Don Richardson argues that rural organizations involved in agricultural extension in ACP countries can no longer remain silent about their national telecommunications policies.
Numerous critiques of training & visit (T&V) and other technology transfer approaches have led to a chorus of calls for ‘demand-driven extension’. At the same time, there is growing recognition that the needs of farmers and rural community members for information and appropriate learning methods are not being met. Demand-driven extension involves a shift from public sector service delivery to a negotiated system in which farmers and rural community members determine their own needs and have some control over the extension services delivered by public, private, NGO or farmers’ organizations.
The calls for demand-driven extension have opened the door for an examination of how ICTs can be cost-effective and practical tools for facilitating and channelling farmers’ demands, and for addressing how those demands can be met. However, forget, for a moment, about fancy ICT applications and wonderful new telecommunications technologies that might benefit agricultural extension. Those are the fruits of universal access, and they are grown and enjoyed most by people who have access to telecommunications networks. To grow and enjoy those fruits, people in rural communities – and the organizations that serve them – must first have the fertile soil in which creative applications and innovative ways to use the technologies can flourish. In other words, there must be a telecommunications environment that supports access to national and international telecommunications networks in rural areas.
Creating that fertile soil is the major task ahead. Advocates of improved agricultural extension delivery must rise to the challenges of understanding and learning about the issues involved in telecom reforms, and advocating universal access policies. Only when access to telecommunications networks is a reality will rural stakeholders be able to use their creative energies and entrepreneurial spirit to identify potentially beneficial and sustainable ICT applications and practical ways to employ them.
Rural organizations involved in agricultural extension need to become proactively involved in shaping and monitoring national telecommunications policy. For many of these organizations, however, advocacy for telecommunications policy reform is certainly unknown territory. Is asking them to become involved in this policy area an impossible challenge? I don’t think so. Take the following examples:
• In El Salvador the think tank-cum-advocacy group Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) helped to push new concepts for telecom reform that went beyond the conventional approaches adopted elsewhere in Latin America. Their efforts resulted in significantly increased rural telecom penetration.
• In Guatemala, the Center for National Economic Research and the Guatemalan Entrepreneurial Chamber provided targeted support to the effort to translate the concept of universal access into appropriate legislation. Again, as a result, access to the telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas increased substantially.
• In Trinidad and Tobago, women were virtually excluded from the telecommunications decision-making process. The Network of Trinidad and Tobago NGOs for the Advancement of Women therefore launched national consultations related to universal access and women in the ICT sector. They successfully introduced the concept of ‘sustainable human development values’ as a central element in the debate with respect to the Telecommunications Bill 2000. The participants later formed their own network that continues to work as an advocacy group for rural telecommunications.
In general, rural and agricultural organizations are absent from national policy dialogues that help create and/or shape access to telecommunications networks in rural areas. The three examples above – and there are likely to be many more in other developing countries – demonstrate that rural organizations can indeed effectively influence national telecommunications policies. Their efforts can have a remarkable impact on rural access to telecommunications infrastructures and on the sustainable use of ICT applications that support agricultural development. Organizations need to make only modest investments to achieve this. In the case of the advocacy activities in Central America and the Caribbean, the costs ranged from US$10,000 to US$20,000.
The potential role of key ICT applications like the telephone and the Internet in agricultural extension will be severely limited as long as rural areas of developing countries are without access to the basic telecommunications services. This is because any resulting programmes and projects will be totally dependent on access to these services. Telecommunications policy therefore emerges as a primary enabler of or obstacle to demand-driven extension. Rural organizations involved in agricultural extension can no longer remain silent about their national telecommunications policies.