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Human resources development in agricultural information services

CTA's experience with PROGEFIA

by M.-J. JEHL

Training in order to strengthen human and institutional capacities has become a very important part of development activities in the Third World. With the changing of the working environment and the rapid evolution of technologies, even educated people need further opportunities to build up their skills. Even the most brilliant scientist or information specialist is no exception and needs to improve and update the necessary knowledge and master the new techniques required to be efficient.

Unless information is used effectively and information units are properly organised, the development of the rural sector in the less developed countries, especially in the ACP states, cannot be sustained.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), which was set up under the Lomé Convention, contributes to agricultural and rural development by providing the ACP countries with better access to scientific and technical information on agricultural research and rural development Its mandate lays stress on the integration of information into development strategies in ACP states.

The Centre's aim is to develop the ACP's own capacity to produce, acquire and transfer agricultural, scientific and technical information. To achieve this, it relies on a regional and national information network which is steadily being established. The development of such a network requires a greater investment in the training of agricultural information specialists.

It has been noted that the major constraints in developing information and documentation infrastructures in ACP countries are the lack of qualified human resources and the high level of staff turnover. Many agricultural information professionals have difficulties in applying their professional knowledge to their work situation as their educational background does not match the requirements. In addition, their institutions are not sufficiently geared to furthering staff development in information services.

To overcome these constraints, the Centre has set up various training courses to meet the immediate needs of agricultural information officers so that they are better equipped to handle users' requests and to organise and manage documentation centres.

First, several workshops on 'Agricultural Information Sources' were held for French-speaking African countries, in Senegal (1986), for English-speaking African countries, in Malawi (1987) and, for the Caribbean region, in Trinidad and Tobago (1988). These courses were designed to develop the participants' capacity to manage the various aspects of documentation (research, collection, processing and dissemination) and to give them a better understanding of their role as purveyors of information.

After 1988, following the recommendations of Harry East's (FID) evaluation of CTA courses, the Centre embarked on a series of courses on 'Management of Agricultural Information Services'. These were held in Zambia (1989), Jamaica (1990) and Cameroon (1991). The main aim of these courses was to develop the participants' management techniques as well as their ability to justify and implement a programme for the development of users' services or of necessary organisational changes.

Like many other institutions, CTA considers that there is a need to restructure training opportunities so as to meet the demands for training from ACP countries, avoid redundancies and use the available resources in a rational way.

A meeting on international cooperation in the training of agricultural librarians and documentalists, held in Rome in June 1988 at the invitation of CTA, recommended the drawing up of a general programme for education in agricultural information which could serve as a platform for a collective effort aimed at overcoming these obstacles.

 

PROGEFIA

In 1989, in accordance with this recommendation, CTA carried out a study of a training programme entitled the 'General Programme for Training in Agricultural Information'(PROGEFIA). This proposes a long-term master plan for education in agricultural information in the developing countries and especially in the ACP states.

The provision of specialised education for the various categories of personnel who contribute to agricultural information activities in these countries is limited and there are many obstacles to its efficiency.

The main sets of information functions are identified for the various categories of staff in three major groups: information producers/users, computer specialists and information specialists. Fourteen general education modules, whose objectives, levels and contents are outlined, have been defined. Five are about management of information services and resources, six are about organisation, processing and utilisation of information, and three are about computer applications, including a module for instructor training.

Five modules, including the one for instructor training, and a number of specific sub-modules, have been given priority as they are considered to meet the most pressing needs of the national agricultural information systems.

Most of the training is directly relevant to the routine activities of information officers. Admission should be linked to agreements between the participants, the organisations to which they belong and the organisations offering the education, with a view to ensuring that staff turnover is low and that the minimum conditions required for putting the acquired skills into practice are created by carrying out previously specified operations in the framework of developing agricultural information systems.

The implementation of PROGEFIA will require annual consultation between educational institutions specialising in agricultural information and centres for practical training which are willing to cooperate in order to develop their activities on the lines laid down by PROGEFIA. The action plan for the next five years covers the following areas:

- priority for short, specialised courses in information processing, microcomputing and management of information services and products;

- surveys of information needs: all relevant institutions must define their information needs and examine ways of participating in the plan at national and regional levels;

- production of teaching materials and directories to support training in agricultural information;

- instructor training;

- regular consultation, on an annual basis, with the major contributors such as EIB/ACCT (Ecole Internationale de Bordeaux), CAB International, CIRAD (Centre de coopération international en recherche agronomique pour le développement), the University of Botswana, EBAD (Ecole des bibliothécaires, archivistes et documentalistes, Senegal) and IDRC (International Development Research Centre), to discuss and consider methods of interaction and cooperation.

 

CTA's activities within PROGEFIA

Since the consultation in Gabon, CTA has held several short training courses, produced a directory, undertaken regional needs assessments and assisted in the development of academic programmes in agricultural information.

Short-term training courses

Micro-computing: In view of the rapid development of new technologies in information, training in the use of microcomputers in the management of agricultural information is clearly a priority. The objectives of such courses are to make participants conversant with the process and methods of building information resources, to develop their skills in creating and maintaining information storage and retrieval systems relevant to their users, and to improve their skills in developing and managing relevant information products and services. The courses, held between 1990 and 1993, were divided into two modules of four weeks each. Between the modules, the participants had one year to apply their knowledge to their jobs and to link it with practical experience - which is crucial to any approach to database management - before attending the advanced module the following year.


Table 1: Courses organised by CTA within PROGEFIA

Management and marketing of information: A number of courses in this area are planned for this year. The main aim of the training is to improve the ability of information officers to arrange and manage their centres for maximum efficiency and cost effectiveness. It includes courses in information product management, assessment of users' needs and information marketing techniques.

Processing of agricultural documentation and information: Training sessions on basic information processing and handling of documents are offered on a regular basis to documentation units whose staff have no professional qualifications or technical skills.

In the Pacific region, the long distances between countries make it more appropriate for the requisite training courses to be conducted on a national rather than a regional level. Each year, CTA supports a few short workshops organised by IRETA (the Institute for Research, Extension and Training in Agriculture, which operates in the Pacific region).

All the courses described above are oriented towards the trainees' needs. The courses are tailored to fit the trainees' specific work situation and environment, as most agricultural information professionals expect solutions to their immediate, everyday problems. Emphasis is placed on practical, problem-solving approaches rather than theory. Participants will be able to apply their newly-acquired knowledge on their jobs. The training provides short-term payoffs by increasing the performance of the workers at all levels.

Directories and teaching materials

CTA has produced a directory of Information Resources in the Training of Agricultural Information', in collaboration with the IDS (Institute of Development Studies) in the United Kingdom. The aim of the directory is to document existing resources to facilitate the identification of future trainers.

Publications on the creation and management of an agricultural information library have been published jointly with SATIS (Socially Appropriate Technology Information System) in the Netherlands and IRETA in the Pacific. These are available to agricultural information specialists.

Assessments of users' needs

Over the last three years, CTA has carried out various regional studies on information needs in the agricultural sectors in Central, Western and Eastern Africa. Training ranks high among the priority requirements identified through these studies. Two other studies were already available for Southern Africa and the Caribbean. The results of these studies are complemented by recommendations from participants at previous CTA courses, and by interviews and group discussions with information personnel during regional or international meetings.

Development of academic programmes

With CTA's support, the University of Botswana undertook a preparatory study for setting up a programme leading to a certificate in agricultural information. The needs were assessed and a proposal prepared for the Board of the University. The first such course is being offered this year.

Annual consultation

Since 1990, two consultations have taken place at CTA with PROGEFIA partners. The next one will be held in November 1994 and the central theme will be the training of trainers.

Instructor training

In future, the Centre will be directing its energy to the training of potential instructors. It is hoped that these instructors will then take on the task of analysing the training needs in their countries or regions, translating these needs into training programmes and developing their knowledge in order to organise, manage and evaluate such programmes.

In 1992, a consultation on instructor training was held in Dakar, Senegal. This brought together 36 specialists in training and agricultural information to discuss a plan of action, formulate specific objectives, identify curricula and adopt teaching methods as well as to identify the resources needed (professional expertise, institutions, equipment etc.) and suggest evaluation techniques and follow-up activities.

A second meeting will be held at EIB, France, at the end of April 1994, to translate the recommendations of the Senegal consultation into a coherent training programme, including tuition and production of training material for the following two years.

 

Conclusions

Over the past seven years, CTA has managed to train more than 250 agricultural information officers on the various regional courses mentioned above. Yet this is a drop in the ocean considering the real demand. The Centre is increasingly feeling the need to scale up its efforts in training by building up national capacity to take over some of the training at a local level.

This new move will create conditions in which the impact of training can quickly be increased. New seeds of knowledge will be sown that will be able to take root, grow and reproduce themselves It is up to each of the newly trained instructors to make this newly planted capital of knowledge fruitful in his or her own country. The long-term consequence is that a wider audience will be reached on a sustainable basis as the knowledge will trickle down and spread on a national level.

M.-J.J.