|Expanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)|
|Session 2a: Experiences with international cooperation and the developing countries|
|A critical evaluation of experiences and strategies|
"Developing countries" - a term widely used in the literature - comprise over 80 per cent of the nations of the world and include the most populous countries, such as China, India, and Indonesia, and account, therefore, for most of humanity. It has been found convenient to group under one term all these countries in spite of the fact that they are at different stages of development and demonstrate important differences in cultural, political, and social environments and traditions. We should, therefore, be fully conscious of the limitations of such a generalization [10, 14, 21]. As mentioned by Menou , there are much greater differences in the national situation regarding STI between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, for instance, than between Canada and Switzerland.
The published literature reporting on the situation of STI in developing countries tends to describe lacunae but seldom suggests solutions. It is generally observed that developing countries wishing to cooperate in international programmes and systems encounter many obstacles and present many interlinked problems in need of solutions [4, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 37]. These obstacles and problems constitute an impressive list that is well known to the organizations involved in international cooperation. They include inter alia language difficulties; the high cost of acquiring new technologies as well as primary literature and of linking to international systems; the emphasis on the supply of information rather than demand; legal and administrative barriers; low salaries, lack of trained personnel, and the brain-drain problem; minor relevance of available information to local problems; frequent personnel changes that occur with every government change; and the lack of adequate government support. According to Saracevic , "many reports perceive that if there is any one factor to be isolated as the greatest internal and external obstacle to the beneficial use of STI in development, it is the low level or even lack of recognition of its potential role and value, particularly among decision makers and officials of high ranks in the Less Developed Countries." Most reporters concur, although it is remarked that in recent years the third world has to some extent recognized the importance of information since it has used this as an issue in NorthSouth negotiations .
One of the serious problems in many developing countries is a lack of coordination among the information systems and services operating at the national level. Many so-called "focal points" are established to cooperate with diverse international information systems or programmes (e.g. focal points for AGRIS, UNEP, INIS, UNISIST, etc.). The situation is particularly dramatic when human and financial resources are scarce, as is too often the case. Better coordination is needed among them, at the country level, and among the supporting programmes at the international level.
To the above obstacles we should add the cultural environment; it is generally agreed that internationally available information products and sources are insufficiently attuned to local cultures and practices. Information technology may be alien to local perceptions and may cause resistance to change. Difficulties of a psychological or an intellectual nature that relate to the presentation of information cannot be neglected. In many cases there is a lack among potential users of a real information-seeking mentality and tradition, which are not conferred by the education system.
Past experience in working with the developing countries in trying to enhance access to information raises a number of questions :
- Should the developing countries be considered as permanent users of information, the bulk of which is produced and made available in the North, while their endogenous production is neglected? If not, then do we know how to harness endogenous information and make it available internationally through existing systems and services?
- Should the developing countries focus on their connection to existing systems and services, internationally available, or invest in creating their own infrastructures?
- If the option selected is the creation and strengthening of national information infrastructures, and considering the limited resources, should priority be given to building a "national memory" for the long term or to providing effective services to the users in the short term?
- Can the information services in the developing countries be sustained and allowed to survive and grow, if information continues to be locally subsidized and handled as a free public good, rather than a commodity?
- Consequently, how could an "information market" be progressively created in a socio-economic environment marked by low income and low resources?
The challenge of international cooperative programmes and systems has been to deal with this set of complex and intricate obstacles and problems and yet produce some tangible results. Will the new information technologies provide new opportunities and new modalities of international cooperation to relieve the developing countries from this burden and improve access to STI?