Centre for Sustainable Livelihoods
O'Rahilly Building
NUI Cork
00353 21 4903158

Information technology and food security

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The Centre is currently involved in the use of ICTs in the collation of information on food insecurity across the globe and the use of the internet for debate and information exchange.

Information technology and food security

The advent of cheaply available information and communication technologies has had a dramatic impact on many parts of the world. The greatest beneficiaries so far have been countries in the North (that is Western Europe, the USA, Australia and some south-east Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea). While countries in the South have benefited somewhat from the introduction of cell-phone technology, in general they have severely lagged the North.

Due to time constraints, it has not been possible for us to fully develop this strategy. What we have outlined below are some initial thoughts on areas that we believe could form a key part of the task force's strategy. We would be more than willing to further develop any of the outlined areas below.

We initially outline very broadly areas where we believe that Northern specialists would be of use to implementations in the South. This is followed by a précis of potential banana skins that we feel need to be considered in any ICT implementation. Finally, we outline our own areas of relevant expertise, that may be useful in any such programme.

Areas where Northern expertise can Assist Southern ICT implementations

There are many areas that we believe the North can contribute to the beneficial development of ICTs in the South. There is a need for the support of local agencies in the development of tools for information sharing and exchange in all sectors. For example, in the areas of health care, it makes sense to create regional electronic fora where learning could take place across, say, sub-Saharan African in the areas of health programme design. This would enable mutual learning on a host of issues to take place across the continent, and indeed across the globe. Similar learning processes could be used to improve the development of educational processes and resources. ICT tools should be developed that enable information sharing relevant to local, national and international commerce. For example, the local and regional collation and dissemination of agricultural information will help the development of both internal and external markets. Initiatives such as these will then provide routes for the reduction of poverty and improvement of livelihoods, both in the urban and rural environments.

Critically, there is the potential for Northern expertise to assist in the design of these transferable tools, such as databases and online learning applications, that local agents can implement and further develop. Such assistance would ensure that much of the relevant implementation learning that has taken place in the North in the last decade or so could be transferred to the South, avoiding mistake replication, and speeding up the benefit accrual in critical areas such as primary health care. Obviously, such design would be in response to locally determined needs, which would ensure ownership on the part of the implementers.

Potential Disadvantages of and Problems with ICT Implementations

There are several potential areas of disadvantage that need to be avoided or overcome in the area of ICT implementations. These include, among others,

  1. Continuing the 'modernisation' approach. Throughout the mid-to-late part of the twentieth century, much of the focus of development centred around the implementation of new technologies as the solution to the needs of communities in the South. It was believed that through 'modernising' the tools and technologies that were in use at the time in countries in the South, a 'leap forward' could be achieved. Unfortunately, this pre-supposed that the impact of these technological changes were appropriate to the task in the environment and context; frequently this was not the case, resulting in a lack of long-term project success, and eventual failure. There is the potential to repeat this process in ICT implementations. Indeed, many information-system implementations begin from the perspective of Northern systems, processes and procedures as the accepted 'correct' end-state. For example, some of the first IT implementations have focused on automating embedded accounting processes, while not challenging the appropriateness of the processes in the first place.
  2. The Availability of Infrastructure. A further problem is posed by the current lack of infrastructure in many of the countries concerned, or the availability of an information infrastructures only within select urban areas. The current lack of such infrastructure will mitigate against an equitable delivery of ICTs to communities. We currently see examples of this within Ireland, where internet access is poor in many rural communities, as these are not served with good telecommunications. Within countries in the South, this is even more likely to be the predominant model of service delivery. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, many urban areas already have telecommunications infrastructures in place, that allow for the delivery of phone services, as well as internet and e-mail services. In few countries does such service delivery extend much beyond the urban areas (Uganda and Botswana are exceptions, where the mobile phone service extends to many of the rural areas). If strategies are to promote equity, this deficiency will need to be overcome.
  3. Not being needs-driven. There is a tendency to mimic ICT usage in other parts of the globe, or even other parts of the region. This has been and continues to be true of many ICT implementations in the North. For example, if a thriving company implements a new IT system, this puts pressure on other companies to follow suit. However, the consequences of such actions in the North are not the same as those in the South, where such resources are scarce. There is the potential that such scarce resources will be wasted on technologies that bring little to the table. To avoid this, it is necessary to critique any potential implementations in light of the true needs of the community.
  4. The possibility of encouraging 'brain-drain'. An inherent part of many implementations of ICTs is the training of local people in IT expertise. This is a necessary part of the integration of such technologies in any arena. An immediate consequence of such training is that the people concerned are more marketable across the immediate and international economy. The likelihood is then increased of these people moving to areas that are more lucrative. And this is particularly true if these people are resident in rural areas. While not in any way seeking to prevent people from improving themselves, both educationally and economically, it is an unfortunate consequence that when this does happen, the community as a whole loses the expertise, if for example the person moves to an urban area. One way to ensure that the potential for this is lessened is to broaden the base of the training and education, to share the expertise within a larger section of the community.
  5. Expedience driving inappropriate technology transfers. ICT implementations have frequently originated as a consequence of the needs of a bi- or multilateral organisation. The information or other needs of an organisation like Ireland Aid may encourage the use of ICTs within projects or programmes, necessitating changes within the procedures and processes that are in use at the time, and necessitating re-engineering of these, with consequent retraining of existing personnel and/or the employment of new people with different skill-sets. Care needs to be taken that the technologies that are implemented are not going to impact negatively on the community within which they are being used. However, study of these impacts is rarely undertaken. It is felt that this should be approached from a 'Do-No-Harm' perspective (i.e., ensure that the worst possible situation that results from such a project is that no damage is done within the community). However, this would require the use of similar guidelines to those being used within other areas of development.

Areas of expertise within the Centre

We are currently involved in the use of ICTs in

  1. the collation of information on food insecurity across the globe; 
  2. the use of the internet for debate and information exchange; 
  3. financial information gathering in the South; 
  4. database design for gathering of information on social issues 
  5. education on food insecurity and famine 
  6. policy design for equity and equality 
  7. training and advocacy in a range of areas, such as PRA, RRA, antiracism and interculturalism, emergencies

Our work is firmly embedded in participative ideologies and practices. Areas of expertise supportive to the include: food insecurity and famine; land tenure; equality; gender; conservation; conflict, peace and development; interculturalism.