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    Source: Prof. Royal D. Colle, Department of Communication - Cornell University Prof. LIU Yonggong, Deputy Director - Center for Integrated Rural Development,
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  • Jun 14, 2024

In June 2002 the United Nations General Assembly held a 2-day meeting in New York climaxing a series of major international forums during the past five years focussing on the need to make information and communication technologies (ICTs) available for all nations, especially for development and alleviation of poverty. Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked:


A wide consensus has emerged on the potential of information and communications technologies (ICT) to promote economic growth, combat poverty, and facilitate the integration of developing countries into the global economy. Seizing the opportunities of the digital revolution is one of the most pressing challenges we face.


These meetings have been based on the twin assumptions that quality information made available widely contributes to development, and ICTs expand the reach and impact of that information.


Among the many challenges to turning these assumptions into reality is providing communities with convenient access to ICTs and insuring that the information and communication services are relevant, localized, understandable, and affordable. In many countries the answer has been provided through a variety of public ICT facilities. Among them are tele-centers, cybercafés, and information access points – all of which make the access possible because of the more affordable cost associated with sharing as compared to individual home ownership of ICTs and individual network use fees. 


The modern tele-center movement began in the middle of the 1990s, driven principally by the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW). The significance of the Internet in this development is illustrated by a village chief in Cambodia who was quoted in the International Herald Tribune  (May 14, 2001) as saying: “I don’t really know what the Internet is or how it works, but it is changing our lives.” In his village called Rovieng, several young women have revived the village’s traditional silk-weaving industry by selling scarves through its web site (www.villageleap.com) and investing the profits in a pig farm, which in turn has generated new employment opportunities for the village.


The tele-center movement


Tele-centers are community facilities where people can share the use of computers, the Internet, webs sites, CDs, DVDs and other technologies that give them access to various information and communication resources. Typically, tele-centers offer a broad range of communication services related to the needs of the community and farmers’ households, some of which are free or subsidized by external bodies such as governments or NGOs. These might include: desktop publishing, community newspapers, market information leaflets, production technology bulletins, sales or rental of audio and videocassette and DVDs, book lending, training, photocopying, faxing, and telephone services. Others, like the Hungarian telecottages and the Western Australia Tele-center Network tele-centers, offer other community services such as banking and employment contacts.         


The idea of a community sharing computer technology emerged prominently in the 1980s especially with the introduction of the telecottage in Scandinavia. The initial purpose of those telecottages was to fight against the marginalization of remote places by providing rural people with the new tools of the emerging Information Society. With the sprouting of the Internet in the1990s, a new breed of tele-centers appeared. The "telehouses" in Hungary are an example. Supported initially by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), these telehouses offered computer and Internet access, but especially concentrated on social and economic development. Oddly, the Hungarian program was less an ICT initiative and more an effort to help Hungary revitalize local government after the collapse of the nation’s centralized political and economic structure.  Hungarian telehouses were part of the robust movement that marked the close of the 20th century, with a momentum around the world that has continued into this century.


Cybercafés The commercially-oriented cybercafés that have been found on streets adjoining China’s Tiananmen Square to the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires have been an equally energetic movement. They are usually in the private sector and focus primarily on providing customers with the use of computers and connections to the Internet and the Worldwide Web. Their clients tend to be more urban, more educated, and more economically well off than the clients of tele-centers. 

In comparison, tele-centers tend to be in the public sector and focus on more isolated people (like villagers), and lower income and less educated people. While both cybercafés and tele-centers might offer training in computer and web use, the tele-center is likely to offer other kinds of training in addition, including non-formal education and distance learning in agriculture, health, basic education, entrepreneurship, and other fields particularly related to community development. 


IAP. Information access points fall between the cybercafé and tele-center approach. They have the narrow focus on computers and the Internet, but tend to have a public service mandate. The most dramatic example is Canada’s Community Access Program that established 10,000 access points in rural and urban areas across the country between 1994 and 2001. Computers and network connections were placed in community centers, libraries, schools, and other public places in order to make Canada the most interconnected country in the world. Canada’s success energized other IAP initiatives: the Government of México is poised to establish a network of Centros Comunitarios Digitales as part of its Sistema Nacional e-México; across the world, in India’s State of Tamil Nadu, the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) project has plans to establish kiosks in up to 100 villages in Madurai District as the first phase of an initiative that will see thousands of IAP kiosks flooding villages all over the state.


The viability and success of tele-centers, and to some extent of IAPs, depend on a sustainable system for developing and institutionalizing sources of information that are relevant, credible and trusted by communities. Furthermore, tele-centers represent an innovative and convenient way for people to obtain information, and this can significantly influence the way organizations such as agricultural extension services, health programs, and other government and non-government organizations (NGO) reach their constituents in the 21st century. 


China and ICT


Information and communication technologies have a great potential in China’s development. Tele-centers are just at a take-off point. And one expert claims that the Internet has become the fastest growing means of information transmission in China. 


Growth of ICTs in the country has been remarkable since September 20, 1987, when Professor Qian Tianbai of Hsing Hua University sent China's first e-mail titled "Crossing the Great Wall to Join the World" – marking the beginning of the use of the Internet by Chinese. The Chinese Internet population has seen an extraordinary increase in absolute terms, although its size relative to total population is still quite small. According to the Washington Post newspaper (April 22, 2002), almost 57 million people have home Internet access in China. Internet subscription rates are growing at the rate of 6 per cent a month. 


Furthermore, there are approximately 130,000 web sites registered under the “.cn” domain, including 100,000 (almost 80% of the total web sites) that belong to financial and commercial organizations. In mid-2002, the People’s Daily boasted a www  “visit rate” of 500,000.


However, it is important to note that there is an uneven geographical distribution of Internet access – a “digital divide” that separates Chinese society. Almost 70% of all Internet users in China live in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and in the eastern coastal region. The 13 provinces in western China have less than 1% of the country’s Internet users, and vast parts of the country’s western areas were not connected to the Internet in 2002. This imbalance reflects regional disparity in general economic development and level of education.  The information isolation of the poor social groups is sometimes more serious than the physical constraints they face. During a poverty alleviation planning activity conducted in Qinghai, a western province located in the Qinghai-Tibetan High Plateau, market and technical information has been identified by poor farmers and herders as a high priority development need. 


Some experts predict a scenario whereby China will have 257 million people on line by 2005, representing about 25% Internet penetration. It is a scenario that persons promoting social and behavioral change among the population need to contemplate now.



A Global Picture


The world is seeing a profusion of activity surrounding the assumption that information technologies are important instruments of development. From Mexico and Brazil in Latin America to the governorates in Egypt and the villages of India, a wide range of organizations are promoting and supporting the creation of local entities that would make ICTs available on an affordable basis to everyone. While they have a variety of names and configurations, we refer particularly to the multi-purpose community tele-centers where people share access to a variety of ICT and related services. Vigorous actors in championing and supporting these enterprises are United Nations agencies such as WHO, ITU, FAO, UNDP and UNESCO, bi-lateral donors such as USAID and IDRC, and national governments from Hungary and Malaysia to South Africa. In Latin America many non-governmental organizations are active in ICT initiatives.


Up until early 2002, a substantial amount of the advocacy surrounding ICTs related to building or strengthening the digital readiness of developing nations to help people get connected. For example, the principal response to the “digital divide” situation has been to make available computers, telecommunications links, and Internet Service Providers where these facilities were thinly spread or absent completely. 


However, according to a UNDP document, numerous tele-center evaluations report non-use of  ICT services by the targeted local population due to the lack of understandable and relevant content.  So now we are beginning to see increasing attention to the content and services that ICTs can deliver — digital communication (email), portals for health and development, and services identified as eCommerce, eGovernance, eBanking, eAgriculture, eHealth, eLearning and other eSomethings.


The content issue and the Gateway debate


As we all know, there is much information available through the Internet. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that about two million new web pages are made available each day. But critical questions are being raised about the information these pages provide.

Is the content relevant? Is it accessible? Is it understandable? Is it accurate? Is it biased? Is it affordable? Is it trustworthy? Is it like water in a firehose? 


As it pursued its role as a “knowledge bank", the World Bank took a major step in the content area by creating the Global Development Gateway. This initiative, which is directed by the Development Gateway Foundation, is a public-private partnership created in December 2001 and whose Board of Directors represents civil society and public and private donors. The Gateway is an interactive portal for information on sustainable development and poverty reduction, and its founders expect it to help fill the knowledge and communication needs of government officials and civic society organizations regarding a wide range of development topics. It is expected to promote government quality and efficiency by providing information on best practices, networks for sharing solutions and experiences, and tools for analysis and problem-solving.

Although ICTs and web sites provide an enormous volume and variety of information, it is the quality of information that matters most in community development and poverty alleviation. The quality of information refers to its credibility, validity, trustworthiness, relevance, and usefulness. While a web site called One World (www.oneworld.net) and its recent off-spring Digital Opportunity Channel (www.digitalopportunity.org) focus on sustainable development and providing a platform for organizations and community leaders from developing nations to express themselves, the need for local targeted information continues. A recent multi-nation study by the International Institute for Communication and Development in The Hague suggests that “easier access to globalised knowledge is fast turning us into ‘consumers’ of distant and potentially irrelevant information.” Local content, the report says, faces intense competition because big content initiatives tend to push their external content onto local communities. 


Country Gateways are locally owned and operated versions of the Global Gateway; and the China Development Gateway Union is one of these. In April 2002, the China Development Gateway was awarded an infoDev Country Gateway Implementation Grant of US$100,000.  The China Development Gateway Union, a non-governmental organization, will lead the Gateway's implementation. One of the Union's objectives is to foster eDevelopment within China, focusing on poverty reduction. However, a recent analysis of  the China Gateway indicates that the content  (in Summer 2002) was largely aimed at international organizations and that the Gateway had no obvious development-oriented partners on its team. This suggests the need in the country for a significant effort devoted to generating content relevant to farmers, rural people and others with information needs associated with their economic and social welfare. 


Agricultural universities and the development of local content


To increase the amount of local community development information available through gateways and tele-centers, there needs to be local institutions that have the capability of assessing people’s information needs and mobilizing the resources to make it available. Agricultural universities are in a particularly good position to play this important role because of their scientific foundation and their proximity to the people and the land. China has developed systematic higher agricultural education institutions across the country, with at least one major agricultural university in each province. These represent a potentially rich resource for the application of ICTs to development problems. 


A consortium of Chinese and American agricultural universities has proposed a project to demonstrate how agricultural universities in China can play a significant role in building an ICT system that will enable communities to gain access to communication and information resources that could contribute to bettering their lives. Moreover, the proposal addresses the challenge of institutionalizing the means for doing the research, needs analysis and evaluation that are vital to the effectiveness of ICTs and to further ICT innovations.     


Universities are a basic information and education institution in nations all over the world. They are generators of knowledge (through research, analysis, information integration, and discussion); they store knowledge in their libraries; and they pass on knowledge and information through formal instruction, forums, non-formal education, and publications and other media. They are also leading agencies for distance-learning initiatives. Thus it is a paradox that they play an inconspicuous role in the cultivation of content for the ICT and tele-center movement, especially in relation to poverty alleviation and community development. Their most significant areas of participation in ICT-related projects are in distance learning and in the telecommunications field where the institutes of technology have made notable contributions to the technical aspects of ICT. Few countries have used their universities productively in creating such content or in doing the research associated with making it relevant and demand-driven.


The university role


ICT content involves a broad range of activities that go beyond designing and posting information and data on web pages. A more comprehensive approach for universities to take, as we propose, would be to strengthen their capacities to:


(1) Conduct continual research on community information needs.

(2) Conduct research on development issues related to community needs.

(3) Conduct on-going e-Readiness studies at the regional and community levels, and interpret their results for regional and local policy formulation and action for establishment of ICT services at the grassroots level.

(4) Convert its research and  “academic” knowledge into education, information, and training packages suitable for community use. 

(5) Mobilize, interpret, integrate, and package information from external authoritative sources and tailor it to the needs of populations in surrounding communities.

(6) Train students in the application of ICTs to development problems by: assigning them as student interns at community tele-centers, having them collect indigenous case studies and "lessons learned" related to development initiatives, involving them in data collection and processing related to e-Readiness and information needs-analysis studies,  training them in the process of information  packaging, and training them to train others in the community  in ICT literacy.

(7) Design and execute ICT training programs for various community groups, especially those who are likely to be by-passed by conventional ICT training. Low-income groups and women may be appropriate targets.

(8) Through their participation as students at these universities, prepare a new generation of professionals in various sectors to use and support the application of ICTs and tele-centers to community development and poverty alleviation programs.

(9) Through their involvement in the program, orient university faculty and staff to the broad potential of information technologies in their own specializations (such as health, agricultural extension, political science, culture). 

(10) Provide on-going monitoring and evaluation support to the tele-center and ICT initiatives.

(11) Actively contribute to the Country Gateway and to conventional media outlets such as radio, television and print publications.

(12) Experiment with various approaches to ICT and tele-center management.



The agricultural universities ICT project in China


This project in China can serve as a model for other countries trying to maximize the benefits of ICTs for development. It will build the capacity within the agricultural universities to play a prominent role for the ICT-for-development movement in China. In this proposal we link agricultural universities to community tele-centers, helping to create tele-centers where they do not yet exist. Through tele-centers, the emphasis is on providing communities with information relevant to their health, education, and economic well being, but the emphasis is also on responding to their communities' needs as expressed in continuous information needs assessments. The information comes from the universities’ own researchers, but would also include information from external sources that project staff can localize and convert to local conditions in the province. And while computers and networks constitute a major part of the system, we anticipate the appropriateness of providing information through CDs, DVDs, and other media, as determined by research in the communities. 


To review, the purpose of this project is to mobilize a group of provincial-level agricultural universities in China into an ICT information support system that focuses especially on the information, education and training needs of township and rural people. It addresses the "digital divide" issue by making available quality ICT resources at an affordable cost to the community. The project also provides a new dimension to traditional development programs such as agricultural extension, which could use tele-centers to extend the reach and effectiveness of its contacts with farm households.




The project has four related parts.   


  1. establish and sustain within each collaborating Chinese agricultural university an ICT Research and Support Unit (RSU)


  1. help establish or reinforce community tele-centers in the provinces where the universities are located, and 


  1. establish and maintain a Central Coordinating Unit at China Agricultural University (CAU) – building on an inter-university telecommunications network already established by CAU.


  1. establish and test various systems for using ICTs in agricultural and community development 


As our plans unfold, we expect China Agricultural University will establish a special unit in Beijing that will be responsible for designing prototype training modules related to the skills needed for the 12 activities listed above. It will conduct training-of-trainers programs for staff of the participating universities. Subsequently, the universities will adapt the training modules to their particular circumstances with each building a training curriculum to serve the information management skills of university staff and students, tele-center staff, intermediaries such as extension personnel, and the community. Each university will also mobilize the resources needed for suitable ICT facilities.


The community tele-centers would be partners with the university in information dissemination and community training, and serve as an experiential and research laboratory for the university’s students and faculty. In addition to the impact in their respective provinces, the universities would contribute development information to the China Country Gateway that could reach all of China, as well as to conventional outlets such as radio and television stations and the extension network. 


One important structural outcome of this project is the establishment of an ICT stakeholder ICT network for promoting rural development. The network is illustrated in the accompanying diagram.































Project beneficiaries


Our principal beneficiaries consist of low-income groups and the farm population. The Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn (Germany) released a study recently (2001) that suggests “that ICT presents a historic opportunity for the development of rural China, specifically for the enhancement of the Chinese farm household” which comprises half of the Chinese population.


Because of its mission to serve the agricultural community and the rural population in China, the nation’s extension programs could benefit from this innovative deployment of ICTs and tele-centers.  Compared with the former “top-down” extension system (1950-80) that focused transferring technology according to high level government priorities, today’s extension system gives farmers substantially more opportunity to make decisions. However, farmers now – as managers of land resources – have insufficient skills and knowledge for making the kinds of decisions required. Furthermore, the extension staffs are insufficiently qualified to meet the needs of farmers in the market-oriented economy, and there is limited use of alternative extension methods, including the strategic use of ICTs. 


How can a university-tele-center partnership (UTP) benefit extension programs at the county and township levels? Here are some possibilities:


  1. The UTP can provide leadership in scientifically-designed information-needs surveys to support the participatory extension approach in which farmers play a major decision-making role.


  1. The UTP can mobilize the appropriate data from its resources and those of other agricultural universities and convert them into multi-media information banks that can be accessed on demand by a farmer at a community tele-center. (Extension agents can be featured in some of these to symbolize a partnership.) 


(3) The UTP can provide other kinds of information that go beyond the expertise of the extension worker, and thereby serve the broader information and training needs of rural people.


(4) The tele-center can provide channels through which farmers can contact the extension worker or university specialists. 


  1. The university can provide information through other media and link it to tele-center facilities.


  1. The UTP can become an information and communication resource for representatives of farmers’ associations and build training programs that can be conveniently extended to the membership through ICTs. 


A major challenge for building some of these connections is to encourage reform among some government agencies that have ties to past policies that determined rigid boundaries of responsibility and norms of bureaucratic behavior.



On to the Future 


No one can guarantee the sustainability of innovations. However, this project is built on established local and regional institutions (township governments and provincial agricultural universities), with cooperation pledged by strong national bodies (the Ministry of Science and Technology and the China Development Gateway Union). In selecting universities and townships to participate in the project, consideration can be given to those that commit to staffing beyond the project period.


There is substantial anecdotal evidence that better information can make a difference in people’s lives.


Bai Yuxiong, a farmer from a poor area in northern Shaanxi Province [of China], traveled at least 500 kilometers to Yangling Agroscience town to learn about prices of Qinguan apples and the value of a small pumpkin variety he grew.... At Yangling Information Center, for the first time he saw the computers and heard about the Internet. He saw the director of the information center typing some things on a computer. In a short time he got all he wanted from the computer.... He knew the price of the apple. And his small pumpkin was found to be of a very precious kind, an indispensable delicacy for Japanese state banquets.... Computers opened his eyes and his new [export] venture.


In conclusion, a 2001 study by the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn (Germany) suggests “that ICT presents a historic opportunity for the development of rural China, specifically for the enhancement of the Chinese farm household”  – whose members comprise half of the Chinese population.







“Enhancing the Role of Agricultural Universities in China”


Prof. Royal D. Colle, Department of Communication - Cornell University

Prof. LIU Yonggong, Deputy Director - Center for Integrated Rural Development, China Agricultural University

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