International Assistance for Networking in Less-Developed Countries: The IDRC Example

by Marjorie Whalen

IDRC, the International Development Research Center, is a Canadian Crown Corporation. It was founded in 1970 with a mandate to "initiate, encourage, support and conduct research into the problems of the developing regions of the world." IDRC supports research and researchers in developing countries, working to strengthen the research capacity in those countries. It has an active international Board of Governors that advises on research support directions.

IDRC receives the bulk of its funding from the international development assistance envelope of the federal government. However, since 1991, IDRC's Parliamentary grant has dropped by 24% and staff levels have been reduced by 37%.

Faced with reductions in its grant, IDRC has begun to diversify its funding through cooperative projects with other multilateral organizations and foundations, joint partnerships with the private sector and contract research. It now has a Business Development Office to coordinate such efforts. IDRC and Networking

As a small player, IDRC has always sought partnerships to leverage its limited resources. Whether supporting research in community health programs or water quality, IDRC has sought to link participating institutions with other relevant knowledge networks.

IDRC was an early adopter of information and communication technologies, having supported information and communication initiatives since its inception. The 1970 act that established IDRC provided for it to establish, maintain and operate information and data centers and facilities for research and other activities.

To fulfill this mandate, IDRC began by creating libraries and documentation centers where none existed. As technologies developed, these agencies were computerized. Geographic information systems, global positioning systems, multimedia and satellite technology have since been added to the center's information work. And now, like all other organizations, IDRC has felt the powerful impact of the Internet. While remaining true to its vision, it is in the means of program delivery that IDRC has experienced this impact.

The IDRC Program
The vision of IDRC is empowerment through knowledge. Its current program framework is based solidly on lessons it has drawn from its past. Three lessons in particular inform the current program agenda:

IDRC defines the scope of its programming within six thematic areas. They are each multi-disciplinary in nature and were chosen for the following attributes:

The new information and communications technologies (ICTs) have unquestionably transformed the way IDRC and its recipients do their work in all these thematic areas. But this article will focus on the theme of information and communications.

IDRC and the Infocom Theme
As mentioned earlier, IDRC's early information projects supported knowledge networks by sponsoring the creation of libraries and documentation centers. IDRC also supported training of information specialists and documentalists who were able to provide information support to local researchers. Since then, the world has changed radically. It has been swept by the phenomenon of globalization which has implications for many aspects of the development agenda.

But central to our theme is a belief that left unchecked, the globalization of information will widen the information gap between developed and developing countries. It will further distance the elites from the general population. It will limit traditional social and economic development efforts. The new ICTs can widen the gap between rich and poor and limit the role of developing countries in the world economy. Third World researchers without access to the new ICTs become even more isolated, unable to access the data and information necessary to participate as equals in research networks.

On the positive side, access to the new ICTs can close the gap between rich and poor, link researchers with their colleagues in other parts of the world and make the transformation to an information society possible. IDRC's focus within its information and communication theme is to support information and communication systems, networks, products, technologies and applications that enable its southern partners to be informed, active participants in their own development.

IDRC's work in networking is a continuation of more than 25 years of supporting research in developing countries. Through 6000 projects in 1000 institutions in 100 countries, the center has developed a myriad of contacts, many of which are linked through knowledge networks. This work continues on many fronts now enabled with new ICTs. Two exciting new programs undertaken by IDRC are PAN Asia Networking and Communities and the Information Society in Africa (Acacia).

PAN Asia Networking
The PAN Asia Networking program initiative, or PAN for short, was designed to respond to the challenge posed by the new ICTs, the challenge to use them to narrow the gap and improve access rather than to widen the gap between rich and poor and entrench the isolation of developing country researchers. Initiated in Asia, the program funds communications infrastructure and research projects in developing countries across the region.

The pilot country for PAN was Mongolia. With a deteriorating or nonexistent infrastructure, a tightly controlled media and a one-party political system, Mongolia offered PAN staff most of the technical challenges they were likely to encounter in the other countries of the region. IDRC partnered with a local Internet service provider in order to build the infrastructure necessary for regional research institutions and other organizations to share information among themselves and with the rest of the world.

PAN, while continuing its work in Asia is also now funding projects in the Caribbean and Latin America. As it expands, its fourfold research agenda remains constant:

To support its program, PAN has established and maintains a PAN Website in IDRC's Singapore office. You can find out more about the program including the participating research development institutions and their publications at the Web site at http://www.PanAsia.org.sg

Similarly to PAN, Communities and the Information Society in Africa or Acacia seeks to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, the connected and the unconnected. Acacia will work mainly with rural and disadvantaged communities, and particularly with their women and youth groups, in order to lessen their isolation from the decision-making process. While many African governments have reformed their communication systems in order to improve local and global information sharing, for the most part the new ICTs are overwhelmingly used by the wealthier and predominantly urban elites. The reality in 1995-96 was that sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) had only 4.8 telephone lines and 142 radios per 1,000 inhabitants.

A highly visible Acacia output will be connectivity within communities. Less visible but equally important will be the human and organizational capacities to understand and use this connectivity and access to the ICT-based tools, information and knowledge that connectivity brings. Initially the main delivery mechanism for this connectivity will likely be some form of community telecenter, a location which facilitates the provision of a wide variety of public and private goods and services and therefore supports local economic and social activities. Such services might include basic communication, such as voice, fax, e-mail and Internet access; municipal governance services; news distribution; and crops and weather conditions, etc. (For additional information on telecenters, see "Telecenters, Information Technology and Rural Development: The Australian Experience" by Perry Share in the August/September 1997 issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science.) As a small player, IDRC does not pretend to have sufficient resources to transform access to ICTs throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but the demonstration and learning objectives of Acacia involve a significant, long-term investment for IDRC. The length of this commitment is important to demonstrate the transformational qualities of the new ICTs and to leverage investments from governments and other donors.

You can find out more about Acacia and track its progress through its Website at http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/

IDRC In-house
IDRC has a long history of networking in order to share its research activities and results with the development research community. The Center Library for many years provided dial-up access to its databases in order to disseminate IDRC project information and research results to Canadian development researchers and researchers around the world. This access was expanded to a Development Data Bases Service (DDBS), which included access to databases of several other development organizations, such as FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), WHO (World Health Organization) and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), through one dial-up. This DDBS was a widely used service for many years. It has now been eclipsed by the Internet as the participating institutions, including IDRC, now have their databases up on their own Websites.

To accompany enhanced electronic access we are striving to create a body of full-text electronic research reports that can be disseminated at a mouse click to researchers. We have a collection of all final project reports from IDRC projects going back over 25 years. We have begun digitizing very selectively and in the future will ensure that recipients provide us with an electronic copy whenever possible.

To keep up with our progress, visit us on the Web at http://www.idrc.ca

Pan Asian Networking (PAN) Program: establishment of communication and information infrastructure. Photo courtesy of IDRC Bamako women using RESADOC, the Sahel Documentation Network. Photo courtesy of IDRC

Marjorie Whalen is a staff member of the Research Information Management Service of the International Development Research Center in Ottawa, Canada. Her e-mail address is mwhalen@idrc.ca