even in the same institution! There are four networking initiatives in Cameroon and six in Kenya. Meanwhile there are none in Zaire.

In conclusion, it should be said that connectivity should be related to African social, economic and cultural needs. The ability to build self-perpetuating local networks reaching not only the privileged few in cities but also rural researchers is very important. The diversity of Africa requires specific national capacity-building. Regional cooperation is important. Subregional collaboration is also useful to bring resources together and to share links.

* An explanation of this and other telematics terminology is included in the Inyang article, pp. 28-30.

- Lishan Adam is coordinator of the electronic communications projects implemented by PADIS, the Pan African Development Information System, a UN project sponsored by the Canadian government. This includes the Capacity Building for Electronic Communications in Africa (CABECA) project. Project activities are under way in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Cd’Ivoire. He can be contacted at PADIS-CABECA, P.O. Box 3001, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Tel: +251 1 511167; Fax: +251 1 514416;
e-mail: Lishan@padis.gn.apc.org

Wireless connections

by Anamaria Decock

Most of Africa is rural. Much of its population has no access to electricity or telephone services. No magic wires have appeared to connect rural Africans, those most in need of information for development, into the multimedia, multicircuit global brain. One-on-one traditional means of communicating are still the most effective.

Nadimba is 30. She lives with her seven children in southern Malawi near the Mozambique border. Her husband has migrated to find work on one of the plantations of central Malawi. There is no electricity in her village, no safe water, no telephone. She has taught herself to write her name, but she is not comfortable with reading. On the rare occasions when mobile units have stopped in her village, she has watched a film. If she can, she listens to the family radio, but the radio runs on batteries, and batteries cost money so it is the men who choose the programs.

Like most rural Africans, Nadimba lives outside the global information village. There are no satellite dishes, modems and computers in her world. While urban elites cruise the information highways, the poor and the powerless of rural Africa hike along the same dirt road they have always known.

But still they communicate. Even if global high-tech is a world away and electronic media are beyond their means, rural communities transmit their social and cultural heritage through a communication environment that existed long before sophisticated modern information technologies. African villages have held on to a wealth of indigenous knowledge firmly embedded in the traditional mores and talents of generations past.

Villagers generate and regenerate culture by weaving it into proverbs, rhythms and drum beats. When the crops are in and the pace of life slows, there is time for cults and rites, for ancestor worship and rituals and for fun. Griots, storytellers and troubadours call on the villages. Puppeteers, theatre groups and women dancers perform. Drums pound through the long night. And in doing so they ensure the continuity of their culture.

But can these indigenous means of communication provide Nadimba and so many others in the rural villages of Africa with information that will help them to better meet their basic needs, feed their children, keep their families healthy, control their reproductive health and administer family resources? Can they show Nadimba and other women how to win status and transform their lives from within their own culture? How do traditional communications networks - from mid-wives, healers and chiefs to markets, festivals and ceremonies - fit in with the more orthodox approaches to development communications? Are they the route to grassroots participation, self-reliance and the use of local resources?

For a growing number of communication professionals, the answer is yes.

The so-called folk media first began attracting attention as alternatives or complements to mass media in the 1970s. They have been idolized by populist movements obsessed with a return to roots and demonized by planners and urbanized administrators whose attitudes were shaped by colonial or metropolitan-inspired education. They have been used in family planning campaigns, health care and environment programs, politics and adult education. Communication teams all over the world have tried, with various degrees of sophistication, to tap traditional resources in order to convince farmers of better ways to grow crops, persuade mothers to prepare better-quality food for their children, influence traditional attitudes about family size and change destructive lifestyles.

Experts in modern communications learned from the practitioners of folk media. By the mid- 1980s, communication scholars had sharpened their knowledge of traditional media resources. Use of such media to support development programs became more scientific and systematic. Indigenous communication resources can now be adapted to a wide range of development purposes - with full respect for cultural sensitivities and appropriate rituals and in full knowledge of the taboos associated with specific forms of cultural expression, traditional performance and entertainment.

An up-to-date message can be highly effective when transmitted by traditional methods. When a woman performer sings of a wife telling her absent husband, “Let's think it over!” and “We still love you back home,” the migrants' camps on the tea estates are silent, the men choke back tears - and two weeks later a regular bus service home is organized. When teenaged singers ask their peers, “Do we eat green corn? Don't we wait for it to ripen before we eat it?” audiences gasp. They get the point. A traditional boys' skiffle band sings to fathers who have become remote, “Even if it is hard, we still love you,” and the fathers become more willing to discuss their responsibilities. Comedians bring home the idea of “the mountain is a fish” to audiences that find it hilarious and engage in lively discussion about population growth and ecological imbalances. Puppets acting out irresponsible behavior in conjugal partnerships make men feel uncomfortable but, strangely enough, the men talk to each other about their feelings and later are more disposed to listen to their wives and partners.

Because traditional media have their roots in local culture, no one is left indifferent to their messages. They are a familiar part of the villagers' world and use a language understood by all down to the last proverb, analogy and symbol. They make unfamiliar concepts understandable, and they overcome the barriers of illiteracy.

Modern media, often considered by rural populations as alien, elitist and beyond their comprehension, generally lack credibility and therefore cannot reshape cultural traditions. But traditional resources based on indigenous knowledge systems are dynamic and can encompass new experiences. This makes it possible for dancers, puppeteers and storytellers to challenge deeply ingrained culture and traditions, such as the delicate issue of female circumcision.

People cannot work together if they do not plan together, and they cannot plan together if they do not share the same knowledge. Information can be disseminated, knowledge cannot. This is at the heart of any participatory process. Folk media contain that common knowledge and involve everyone because such media are everyone's heritage.

When traditional media are included in overall multi-media communication programs, the agenda is drawn up by the community, not the planning offices. The process starts with qualitative research into the general concerns, needs and constraints of the local people, their attitudes, behavior and cultural beliefs and their thoughts and feelings on the particular problem.

Then the research findings are sent back not only to the community but to its artists. They are powerful village communicators, who know how to use their talents to sustain a development effort, but if they are to give life to abstract concepts, they need to see the whole picture.

But all of this may change as satellite dishes and the Western lifestyles they project reach rural areas, putting the very existence of indigenous resources to the test.

Development is about people, not wires. Human development requires interaction, discussion, dialogue. At the village level, traditional performers are still potent educators. But for how long? Will the great potential of the new forms of communication harmoniously marry the tools and symbols of traditional communication channels or will it bury them?

- Anamaria Decoq is a senior population communication specialist in the Communication for Development Service of the FAO Department for Sustainable Development.

Page One for Progress

The question is often asked: Which comes first, democracy or development? Active, responsible, daring journalists play a key role in promoting both democracy and development. But rural issues are often unreported in Southern countries where editors lack funds and the interest to send their city-based journalists out to the villages. Two NGOs, the U.K. - based Panos Institute and France's SYFIA new service, play key roles in helping Southern media to project the small rural voice so it is heard at the highest level. Their work is often published in Ceres.

Panos: Giving the villagers voice

Only the media can reach and represent the non-literate, the remote and the powerless. But to do so the media must be independent, rigorous, investigative and able to report the views of people like farmers, women and grassroots organizations.

For 10 years Panos has worked with the Southern media and NGOs to provide information and stimulate debate on under-reported and complex issues. The media need access to reliable and diverse sources. They should not be forced to rely on the local ministry of information or Western news agencies. If the debate is going to be informed and have an impact on development, the poorest woman in the village and the minister with his satellite television must both be involved.

One example from Panos' files: After the 1987 and 1989 floods in Bangladesh, the international donor community drew up a multi-million-dollar plan to “save” the country - the Flood Action Plan (FAP). Largely missing from the debate were the views of the farmers, fishermen, women and the landless poor. To ensure that local people had a say in the controversial scheme, Panos and the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies commissioned a team of 14 local journalists to investigate the proposals from the grassroots.

For Masud Hasan Khan of the big city newspaper The Daily Star it was a rare opportunity to travel to remote villages to interview local people. The journalist found that some of those at the receiving end of the floods had their own coping strategies for the less severe flooding and were concerned the FAP would threaten their livelihoods.

In order to articulate the concerns of these resilient communities, the journalist's articles were published in their newspapers and as a book Rivers of Life: Bangladeshi journalists take a critical look at the Flood Action Plan. Four articles went out through the Panos international monthly features service, oral testimony and radio projects.

Similarly, to explain and promote discussion of biodiversity, a series of Panos workshops are planned in conjunction with Kenya's Environmental Liaison Centre. Fellowships will also be awarded so that journalists have the time and resources to follow up stories at a local and national level. Panos media briefings will reach 1 000 Southern journalists and a radio program with supporting materials will be sent to over 50 Southern stations.

State control of the media is pervasive in many countries, stifling independent expression and preventing the development of investigative skills. Panos believes that pluralism - particularly in the media - is a prerequisite for sustainable development. A real revolution in information pluralism will only come when individual governments are committed to freeing the media from state monopoly or interference.

Panos is currently working with the Centre for Development Information in Zambia, on a series of seminars involving the government, broadcasters and NGOs. Together they will examine a regulatory framework for broadcasting and a way of including the views of those too often excluded from development debates.

- For further information, contact: Juliet Heller, international media coordinator, Panos Institute, 9 White Lion St., London N1 9PD, U.K.
Tel: +(+44) 171 278 1111; Fax: +(+44) 171 278 0345;
e-mail: panoslondon@gn.apc.org,
URL http://www.oneworld.org/panos

SYFIA, the press agency for rural Africa

Since 1988 the press agency SYFIA, based in Montpellier, southern France, has been collaborating with some 40 journalists in French-speaking Africa to circulate articles on rural Africa in the African and European press. This original initiative has the support of the French Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation (ACCT).

Every two weeks, more than 200 newspapers in French-speaking Africa receive articles from SYFIA by mail. They may publish them free of charge provided they quote the source. Abdoulaye Sangare, editor of Le jour, a weekly publication in Cd'Ivoire, says he reprints SYFIA articles and keeps all of them, including those not reprinted, in the paper's files, as a useful reference for his staff. Ceres also publishes SYFIA articles on a regular basis.

Like all press agencies, SYFIA's 40 local correspondents collect news on the spot in Africa. All the articles sent in are filed in the Montpellier headquarters in southern France for distribution to the newspapers.

SYFIA was created in 1988 by Periscoop-Multimedia1 following the French-language summit of heads of state and government in Quebec (which since then has given financial support). It is no ordinary press agency.

Every month, SYFIA publishes some 20 articles sent in by SYFIA correspondents in French-speaking Africa and in the Maghreb as well as articles from the agency's bureau in France. They generally deal with problems of rural Africa not given wide coverage by the media, including life and work in the fields, agricultural production, farmer organizations, environment, agricultural research, rural economics and international trade. By giving priority to field reports, SYFIA proposes a far different vision of rural Africa from the cliches of Afro-pessimists. News items are grouped under broad headings: news, economics, living, environment, farming and animal husbandry.

African newspapers which reprint SYFIA articles are asked to send to Montpellier a copy of each reprint. In 1994, more than 900 reprints of the 250 articles prepared by SYFIA were recorded. It is estimated the real number of reprints is 25 per cent higher; many newspapers are unable to send copies back to France. Through those newspapers it is estimated SYFIA reaches more than 30 000 readers in Africa, as well as nearly 20 000 Europeans who read SYFIA's articles in French, Swiss, Belgian and Canadian newspapers.

To extend its audience, SYFIA plans to set up a radio agency in 1996, following the same principles as the press agency, to distribute a monthly review to French-speaking African and European radio stations.

One of SYFIA's major tasks is to inform and train its African correspondents in agricultural journalism. This is on-the-job training, not theory, that takes the form of ongoing correction of and advice on the articles submitted, and is completed through direct contact between the journalists in the field and those in the agency's head office who frequently visit Africa. There are also training courses for correspondents in Montpellier. The main objective is to train African SYFIA journalists to take on increasing responsibilities in the agency's operation. This policy led to the opening of the agency's first regional office, in Cotonou, Benin, in August 1994. A second is scheduled to open in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in early 1996. Others will follow and eventually cover the rest of French-speaking Africa. The decentralization and Africanization of SYFIA is now becoming a reality.

- For further information, contact: SYFIA/Periscoop, Agropolis International, 34394 Montpellier Cedex 5, France. Tel: (33) 67 04 75 85

1 Periscoop's activities include the production of radio programs for rural African radio stations, the Spore review and the television magazine "Intertropiques," broadcast monthly on the satellite channel Canal France International (CFI).

Liberalism runs out of steam

Le nouveau drdre nomique mondial: Aux racines des ecs de dloppement, by Georges Corm, Editions La Duverte, 9 bis, rue Abel-Hovelacque, 75013 Paris, France, 1993, ISBN 27071-2197-5 (Pbk), 168 pp., FF 98.

The Lebanese economist Georges Corm has provided a clear, incisive analysis of the serious economic and financial problems affecting the world today. He believes that neo-liberal doctrine is responsible for all the ills of the “millions of human beings whose fate rests almost entirely on the development aid dispensed by national bureaucracies of the major capitalist countries.”

Corm acknowledges the success of Southeast Asia shows that “the Westernization of the Third World” is not a total disaster. But, he says, liberalism has run out of steam. Drug trafficking, ever higher pollution levels and the brain drain to the North have arisen not only because of the state of dysfunction of the world economy but, more to the point, because the classic mechanisms of international commerce no longer work.

The author contends that development has failed because the discipline of political economics has failed. “In the course of this long century, it has only produced abstract, contradictory and conflicting theoretical models, characterized by a very high degree of abstraction of a philosophical mystical nature...often based on a Promethean vision of man.”

Economics has less and less to do with people and policies and more and more to do with specializations such as marketing, management, planning, Third World development, finance, currency, etc. It has become ever more mathematical and, in the absence of any political reference, has continued to evade reality. Poverty, however, is only too real.

What has happened to the questioning, critical spirit of the Enlightenment, the author asks. No doubt the gap has been filled by a “programmed mythology” of modernity and ultra-liberalism created by press and publishing moguls. And since the world seems to be back in the dark, it is almost impossible to see the connection between the way the “feudal giants” run the world economy and the rise in fundamentalism, nationalistic tendencies, wars and conflicts that are less ethnic and less religious than they appear to be.

Analysing fiscal and financial systems, Corm finds them too complex and inappropriate for the recent economic transformations, which are based on an egalitarian ideology. The negative effects of this ideology have given rise to a massive outflow of capital, public deficits and accumulations of hidden income.

Corm cites the illogical choices of Third World decision-makers, who have ordered “turnkey factories” and finished products. This way offers neither assimilation nor the real technology transfer needed to meet the challenge of a new world order. And this is what has maintained the illusion of industrialization and consumption to the detriment of agriculture and led to intellectual sluggishness, technological impotence, an accumulation of hidden fortunes, an extension of misery and colossal debts.

The response of the worried banking world was to advise developing countries to undertake structural adjustment. “But the bulimic habits of these states means that these mechanisms cannot be established without compromising the social equilibrium that has already been weakened by the crisis and the legitimacy of the powers themselves.”

Corm concludes with a plea for a return to real political economics founded on the laws of economics. “Entire sections of the economy slip through the net and are no longer bound by the principle of equal opportunity, the economy of unearned income undermines contemporary capitalism,” Corm says. “This has occurred as a result of certain kinds of state intervention in the economy, which has also led to a reduced sense of responsibility among executives of the big industrial and banking concerns. The feudalization of economic channels seriously affects the economy's efficiency.”

But, he says, clear, transparent economic rules applicable to everyone cannot be established without rethinking the state - and that is a political question.

- John MacWin.

Local models work best

Survival in the Sahel: An ecological and developmental challenge,

edited by Klaus M. Leisnger and Karin Schmitt, International Service for National Agricultural Research, P.O. Box 93375, 2509 AJ The Hague, the Netherlands, 1995, 211pp., ISBN-92-9118 -020-3 (Pbk), free to individuals and institutions in developing countries, US$10 in developed countries. A french translation will be available shortly.

If many little people, in many little places, can do many little deeds, they can change the face of the earth.

Survival in the Sahel gives weight to this age-old African saying. An expanded and updated version of a German-language study published in 1992, the book is an intelligent and comprehensive study of a region struggling to survive drought, famine, civil wars and poverty.

Since the late 1960s, droughts alone have claimed millions of lives in Burkina Faso, Chad, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger and Senegal. Despite efforts to improve food production and the standard of living and create jobs, the obstacles seem overwhelming. But, according to the findings of the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR), this is not the whole picture.

ISNAR, established in 1979 in The Hague by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to help developing countries improve their national research systems and organizations, agrees that the countries of the Sahel must attack a multitude of problems, including the political inertia of their governments.

But it argues that the solutions are available, not in mounting grandiose projects but in taking small steps in the right direction - working at the local level and combining modern methods with traditional knowledge. Like many, another development organization, ISNAR, has come to realize that when efforts fail it is often because they focus on what donor organizations and countries can do rather than what recipients can absorb.

A major effort to fight the effects of drought in the region is a case in point. The Sahelian countries joined forces in 1973 to form the Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). In 1977, CILSS adopted a common development strategy giving priority to increasing the production of commercial crops such as cotton and groundnuts in humid areas.

By 1992, the Sahel had received more than US$2.6 billion in external aid. But the results were disappointing, largely because most donor countries only supported projects for developing irrigated farming, which accounts for only 5 per cent of all agriculture in the Sahel. “Promoting rain-fed agriculture, which is more typical of the region and produces 95 per cent of all its cereals, would have been more effective and efficient,” the book says. The mistake was trying to import a development model that worked in other countries.

By contrast, NGO development projects that were simple, inexpensive and carried out by local land users are not only successful but ecologically sustainable. From this, the study concludes that decentralization and broad participation of the local population are required in all efforts to make rural and agricultural development a reality. Moreover, women's role in these efforts must be expanded and conditions have to be created in which women can become an integral part of the development process.

ISNAR's findings indicate that African governments do not demonstrate much faith in research as an instrument of progress. In Africa, research still remains heavily dependent on donor support, which is limited by the West's short-term loans.

But local research can produce impressive results. The study offers the example of the Cinzana Agricultural Research Station in Mali, one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the Sahel. The station was established in 1979 as a joint project of the government of Mali, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics with support from the CIBA-GEIGY Foundation for Cooperation with Developing Countries.

Its prime target was to promote domestic food production by increasing pearl millet yields. “Research had to be aimed at enabling small farmers, who are the main pearl millet producers throughout the Sahel, to have access to improved seed varieties and better cultivation techniques without having to obtain any additional, expensive inputs,” the study says. “All evaluations of the station indicate that this aim has been achieved.” And the station is now an integral part of Mali's government-controlled national research program.

This shows how an initiative can slowly but surely yield results when it operates under the motto “small is beautiful” and motivates the target population with a feeling of responsibility for their project.

Ancient tradition continues today

Comprendre d'agriculture paysanne dans les Andes centrales, Pu-Bolivie, edited by Pierre Morlon, INRA Editions, Route de St. Cyr, 78026 Versailles Cedex, Paris, France, 1992, 522 pp., ISBN 2-7380 0412-1 (Pbk), FF 250.

The agriculture of the central Andes epitomizes sustainability. Centuries before the term came into use, Andean farmers had perfected a land-use system which, despite difficult climatic and geographic conditions, has provided food security in a region that has been continuously and densely populated for thousands of years.

This study attempts to understand and explain how today's peasant farmers carry on the traditions of their ancestors. And it does this not through preconceived ideas, which are often erroneous, but through detailed observation of the farmers' techniques and tools. It explores in depth their complex strategies for organizing and using their productive resources.

The book is the result of multidisciplinary and multinational collaboration, coordinated by the agronomist Pierre Morlon. This in itself should be a consolation to those who believe it is wrong to separate the various scientific disciplines from one another, particularly the social sciences and economics, and lament the lack of communication among national and international researchers.

Morlon takes a rigorous, scientific approach to his subject. He shuns easy generalizations, simplistic economic views and the paternalism that can slant scientists' views of indigenous culture and technology.

But he has not produced a book valid only for the academic world. The study can serve as a tool for strategists, decision-makers and experts in agricultural development policy because it contains an abundance of methods, parameters and points of view, which reveal the elements at play in the sustainable exploitation of natural resources, particularly in extremely difficult climatic conditions.

The book points out that although the age-old Andean farming system would be classified as precapitalistic, it continued to support vast numbers of people through political, economic and agrarian upheavals. It survived the drastic changes in land distribution and use that occurred during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, as it did again when Peru and Bolivia joined the international market in the 19th century. The historical context as well as the intrinsic characteristics of the Andes system provide a wealth of solutions - and a challenge for development strategists and intellectuals in those countries.

Presenting detailed information on the Andean infrastructure and production system, the study chooses variables that are more complex than the simple cost-benefit mechanism. These include the role of Andean agriculture in terms of demographics. The purpose is to encourage action to reinforce those elements that make the system sustainable and efficient and establish flexible strategies that are complementary to and compatible with development plans.

Another important feature of the study is that it is not based on a rigid ideological position. Because of this, it can confirm the strategic rationality and validity of practicing biodiversity, complementarily and heterogeneity in agriculture. It endorses variety within species and crop variety, variety in tilling techniques and different ways of extending the harvesting period over the productive cycle in order to reduce risk.

The study does not go so far as to present the Andes farming system as a universal paradigm of sustainability. But, by showing how and why the system works, it helps the reader to discern the universal elements of sustainability which other communities in different geographic regions of the world can practise despite growing processes of homogenization ant globalization.

- Patricia Baeza-L is a Guatemalan journalist based in Rome.