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CMCs and the Information Society

CMCs, Development and the Information Society

In everyday speech, the terms “Information Society” and “Knowledge Society” appear to have become interchangeable. What actually transforms information into knowledge is the process of making connections. When people connect with other people to exchange views and information, when a person or group of persons connects ideas, data and existing knowledge, new knowledge may be created. The connections are indeed so pivotal to this process that different knowledge can be generated from the same information when different connections are made. It follows from this, that the more a community is in charge of its own access to and exchange of information and the more it is able to engage in multiple connections with other people and information resources, then the more relevant and meaningful the knowledge acquired or generated will be to that community.

The current development paradigm, whose framework of reference is built on the concepts of sustainable, endogenous and human development, has for some time been emphasising the importance of community-driven development programmes, where communities identify and define their own needs. The community multimedia centre can be a vehicle for taking this process one step further, by enabling the members of a community to become recognised actors in the process of developing knowledge. In this way, the appropriation of the development process by the community itself reaches a new level. The metaphor of “giving the poor a voice” becomes a concrete reality when the poor have a public voice quite literally, on air and on-line. This participation in both medium and message, pivotal to both individual and community empowerment, fills a link often missing in the development process.

The combination of a grass-root public platform with access to information highways promotes the public debate and public accountability that are essential for strengthening democracy and good governance. The combination of local radio in local languages, with a community database developed by local people, building up a store of relevant data for educational, informational and developmental requirements, provides a solid knowledge base for the illiterate and the literate alike. This is a transfer of technology which encourages rather than diminishes the cultural self-confidence of its users.

The specific “added value” which is offered by the community multimedia centre derives from the unbroken continuum it establishes between different types of connection and multiple levels of contact both within a community and between that community and the rest of the world. For example, at opposite ends of that continuum, an illiterate farmer speaking no national or international languages and living outside the cash economy, can nevertheless be linked in a flow of information/communication with an international team of meteorologists using state-of-the-art satellite technology. This is not to say that they belong to the same network, but that they are part of the same mesh formed by networks of networks.

The farmer could of course receive weather forecasts from a development worker or another intermediary without belonging to any networks. The advantage of getting the information within a system of connections is that it offers that person active membership of the global knowledge society. Not just an isolated piece of data, the weather forecast becomes an integral part of a dynamic relationship between the farmer and a globalised world where information and knowledge are the driving force. The weather forecast connects to other farming information managed and shared within the network of farmers in the community, for example, within the framework of extension services or micro-credit schemes; it is delivered through the same flow of information used by members of the farmer’s family network : school lessons for the children, literacy classes, health education or administrative information for the adults; more than a piece of data, it is a window onto an expanding horizon and a world of life-long learning.

These qualitative aspects of the synergy between community radio and telecentres are not the only advantage derived from integrating the two. The combined community multimedia centre also benefits from the greater range and scope that integration offers. One important area in which this is the case concerns information for development. Most of the mass media which could, in theory, carry development news and information only give these topics limited space because of the pressures to provide other types of news and content. Community radio provides an ideal medium for the communication of development information directly to those who need it without commercial or other pressures on the use of air time. However, local stations are unlikely to have the skills base or resources to produce such programmes themselves in sufficient quantities. If they are able to select and schedule relevant programmes downloaded from Internet, they will not only have access to the material they need, but also far greater flexibility in making use of that material than if they were to receive and broadcast audio tapes.

For example, a programme on a development topic (health, farming, education, etc.) in a local language of the Sahel region could be aired once or twice. Listeners could then access the programme individually at the centre, if they wish. A group discussion on the programme could be recorded and aired on the station and also put on Internet, both as feed-back to the programme producers and as a form of programme exchange with other radio stations across the region using the same language. The centre’s facilities could also be used for queries or other forms of follow-up on the topic, by e-mail, fax or audio file. Such follow-up would not only be articulated and disseminated within the community and sent to the programme producers but also shared with other local radios and community centres. This would permit extensive interaction and exchange on the topic. The responses to the follow-up would then be broadcast. The programme producers would be able to send multimedia material to back up the audio programme with text, images, diagrams etc., which can be combined, with sufficient know-how and experience, in databases and informatics applications to support learning and knowledge-building.

The possibilities this offers extend far beyond programme exchanges based only on audio material. The same is true for regional networks of community radio stations or multimedia centres, which can develop more flexible and more dynamic exchanges using multimedia than with audio recordings alone. Such exchanges should allow communities across several countries in a region to share their experiences in such a way that they are able to build up a common development agenda in specific fields. For example, if communities across the Sahel discover that they share similar experiences and problems with pest control methods and products, they can set the agenda for the most appropriate approaches and solutions in a way they would not be able to do as small, isolated communities. Once again, there are exponential benefits to be gained from a community multimedia centre that maximises the potential of medium and message, contact and content, communication and information.

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