Information, the fuel of development
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Njonga, Bernard. 1996. Information, the fuel of development. Spore 61. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Information in rural areas is essential to local development, whether it is acquired through study visits, meetings, informal networking, trading groups or publications. Information provides the basis for community decisions and is as necessary for...
Information in rural areas is essential to local development, whether it is acquired through study visits, meetings, informal networking, trading groups or publications. Information provides the basis for community decisions and is as necessary for the defence of local interests as it is for the democratic management of local organizations. Lack of information is a constraint to rural development. Information exchange begins with direct contact between people, perhaps as a result of travel or training opportunities. Whenever we bring together farmers from different regions for training, the informal conversations that they have during meals or breaks are often more educational than the training sessions themselves. These opportunities for making contacts are what we refer to as 'informal networking' or 'corridor conversations'. It is on these occasions that meetings are arranged and reciprocal visits planned. We know of farmers from the west of our region who have taken the initiative to travel south because they have heard of an interesting development which they wish to see. It is encouraging to know that of the thirty farmer organizations in Cameroon at the present time, at least a dozen were started as a result either of these visits, or of informal meetings during training sessions. We have therefore set up an association, or club, that provides farmers with the opportunity to make exchange visits. This club has developed from the idea that more people should have the opportunity to benefit from the informal but invaluable exchange of information that takes place when people meet. The club and the visits are ways of helping isolated farmers keep themselves informed about what happens further afield and enabling them to learn of success stories elsewhere. In order to pursue our objective of information exchange, we have started a newsletter called La voix du paysan (The farmer's voice). The idea for this monthly newsletter was developed following a visit of Cameroon farmers to Burkina Faso. We wanted the farmers who had been able to take part in the visit to have the chance to share their experiences with those farmers who, isolated in other regions, had not had the opportunity to send a representative on the study visit. The magazine has continued and farmers are very much involved in the process of making decisions about, and producing articles for, La voix du paysan, which has become a vehicle for information exchange on all aspects of daily life in many rural areas. What is more, we soon recognized that the newsletter also gives scientists and development workers a means for starting a continuing dialogue with farmers. In order to pursue one of the main objectives within the three-year SAILD plan of action, we have decided to help farmers strengthen their ability to consider, and negotiate for, their own development priorities. But how can farmers do this without information on which to build their thoughts and aspirations? If a village community learns that a group of people in Burkina Faso or Mali have worked together in order to build a bridge, that gives them ideas which may help them to find a solution to their own problems. The target readership for La voix du paysan is no longer exclusively the rural farmer. Decisions which influence rural life are often taken in towns. So, how can we help people in towns and cities become aware of what is happening in rural areas? The answer is by making our newsletter available not only to rural farmers but also to city dwellers. This should create a two-way flow of exchange which, we hope, will make decision-makers better informed. Everyone knows that lack of information about what actually happens in the countryside is a serious constraint to development. Farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to defend their own interests and a number of farmer organizations have grown up in rural areas. The main purpose of these organizations is to give farmers a stronger voice, although, of course, there may also be other objectives. Newsletters can help farmers to understand their rights but they can also help them to acquire the information they need to avoid unconstructive criticism and even, sometimes, to be self-critical. This is also an essential role for a newsletter. Finally, information is important in order to strengthen democratic management of farmer organizations themselves. This is another priority in our three year plan of action. We should not talk about democracy at the national or macro level alone. Farmers have to understand that democratic values must first be honoured in their own organizations. If democracy is not respected at the micro- or local level it will obviously be very difficult to achieve it at the macro-level. So when farmers get together to discuss, for example, the role of their organizations, they must respect equally the opinion of the youth and the elderly, men and women. They must understand that as members of an association, they have rights and responsibilities towards it, as do all the other members. If the rules are kept, the association will work well even when responsibilities are being allocated. In some organizations the president also assumes the responsibilities of treasurer or secretary, and disregards those who have been officially appointed to undertake these tasks. This results in poor management and should be denounced by members. Even though information has a role that may sometimes be unsettling, even within a farmer association, it is nevertheless essential at every level. Information is both the driving force and the regulator of rural development.
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