Networking in the French-Speaking Countries and Current Trends in International Assistance

by Michel Menou

The French-speaking developing countries are mostly located in Africa. Others are scattered around the Caribbean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Recently the multilateral cooperation agencies of the French-speaking countries have made the establishment and maintenance of the information highway a major priority on their agendas. The most important of these agencies are the Agence de la Francophonie (Agency of French-speaking countries, formerly ACCT) and the Association des Universités Partiellement ou Entièrement de Langue Française (or AUPELF, the association of universities in which instruction is partly or entirely in French). At the 1996 session of their summit, held in Montreal, the heads of the French-speaking states adopted a plan of action and a number of programs encompassing all aspects of information technologies. Detailed information about these activities can be found on http://www.francophonie.org and on the Website of the documentation center of the Ecole de la Francophonie at http://cifdi.francophonie.org.

At this time AUPELF is supporting through its Université des Réseaux d'Expression Française (UREF or University of French-speaking Networks) the following two networks:

A number of other organizations have developed electronic communication facilities or are contributing to the development of information highways in the French-speaking countries. A few examples of such organizations are

In addition to these multilateral programs, the French-speaking countries also have access to bilateral cooperation with industrialized countries, particularly the Francophone industrialized countries like Canada, France, Belgium and Switzerland, which are fully or partly French speaking. However, they also cooperate with countries without such linguistic ties, like the United States, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands. The Leland initiative is a well-known example http://www.info.usaid.gov/rations/afr/leland/index/html and the Acacia program led by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) is another. (See "International Assistance for Networking in Less Developed Countries -- The IDRC Example" in this issue.)

The French-speaking countries also collaborate with the European Union, which maintains, under the Lomé convention, jointly administered programs with the partner countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP). These programs include projects directly under the Directorate General 8 for Cooperation http://europa.eu.int/en/comm/dg08/dgviii.htm as well as special agencies, such as the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). The CTA has been very active in supporting the development of information services http://www.cta.nl.

The French-speaking countries also have access to multilateral cooperation from the United Nations System and the system of the OECD, whose Development Center has been supporting regional networks of development research centers, the international financial system (the World Bank and the regional development banks) and the networks of the regional organizations (e.g., Organization of African Unity, CARICOM, SPC, etc.).

This overview, though very superficial and excluding many non-governmental organizations and specialized organizations, may give some sense of the proliferation and dispersion of agencies and programs as well as of the difficulty in achieving cost-effectiveness from such a complex system. One may wonder if the proliferation of institutional jungle in the cooperation business is not considered by some organizations as a way of compensating for the loss of the rain forests! In a few instances the strategic and technological choices seem to have been made under the influences of the "tired aid" syndrome or of political bias and individual interests. A case in point is the use of Minitel for searching remote databases or the use of Minitel terminals for electronic mail. As readers may know, Minitel is a videotext system implemented by France Telecom that is using a special protocol with slow transmission (300 baud) in most cases and also special terminals (though computer interfaces are now commonplace). It is widely used in France, where a variety of services are offered through this system.

At the moment, French-speaking countries in the developing world, especially Africa, seem to lag behind their counterparts in regard to the availability and use of the Internet and other information technologies. There is no doubt that the globalization of communications, both mass media and Internet based, poses a threat to local cultures, in particular small populations that do not have English as their communication language. The development of resources that would be configured as some kind of linguistic reservation may not be the most appropriate way to meet this challenge.

Current Trends in International Assistance
The current economic crisis and the radical transformation of the international scene as a consequence of globalization and the end of the Cold War have resulted in a decline in the available resources as well as in interest in development issues.

Most international cooperation agencies have experienced diverse forms of restructuring and downsizing. The latter tends to become endemic. However, the overall basic structure of the institutional system has not been radically altered. With fewer resources and departments, the various agencies tend to continue covering the same expanding ground. Overlap and competition between agencies have not yet been significantly altered, nor have basic policies and practices.

With the exception of the World Bank, which is developing a massive effort in the area of information technologies and knowledge application, most government agencies have merged information systems and services within broader groupings. The little attention information systems and services were receiving has not been improved by this change. The disappearance of the IDRC's information science and systems division is a noteworthy case in point.

The scarcity of resources seem to be bringing, slowly, a progressive move toward joint programs among a variety of organizations. Rather than arrangements between two organizations which sometimes occurred in the past, one sees now a number of multilateral schemes where several world, regional and national agencies join efforts with non-governmental agencies and the private sector. Examples of this are the World Bank infoDev program (See "International Assistance for Internet Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa" in this issue of the Bulletin) and the International Telecommunications Union's Multipurpose Community Telecenters.

Furthermore, information technology is being used to create dynamic links and steady interaction among the agencies and the rest of the development community. A virtual cooperation space is emerging. Examples are http://www.bellanet.org, http://vita.org/technet or, in Europe, http://www.euforic.org and http://www.oneworld.org or, in Africa, the Africa Information Society Initiative (AISI) http://www.bellanet.org/partners/aisi.

Lasting resources for facilitating global consultations are becoming common, while their access was previously limited mostly to members of NGOs and restricted to particular events like the world conferences (Rio, Cairo, Beijing, etc.). One may envision a global sharing of knowledge for the design and implementation of development programs, as reflected at the Global Knowledge for Development Conference sponsored by the World Bank and the Canadian governments in June 1997 http://www.globalknowledge.org. But we need to learn how to harness these global interactions to prevent them from getting lost in the confusion.

A combination of Web and listserv discussions, with both restricted and open areas, can be used in order to broaden participation in the formulation, implementation and assessment of programs and projects, e.g. http://www.vita.org/technet/karchive for the knowledge assessment in the Pacific conducted by the World Bank. It must be emphasized that beyond technical problems, such as bandwidth availability or friendly software, the effectiveness of these exchanges will remain limited until appropriate methods have been devised for designing, conducting and participating in problem-solving-oriented global electronic conferences. Individual trial and error, which can be witnessed in each of them, are often counterproductive.

Progressively, institutional and subject-oriented Websites related to development issues are becoming available and may ease access to specialized literature. There are too many to list, but one of them, at least, should be mentioned here: the Electronic Development and Environment Information Systems (ELDIS) of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. This site is one of the richest public resources http://www.ids.ac.uk/eldis/eldis.html.

Computer and telecommunication infrastructures, access to the Internet and Internet services have become fashionable topics for international cooperation programs. The Leland Initiative in the United States is a typical example. This trend is noticeable even in regions such as Africa for which, until recently, modern technologies were considered inappropriate.

With lower levels of overall funding, the support for the development of infrastructure is detrimental to the other aspects of information services. Not enough attention is paid to the creation of indigenous contents. As was the case with prior information facilities, piecemeal small-scale projects are not likely to generate the critical mass and shock waves which significantly alter patterns of information access, use and benefit.

Two features are relatively new. There is growing interest in the involvement of the private sector in building information services. Information infrastructures and services in the developing countries were previously predominantly based in the government sector. It remains to be seen how the basic contradictions between the logic of profit and the satisfaction of social needs on an equal opportunity basis will be resolved in practice. Secondly, efforts are being made to assess the initial situation of information infrastructures and services to find evidence of the impact of information services. Let us hope that this interest will be a lasting one and generate cooperative programs, as there is no way to find meaningful answers in the kind of "quick and dirty" surveys that tend to satisfy most decision-making bodies.

Networks are changing the form and nature of international development cooperation. They offer great promise in many respects. Contrary to a widely held opinion, deficiencies in the telecommunications infrastructure or computing facilities, though significant, are not the major obstacle, especially if innovative approaches, such as wireless and collective, are taken to overcome them. The two major bottlenecks are the prohibitive cost of telecommunications and the lack of skills for harnessing not only the technology itself, but also its applications. Information highways and the proliferation of Web-based information resources, many in the public domain, are encouraging the shortsighted view that access to these resources should be the major issue for developing countries. This standpoint discounts the potential value of indigenous knowledge and of local patterns of sharing it. On the contrary, the major challenge for developing countries as well as for any group of people of whatever size or destiny is to effectively harness its own knowledge.

The global information infrastructure and new information and communication technologies are offering yet-to-be-discovered realms of opportunity for international networking and cooperative work. Many consider this an entirely new situation. We contend that only the technology is new, and technology is only a means. What remains roughly the same are people's intellectual, social and emotional strengths and weaknesses, organization structure and cultures, geopolitical realities and politicians' shortsightedness. The latter are the critical factors. The issue is not how to make the best possible use of the technology, but how to best apply it to better goals. Like nuclear energy in another domain, information and communication technologies have provided human beings with an unprecedented and devastating capacity. It can be for better or worse. The only question is whether individually or collectively human beings are going to come closer to a decent stage of civilization. Judging from the achievements of the century, one may have serious fears.

Michel Menou is an international consultant based in France. He is a winner of the ASIS Watson Davis Award and can be reached at mmenou@imaginet.fr