First Monday

Providing Content and Facilitating Social Change: Electronic Media in Rural Development Based on Case Material from Peru

In his famous book Understanding media, Marshall McLuhan discusses the impact he expects (networked) electronic media to have on the world. Since then the emergence of a 'global village' has become a universally accepted idea. McLuhan is perhaps more to the point when he observes that "The organic everywhere supplants the mechanical. Dialogue supersedes the lecture" (McLuhan, 1964; pp. 255-256). This paper takes a cue from McLuhan and discusses the way different types of information flows reveal the underlying power structures related to the provision and exchange of information. In line with McLuhan it is argued that 'dialogue', or information exchange, through networked media will have to play a role of increasing importance in development, whereby dialogues will have 'horizontal' and 'vertical' dimensions. Networked media are in that way to facilitate rural networking and social change. In its essence information provision, or 'lecture' is claimed to strengthen existing power structures, to create dependencies and to lead to a mismatch between information demand and supply. Despite the fact that networked electronic media are favored for rural development, they obviously do not have the same reach and levels of access and accessability as the traditional electronic media do. Another distinction between media is the type of information and content they are able to convey in a message, whereby significant differences between traditional and networked electronic media can be distinguished. Based on the two above mentioned distinctions between electronic media combinations of electronic media are suggested for use in rural development, both to improve the quality of the information provided and to change existing information and communication related power structures.


Electronic Mass Media in Rural Development
Mass Media in Peru
Telephone and Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in Rural Development
A Multimedia Approach
Concluding Remarks


"[ICT] greatly facilitates the acquisition and absorption of knowledge, offering developing countries unprecedented opportunities to enhance educational systems, improve policy formation and execution, and widen the range of opportunities for business and the poor. One of the great hardships endured by the poor, and by many others who live in the poorest countries, is their sense of isolation. The new communication technologies promise to reduce that sense of isolation, and to open access to knowledge in ways unimaginable not long ago.
(The World Bank, World Development Report, 1999, p. 9)

This quote is just one of many illustrating the enthusiasm and optimism, which the 1990s have generated for information and communication technology (ICT, or "electronic media") in development. The high expectations are based on the fast pace of technological developments in telecommunication and computing, and the decreasing cost of telecommunication services. Pointing to a correlation between telephone densities and levels of economic development, causality between basic telecommunication services and socioeconomic development has been suggested (Barr, 1998; pp. 152-167). However, no study has specifically found an exact correlation between telephone density and the level of economic development, or between increasing telephone density and economic growth. An increase in telephone density could be the result of, as well as the cause of, economic growth. Therefore some caution is appropriate in assessing the possible impact of Internet and basic telecommunication services on rural development. The euphoria surrounding these technologies is reminiscent of a similar enthusiasm for ICT in the 1950s and 1960s, albeit regarding different electronic media.

"[Developing countries] are going to have to speed the flow of information, offer education where it has never been offered before, teach literacy and technical skills very widely. ... And the only way they can do it [fast] is to make full use of modern communication. ... [Mass media] are a liberating force because they can break the bonds of distance and isolation and transport people from a traditional society to "The Great Society", where all eyes are on the future and the faraway. ... Thus, the mass media can create a climate for development. ...the mass media can contribute substantially to the amount and kinds of information available to the people of a developing country."
(W. Schramm, Mass Media and National Development (1964), pp. 19, 127, 131)

In some studies, a correlation of data was used to indicate causality between mass media and socio-economic development, suggesting that mass media were both an indicator and an agent of modernization in societies. However, as it turned out, this correlation did not mean causality (Melkote, 1991; p. 139). Both radio and television were expected to effect a major change in information provision to people in rural areas in developing countries. So far only radio can be said to play a role in rural development, albeit a far cry from the initial expectations. Television coverage is still limited in rural areas of developing countries, and broadcasts focus mainly on entertainment. Many lessons can be learned from earlier experiences with "old" ICT (mass media) in rural development with respect to future expectations for "new" ICT (individual/networked media) in the same context.

In this article, only two possible aspects of these experiences will be addressed. Did the means fail, or did the way the media were, or could be, used cause the failure of the mass media to live up to the initial expectations? Failure of the media means that specific characteristics of the mass media may limit the contributions media can make to rural development. This aspect is covered here by the theoretical concept of media richness, which focuses on the capabilities of a medium to convey the content of a message. The way media are, or can be used, assumes that rural development requires social change, implicating a transformation in information-related power structures. The theoretical concept of information traffic patterns (ITPs) will be used to illustrate that electronic media follow different patterns. Some of these patterns will strengthen existing power structures that control existing flows of information.

Trails of Power

This theoretical concept centers around control over communication (time, place, and subject) and information (storage). Emphasizing the control aspect of information flows, it reveals the power structure underlying the flows of information, as well as the extent to which information flows reinforce, or possibly transform, the power structure. Four information traffic patterns (ITPs) are distinguished (Bordewijk and Van Kaam, 1982). They are:

Information is distributed from a center to many peripheral receivers, a pattern that applies to mass media. The subject and time of the communication process are controlled by the center, which also controls the source of information. This pattern tends to strengthen existing power structures.

A center requests/collects information from the periphery, often without the awareness of the individual in the periphery. Typically the center controls time and subject, and the information received is added to the center's information storage. The most relevant aspect of this pattern is its provision of information to support the allocution pattern. At the same time, it reinforces the position of the center in the power structure.

An individual in the periphery searches for information from a central source. In principle, the individual has control over time, subject, and often also place of the communication process, but the center retains control over the source of information. Consulting databases, libraries, and information centers are examples of this pattern. By itself this ITP does not strengthen the existing power structure, but it does sustain, or create dependencies.

Individuals in the periphery (through a network) interact directly with each other, bypassing a center. Control over all aspects of the communication process is with the individuals, who, amongst themselves, also have control over their own information sources. Examples of this patterns are face-to-face, telephone, and e-mail communication. This is, in principle, the only ITP with a tendency to change the existing power structure, in favor of decentralization of control over information and knowledge.

This article first provides a general overview of electronic media in rural development, illustrating how characteristics of a medium determine its strengths and weaknesses for development. Second the relation between a medium's ITPs, and the contribution of that medium to social change is treated. Third, it will be shown that the intrinsic limitations of individual media suggest a combined use of electronic media for a concerted communication effort, with the media each addressing different aspects of that effort, in line with their individual strengths, and mutually reinforcing their individual contributions (FAO, 1998; pp. 19-22). Finally, the concept of ITPs is used to show that the emphasis should not only be on electronic media as content providers, but also on their possible role as facilitators or stimulators of social change.

Conveying a Message

This theoretical concept assumes that messages contain a certain level of equivocality, and that some media are more capable of reducing that equivocality than others. The degree to which a medium can reduce equivocality in a message determines its richness. This in the sense that a rich medium is capable of sending messages which leave less room for ambiguity in interpretation. The following four factors determine the richness of a specific medium: opportunities for direct and speedy feedback; possibility to use more types of signals (or cues), such as body language, volume, and intonation; use of natural language; and, the possibility to specifically adapt the message to circumstances of (individual) reception. The more complicated, and voluminous, a message, the greater the chances are of ambiguous interpretations, thus the more of the above mentioned factors a medium should be able to deploy (L.K. Trevino, R.L. Daft, and R.H. Lengel, 1990; pp. 71-94)

Electronic Mass Media in Rural Development

Radio and television

Broadcasting mass media provide information following allocution patterns, with all the attendant, intrinsic disadvantages: one-way communication with few possibilities for feedback, physical distance between sender and receiver, and reinforcement of the existing power structure. Two further weaknesses of mass media broadcasts are the difficulty of retaining the information for later use and the susceptibility, at the same time, of messages to alternative interpretations.

Radio is by far the most widely used electronic (mass) medium in rural regions of developing countries, primarily because of its versatility which allows for its use in various types of communication efforts (Mowlana and Wilson, 1990; pp. 151-158). The presence of local radio stations and the availability of small transistor radios allow for 'easy and affordable access' in relatively large geographical areas. The extent to which local radio stations operate as independent broadcasters largely depends on the socio-political and economic context of a country, which also determine the way radio stations are allowed to be used (Heeks, 1999; pp. 3-4).

Local radio stations can be considered the most important mass media as far as their contribution to rural development in developing countries is concerned. The role of these radio stations consists of providing an alternative, more independent, source of general information, as well as offering information on issues of local interest through discussions, interviews with representatives of local interest groups, and testimonies of individuals on their experiences (FAO, 1998, p. 6). Simultaneously they offer local NGOs and government agencies access to mass media and often serve as intermediaries between the population and local authorities.

Although active participation of the audience in broadcasts may compensate for some of the disadvantages of broadcasting, in general, local radio stations seem to be unable to move beyond the aforementioned role. In a sense participation of the audience represents a registration pattern, which could serve to provide more meaningful information through broadcasts, thus increasing the relevance of allocution patterns. The relative independence of the local stations (of the state, but not of commercial interests, or institutions such as the church) gives them a higher level of credibility with the local population, but the essentially one-way information flow of the broadcasts limits the use of radio in rural development to very specific aspects.

Mass Media in Peru

Radio is the medium with the largest coverage in Peru. The oral tradition of communication, prevalent in rural Peru, makes radio the main source of information. In the context of rural development a distinction between national level and local level mass media is relevant. Peru has various national level radio stations, such as the state-owned Radio Nacional del Peru (RNP), and the privately owned Radio Programas del Peru (RPP), both based in Lima, as well as satellite-based radio broadcasters. The national level and satellite broadcasts can be received in large parts of the country, but are also a typical example of the limitations of information flows following an allocution pattern. Local radio stations, covering areas ranging from small villages to entire departments and beyond, can roughly be divided into stations with commercial objectives, and those which stress educational and developmental objectives. Most educational radio stations are members of the Coordinadora Nacional de Radio (CNR), an association of radio stations connected to the Church. CNR provides technical and organizational support and, via satellite, complements broadcasts of the associated local radio stations.

The coverage of television in Peru is far less than that of radio, with far fewer local level television stations. However, the popularity of television is increasing, with more and more districts acquiring a satellite connection. Some of the major national level television stations are Frecuencia Latina, TNP,, America TV, and Panamericana, either based in Lima, or operating as satellite channels. None those stations produces programs specifically aimed at the rural population, let alone at specific aspects of rural development. Local television stations do exist, but in general only insert a few programs into the signal of a national level broadcaster for lack of television infrastructure and funds. Due to this relative absence of local television stations, and the dominant position of the commercial stations, the contribution of television to rural development is rather limited.

The more complex nature of television technology, and the higher costs involved with transmitting and receiving information, mean that television is by no means as widely available in rural areas as radio. Although television can be used as a centralized and a decentralized medium, the former usually prevails (Mowlana and Wilson, 1990; pp. 158-160). Television, unlike radio, more often uses satellites, with most developing countries allowing the reception of satellite transmissions. Those broadcasts, however, are usually aimed at providing entertainment and providing an alternative source of general news, the latter depending on the leeway provided by the socio-political context. At the same time the costs of reception equipment, for example satellite dishes, and the related technical infrastructure is far more prohibitive than of radio. Television stations, like radio stations, provide information following allocution patterns, and therefore their potential contribution to rural development is the same as that of radio. However, most television stations are based in major cities, or even in other countries, which exacerbates electronic mass media's negative factors: one-way communication, the lack of feedback opportunities and the physical distance between sender and receiver. The main advantage of television, in conveying messages, is the additional characteristic of visual information, which allows for a slightly different type of information to be provided, since less equivocal message can be conveyed by using the combination of sound and vision. However, difficulties for retaining information are similar to radio.

Radio Sicuani

Radio Sicuani is a part of the Centro de Comunicacion Social Difusion Andina in Sicuani, in the department of Cusco. The center is owned by Catholic institutions, making evangelization a major objective of the two broadcasters. Radio Sicuani's press department has an editing staff, 'mobile units' active in Sicuani itself, and a network of some 20 - 25 local correspondents in eight districts. This department gathers information for the news broadcasts, records testimonies from people in rural districts, and conducts small investigations on local issues, thus enabling Radio Sicuani to broadcast relevant information to its audience. Discussion programs with participation from local people are dedicated to discussing various current issues. A program called "La Voz del Campesino" allows people from various communities to draw attention to some of their problems, specific activities and successful experiences. Broadcasts are in Spanish and Quechua, and in between informative programs and news broadcasts, modern and traditional music is broadcasted.

Apart from providing relevant information and access to the mass media to the rural population, Radio Sicuani performs other roles: creating and increasing awareness of development activities by the government and NGOs, and of successful activities by local people, all of which can also be learning experiences; educating people on local and national issues (e.g. elections, new constitution) through debates; mobilizing opinion concerning local issues, or specific social problems, and sometimes organizing exemplary activities (e.g. clean-up action in the context of environmental issues). These roles illustrate that local mass media are not just 'communicators', but also local 'social actors'.

Telephone and Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in Rural Development

From the viewpoint of ITPs, the most important aspect of basic telecommunication services (and CMC) is not its supposed relation to economic development, but the opportunity it offers people to establish more independent conversational patterns, supporting (local) horizontal level communication, or networking, thereby bypassing a center. At the same these electronic media could provide a way to compensate for disadvantages of information allocution through radio and television broadcasts by offering a vertical communication channel, establishing or improving registration patterns.

So far, however, basic telecommunication services are not widely available in rural Peru, or if available only at relatively high cost. Therefore the role of this electronic medium in rural development remains rather limited.

Telecommunication Services in Peru

In Peru, access to telecommunication services is very limited in rural areas, and virtually non-existent in remote Andean regions or the Amazon basin. A special program (Fondo de Inversion en Telecomunicaciones, FITEL), aimed at connecting rural areas, has been operational since 1991. The present Peruvian interpretation of universal access - to provide access to a public telephone for all Peruvians at an average maximum distance of five kilometers by 2003 - illustrates that limited physical access presently prevents the telephone from playing a major role in rural development. The departmental capitals have long been provided with telephone connectivity, and almost all provincial capitals have also been connected Only about 500 district capitals have been linked to the telephone network.

Of the various types of computer mediated communication (CMC) only the Internet, and its most popular applications (e-mail and the World Wide Web), are considered here. Internet is now an accepted phenomenon in almost all developing countries. So far the contribution of the Internet to rural development mainly exists on paper, and usually focuses on information access, using sources of information available on the World Wide Web. This information can be made available in printed form, increasing its capacity to be retained for later use. The consultation patterns that correspond to this create new dependencies, and relevant information is often scarce, or blurred by irrelevant 'noise'.

The Internet in Peru

Opportunities for the Internet in rural development, as far as providing individual access is concerned, are limited. Other aspects of the Internet that presently limit its use in rural development are computer illiteracy, high cost and limited availability of equipment (e.g. computers, terminals, modems), and, perhaps most importantly, the relative lack of appropriate local content. The level of physical access to the Internet in Peru is in general higher than in many other developing countries, but still restricted to cities. Access to the public is provided through cabinas publicas. All major cities now have such cabinas, and in some smaller cities local entrepreneurs have also started providing the Internet to the public, but cabinas publicas are mostly commercial enterprises with no specific interest in rural development as such. The often cited example of the Red Cientifica Peruana (RCP) is an exception in the sense that it is a not-for-profit organization, but it also has no specific objectives in the field of rural development.

In the context of information flows, the independent networking possibilities (i.e. e-mail) are far more promising. Instead of allocution (information provision), or consultation (information search) patterns, the possibility of exchanges of information, or true interactive communication, allows for horizontal conversational patterns at local levels, or vertical ones between levels (FAO, 1998; p. 16). Credibility of both the source of information (the sender) and the information itself is potentially greater for basic telecommunication and the Internet, because receivers know the sender or can select the sender or both. Exchanges of information obviously encourage tapping into existing sources of local information, knowledge and experience, thereby decentralizing the power structure. In the short run, however, the prohibitive costs of Internet access, the emphasis on a paternalistic information provision and the tendency of Internet enterprises to focus on commercial activities and profit seem to lessen the possible contribution of the Internet. In general, the contribution of the Internet to rural development is minimal, with access restricted to NGOs, individual professionals and relatively wealthy inhabitants of cities.

Information Centers

In an attempt to provide telecommunication services on a wider scale, various configurations of information centers have been developed over the past years. These centers themselves can hardly be considered electronic media, but they have become rather popular with international organizations under names such as infoboutiques, telecottages, and multipurpose community telecenters. However, the popularity of these centers with 'donors' has not yet translated into widespread awareness of the concept among local organizations and institutions, let alone the rural population. This is not to say that information centers do not offer interesting opportunities for rural development, especially in linking various centers together. Two examples from Peru illustrate these networking possibilities (see Appendix). In general these centers tend to focus on the provision of information to people in rural areas on a commercial basis. The main problems usually are the lack of insight into the demand for information and the inability, or unwillingness, of the local population to pay for the information services, or even to perceive the services as relevant to their daily lives. As a result virtually no individuals from small rural communities use the provided facilities. Networking the various centers to create conversational patterns (as suggested by ITDG) and local level information exchange are not often perceived as important compared to providing information on a commercial basis to the local population.

A Multimedia Approach

This concluding section will address two aspects of the use of electronic media in rural development:

The previous sections demonstrated that all electronic media have limitations, thus suggesting an approach combining electronic media. Basic telecommunication and the Internet are at the center of this approach, because the organizational concept of information centers is proposed to provide access to those media. However, the choice for information centers implicates the following weaknesses:

Some of these weaknesses can, to a certain extent, be addressed by electronic mass media, preferably local radio stations. The easy 'access' to broadcast content, and opportunities for audience participation, could compensate for some of the weaknesses of information centers. Stations could create awareness of centers, familiarizing people with the concept and presenting testimonials of experiences with information centers through participation in radio broadcasts. By associating themselves with information centers, 'independent' local radio stations could also lend some credibility to those centers as a reliable, trustworthy sources of information. Finally, local radio stations could keep information centers in touch with local issues, problems, and specific information demands.

The involvement of electronic mass media of course still does not solve the problem of limited access to information centers, or the limited reach and coverage of those centers. Although no combination of electronic media can completely compensate for that weakness of information centers, the combination of radio and television can provide some information available in the centers to people in remote rural areas. Through careful use of the media richness characteristics of mass media, more complicated and technical information can be made available via broadcasts. To improve on processing and comprehension of information, groups of listeners and viewers could be established in even the smallest settlements to discuss broadcasted information during, and immediately after, reception (FAO, 1998; p. 10).

Using the media richness concept implicates that the content of messages conveyed through the different electronic media should be in accordance with their specific characteristics. Mass media, such as radio and television are most suited to convey basic, informative information on campaigns (e.g. health care, education, agricultural programs, and rural development initiatives), government and private sector financing opportunities, available (economic) development support from government institutions, NGOs and other organizations, among others. Mass media will create awareness and through audience participation, discussion forums, and testimonials, they can elaborate on initial information. Radio is more widespread and should thus be the initial medium. Television broadcasts should be added later, using the specific advantages of combining audio and visual aspects. Mass media create limited conversational patterns through audience participation, but individual and networked electronic media will have to provide more detailed and specific information, geared towards smaller groups. Individual, networked media should be used to facilitate and support conversational patterns.

This leads to the second aspect of the approach: using different ITPs. Conversational patterns change the power structure and decentralize generation of and control over information (flows). Instead of focusing on information provision, the emphasis would shift to information exchange or interactive communication. In addition information exchange should take place at local levels, mainly using locally produced information, knowledge, and experience.

Next, to bypass existing centers higher up in the power structure, and to strengthen local level organizations and institutions, communication should preferably be horizontal. Furthermore, to increase relevance of the information and credibility of the source, communication should occur between senders and receivers similarly situated. This approach can be achieved by following the steps below:

This approach supports decentralization of the power structure, to create independent information generation and storage, and subsequently facilitates, or provides conditions for, social change through local level, horizontal information exchange, complemented by information provision.

Concluding Remarks

Since the new ICTs also have significant disadvantages, in particular with respect to reach, access, cost, credibility, and familiarity, combining basic telecommunication services and the Internet with the existing electronic mass media (radio and television) is imperative to arrive at an optimal communication for rural development effort. The concept of media richness demonstrates that, with respect to content of the messages, a combination of all electronic media has distinctive advantages over the isolated use of individual electronic media. Finally, the concept of ITPs indicates that the most important contribution of the new networked ICTs is in their suitability for conversational patterns and their role in facilitating horizontal communication and in bypassing existing centers in the power structures, thus possibly facilitating social change.

About the Author

Robin van Koert is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Department of Communication Studies. His dissertation explores ways to use electronic media in rural development in developing countries. The focus is on facilitating capabilities of electronic media in rural networking, taking into account socio-political contexts of nation states, and in particular information and communication related power structures. For his PhD he has conducted field research in Indonesia, Viet Nam, and Peru, with more field research to be conducted in Costa Rica. An industrial engineer by training, he worked in the textile industry in the Netherlands, as well as in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Two more anecdotical articles on brief exploratory visits to Ghana and Mali for his PhD can be found at


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R. Heeks, 1999. Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development. Working Paper Series, Paper #5. Manchester, Eng.: Institute for Development Policy and Management.

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Appendix: Examples

Coordinadora de Ciencia y Tecnología en los Andes (CCTA)

CCTA has set up a network of information centers (Red CINTEL) throughout Peru, with CCTA's CENITEC (Centro de Información Tecnológica) at the heart. Every information center, operated by a local NGO, has a library with documentation on agricultural technology, which is continually updated, as well as replicas of CENITEC's databases. Each center operates as a node in a CMC network, using the Internet (e-mail). The main objective is to create an exchange of information between various parts of Peru by having the centers provide CCTA with 'raw' data, which are then processed in Lima, and subsequently distributed again to the various information centers. In addition to this elaborate technical information, CCTA also produces a newsletter - NOTIfax - which is now distributed via the Internet. The main problem facing Red CINTEL information centers is that its users are almost only participating NGOs, with only a few local individual professionals. The reason for this seems to be the format in which information is provided, and the low level of physical accessibility of the information centers. Any significant coverage of Peru with information centers requires a very large number of nodes in the Red CINTEL, right now beyond the organizational and financial means of CCTA and the associated group of NGOs.

Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG)

ITDG has designed a system of information centers in various population centers, which are to form a network linked through the Internet. The information centers will use a central database, to which they continuously add locally gathered and produced information. Apart from access to this digitized database, the information centers will also be equipped with a documentation center, video and audio cassettes, and will be operated by an association of local NGOs, active in the field of rural development. The information centers will be established in population centers of various sizes in the rural areas of Peru. Some basic criteria concerning economic activity, and the presence of a number of public services, will have to be met by potential sites. The ultimate objective is to build a network, which uses a communal database, consisting of local research data, knowledge, and experience, to support local level horizontal communication, in the sense of information exchange. Information centers without Internet access will at first be 'linked' by a mobile unit (CIMDUR, Centro Movil para el Desarrollo Urbano-Rural). The main ITP in this project is the conversation pattern, supported by locally based registration patterns, and possibly complemented by allocution from 'outside' sources.

Editorial history

Paper received 11 January 2000; revised 13 January 2000; accepted 19 January 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Providing Content and Facilitating Social Change: Electronic Media in Rural Development Based on Case Material from Peru by Robin van Koert
First Monday, volume 5, number 2 (February 2000),