|CERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)|
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.
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.
by Bernard Woods
Currently only 2 per cent of the world population has access to computers and the Internet. The worlds 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 Banks 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 authors paper prepared for the UNs 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.
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.
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 didnt 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 CdIvoire. He can be
contacted at PADIS-CABECA, P.O. Box 3001, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Tel: +251 1 511167; Fax: +251 1 514416;
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.
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,
Tel: +(+44) 171 278 1111; Fax: +(+44) 171 278 0345;
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).