People at the centre of technology

Roxanna Samii

In the mid-1960s, land reform in my country gave the land back to the farmers. This marked the end of feudalism, and although you might expect the farmers to have broken all ties with their former landlords, they did not. On the contrary, the farmers maintained a cordial relationship with the former landowners and continued to seek their views. At the time, most of the farmers were illiterate and had little or no access to education, credit or healthcare. But one thing they did have was a small radio.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is when the lead farmer, Moktar, and other farmers paid a visit to my father, their former landlord. They had travelled for eight hours to come to the capital and wanted to talk with Dad about additional reforms they had heard about on the radio, but did not fully understand the implications.

Dad explained, in the local dialect, what these additional reforms meant, how the farmers could benefit from them and what they had to watch out for. He suggested that they share this information with everyone in the village and that they form a village council to discuss the issues and take decisions. He also told them to ask the local authority for additional information if they needed it, and to demand that the information be disseminated in such a way that it would be easily understood by the villagers.

When the group left they were full of optimism. Moktar's parting words to my father were: ‘Sir, I hope one day my children will be able to think and reason like you.’

Some decades later, I went to my father's birthplace and met Moktar's two sons. Unlike Moktar, they were educated. Both were successful rural entrepreneurs and members of the village and city councils. During the visit, their mobile phones kept ringing, and in each conversation they provided guidance and assistance to the caller in the local dialect. As I was listening to them, I remembered Moktar's parting words to my father all those years ago and thought, wow, Moktar had realized his dream!

Conditions

While a lot of things have changed over the last four decades, others have remained the same. Local context: my father had used the local dialect to explain the proposed reform, as did Moktar's sons. The use of ICTs: Moktar found out about the additional reforms via radio, which ultimately led to improvements in his livelihood. His sons disseminated their knowledge via mobile phones and their livelihoods also depended on those phones. The role of mentors: Dad’s former tenants regarded him as a guide or mentor, just as Moktar's sons are for their constituents.

What has changed is that information is now more readily available. Moktar's sons do not need to travel for an entire day; everyone is just a phone call away. And people are better informed these days about issues and rights, and proactively participate in decision making. Today’s ICTs are interactive, have a global reach and are becoming increasingly accessible as prices fall.

I have to admit that I was initially sceptical about how ICTs could address the needs of poor rural people. Recently though, I've become convinced that they can play an important role in improving livelihoods, but only under the following conditions:

  • Ownership and appropriation: communities must be involved from the outset so that they can own the entire process and take part in forming policies.
  • Development of local content: relevant information must be provided in the local language, and farmers encouraged to develop their own demand-driven content that will increase their bargaining and purchasing power.
  • Language and cultural identity: language is not only a vehicle that communities use to communicate, but is also the essence of their identity.
  • Appropriate technology: efforts should be made to assess what the farmers require and to provide them with what they really need. If a mobile phone is what they need then give them that, and not an expensive computer.

Those of us working for agricultural development, need to adopt an approach to using ICTs that focuses on people, understands the local reality and context, and listens to the needs of rural communities. In this way, communication technologies can help to reduce poverty, especially if farmers and rural communities participate in decision-making processes. Communities also need to be kept informed so that they can make their own decisions on how to improve their livelihoods. By using ICTs – whether old (radio) or new (mobile phone) – people and societies can transmit and gather information and create opportunities to discuss issues and give people a voice.

I hope my personal tale has managed to show both the central role of farmers, and also to highlight a few points about the use of ICTs, namely that they are tools for achieving social goals, for improving communication and for providing access to knowledge that can lead to reductions in the costs of agricultural production. Technology also has the potential to enhance opportunities, provide security and can play a vital role in the economic, social and political fabric of all societies.

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Roxanna Samii r.samii@ifad.org is manager of web, knowledge and distribution services at the International Fund for Agricultural Development

15 June 2009

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