Some Considerations for Initiation of a
Latin American Communications Network*
Center for Tropical Agriculture
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
3028 McCarty Hall
Gainesville, Florida 32611
In one way or another we are all in the mainstream of agricultural
research and development. The research and project activities of our
respective institutions provide the raw materials that we incorporate into
our communications efforts. Our role is one of guiding information in and
for the development process, including a clarification of development for
whom, which ultimately offers the basis for decisions in practice (McAnany
1984). This is true whether it be the decisions of policy makers, donor
agencies, researchers or farmers.
There are well over 100 formal international agricultural research
networks operating today, ranging from forage legumes to developing
agricultural machinery to learning about resistance in cattle to disease
(Plucknett et al, 1984). Each has arisen out of an expressed need to share
information related to specific methodologies, technology developments or
disciplines. The same may be said for the myriad of professional societies
that exist in the world today. Common interests, concerns, opportunities
and mandates provide the reasons for systematic group interrelations that
form the basis of a network (Andrew, 1986). The degree of affiliation
suggests a range of formality from casual networks to structured ones with
distinct membership and carefully organized events. No two are alike,
neither are some as successful as others.
Susan Harris presented a cogent statement on the role of networks at
the 10th anniversary of the inauguration and dedication of CIAT's
facilities. She said "Information, transferred through communication,
inter-connects all'the elements of the scientific research community,
helping it to function as a network or system instead of as a heap of
dis-connected parts." (Harris, 1983). Networks provide insights for the
development process through observation and learning of the experience of
others through research and institutional change. An obvious benefit of a
network is that it allows institutions to address problems by building on
the experience of others without having to "re-invent the wheel."
A disadvantage in network communication is where conditions are so
dissimilar that the learning experience, when applied in another setting,
is not functional. We all work under varying constraints of policy,
budget, mandates and priorities. At times, evolution may be the best
*Paper presented at "Seminario sobre Vinculos de Comunicacion entire
Programs Nacionales y Centros Internacionales de Investigacion Agricola",
CIAT, Cali, Colombia, April, 1986.
instructor even when repetition is involved. However, a functional
network can at least offer alternatives for consideration.
H.E. Kaufman, Director of the International Soybean Program (INTSOY),
outlined eight principles that are critical to building successful networks
at a recent meeting of the Association of United States University
Directors of International Programs (Kaufman, 1986). These can be
paraphrased and summarized as follows:
1) Sharply focused agenda Problems around which the network organizes
must be well-defined. A realistic agenda must be identified to
specifically address these problems. Activities such as germplasm testing
of crops are well-suited to networks; other activities may not be as
well-suited. The value of a network is inherently dependent on its ability
to facilitate a process to action, in addition to creating specific
products for ultimate clients, such as farmers. Networks facilitate action
through dynamic agendas.
2) Strong mutual interest of network participants The effectiveness of a
network depends on the individuals who comprise it. They must be motivated
to invest time, effort and resources into the network, based on a belief
that they and their respective institutions (or countries) will benefit
from the activities of the network. A successful and productive network
requires individual commitment.
3) Flexible outside support Outside support is a prerequisite both for
starting a network and for underwriting a number of its activities. I would
add that networks must ultimately support themselves. Outside interests
can facilitate their formation and support principles underlying the new
network. Ultimately, however, continued support is required from the
respective institutions, organizations or nations which the network members
represent. If the network proves worthwhile and productive there is more
likely to be some institutional endorsement.
4) A fourth principle crucial to building networks is setting up advisory
or working groups. These groups should be a part of the network
organization. These might consist of leading communicators in the
participating national programs, or relevant scientists, along with
representatives from the International Agricultural Research Centers,
universities, and/or internationally known experts in a related field. A
working or advisory group should be responsible for reviewing and
evaluating the previous year's activities, identifying significant findings
that could have cross-country implications, developing plans for the coming
year and charting the network's long-term strategies and objectives.
5) Planning, reviewing and training opportunities Network members should
also be involved in developing network plans and reviewing progress.
Equally important is the opportunity to participate in training programs or
workshops to help upgrade the expertise of those in the network who need
it. Workshops and/or training programs can provide opportunities to learn
first-hand from the successes and shortcomings of others.
6) The sixth argument on behalf of networks is for a strong communications
component. Kaufman recognizes that quick, reliable communication is
essential to keeping in touch about network logistics as well as sharing
results and future plans. He also suggests that a newsletter can be useful
in accomplishing this objective. Further, support for telephones, telexes,
air mail, air freight, and some leadership mobility are necessary. I
agree, and would suggest that it is unrealistic for network participants to
have to "bootleg" network activities at the expense of their home
institutions. Such support at the outset is incumbent on outside agencies
to allow the network to function adequately. Support should continue long
enough to ensure the network's stability. At the same time I do not want
to overemphasize outside support to the network. Most of us have a
responsibility for dissemination of information and would be working in our
own best interests (and in the interest of our home institutions) if we
were to summarize working research reports and facilitate communication
between authors and other practitioners with similar interests. The
circulation of fugitive literature, either through a newsletter format or
through networking papers, is an excellent, low-cost means of providing
7) Effective leadership is of paramount importance. A network must have
the respect, confidence and trust of participants from a professional as
well as a personal standpoint. Those in leadership must actively encourage
high-quality initiatives and exchanges that will bring benefits and
recognition to the participants, their home institutions and country, as
well as to the network. Network leaders must also have the support of
their home institutions to commit a significant amount of time and energy
to the network.
8) This leads to the eighth principle crucial to building a successful
network, a strong base to support network activities. Regardless of the
organizational structure used to set up a network, it requires an
institutional affiliation for its operations. A physical location must be
designated for the network's base. The institute coordinating the network
must have a dedicated group of individuals willing to devote a good portion
of their time to network affairs.
Networks that evolve naturally from a perceived need, with a membership
of enthusiastic professionals, are very likely to be successful. Those
that are promoted or encouraged from outside interests run the risk of
creating an artificial setting for a network, with odds against its
successful functioning. Therefore, the responsibility for the outcome of
the formulation of a Latin American Communications Network rests with all
The Farming Systems Support Project
and its Networking Activities
In the final analysis, all networks are communications networks. That
is what networks are about and that is the overriding premise for forming
one in the first place. When the Farming Systems Support Project (or FSSP)
was implemented through International Programs of the University of Florida
in 1983 it had four essential components as its mandate in support of
farming systems research and extension: training, networking, technical
assistance and state-of-the-art synthesis/analysis. To implement this
broad mandate, the University of Florida created a network consisting of 21
universities and four private firms. These project support entities
identified program leaders and administrative coordinators as well as
program associates nearly 650 individuals in all that are now
participating in the network.
The FSSP Network serves as the human and information resource base for
all project initiatives and activities. Most of these activities are in
direct support of other networks, formal or informal. Many of the
project's activities take the form of networking functions, facilitating
the scientific research community to interact through the formation of
Illustrative examples of similar network linkages among technical
assistance entities include the Collaborative Research Projects (or CRSPs)
and the International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs). These are two
good examples of networks and network support systems which provide
research coordination on priority and recognized problems. Exchange of
CRSP and IARC results contributes to reduction of agricultural production
constraints and help to realize research and farmer opportunities that are
normally beyond reach. As Chris O. Andrew, Director of the Farming Systems
Support Project observes:
"...these entities provide training and information
exchange opportunities to strengthen the research base
through common concerns and response-oriented linkages.
While problem or commodity-specific, the IARC and CRSP
programs address constraints that have origins in both
biological and human spheres as they relate to
successful technology development. Similarly the FSSP
operates as a network and a network support system... It
provides support for a training base through farming
systems materials and training unit development, through
preparation of trainers, and by support to USAID
Bilateral contractors. Technical assistance support
identifies and prepares teams for short and long term
assignments, and coordinates efforts among donors
associated with training and networking programs within
the general scope of the FSSP. The project provides
network support and assistance by linking donor
activities at the national level where overall systems
programming demands a concerted effort. Network
assistance legitimizes program development within the
political and institutional structure through training
and workshop activities where various levels of the
government and peer groups participate. Another form of
FSSP network support is its communication support to
various AID assistance entities and recipients through
newsletter, documentation programs, networking papers
and the distribution of annotated bibliographies."
This last area, that of communication support, is one which warrants
some specific examples. A number of ongoing FSSP activities have
contributed to project output in this area.
The FSSP Newsletter presently reaches approximately 5000 farming
systems practitioners throughout the world. It is published quarterly in
English, Spanish and French. Unlike many newsletters, the FSSP Newsletter
attempts to serve as a platform for practitioners to discuss methodology
and experience rather than as an exposition of project accomplishments.
The 5000 FSSP Newsletter recipients might be considered an informal
network, but, in a sense, they comprise the real networking outreach of the
FSSP Networking Papers were initiated as a series to issue timely work
of an interdisciplinary nature. Historically, interdisciplinary research
and reports of multidisciplinary activities have had a difficult time
finding their way into print. Professional society journals have
maintained stringent requirements for discipline-oriented works in their
peer reviews. After 14 papers were published, the series (similar to the
occasional and working paper series of many organizations) has been
discontinued, not due to lack of interest but due to lack of funds. Still,
in an effort to provide assistance to practitioners, the FSSP Newsletter
has published a substantial listing of publications that accept multi- and
interdisciplinary works. (It is promising to learn that the American -
Society of Agronomy has determined to publish a refereed journal,
Production Agriculture, which will provide a significant outlet for
multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary works).
An FSR/E Project Inventory was undertaken by the FSSP beginning in 1984
to secure a basic project description and a contact address for all known
farming systems research projects. Some 90 projects were initially
identified. In its 1985 update more than 250 projects submitted listings.
The sole purpose of the project inventory was to facilitate communications
among FSR/E projects, particularly between practitioners having similar
project objectives or scopes of work.
FSR/E Bibliographies have been compiled in two separate efforts by the
FSSP. The first is an annotated Bibliography of Readings in Farming
Systems. Each volume of this bibliography contains 100 abstracts of
selected readings in the field. Two volumes have been issued to date in
English, Spanish and French. A third volume is in production; a fourth
volume is underway. The second effort in this area has been through Kansas
State University (one of the FSSP support entities) with the compilation of
a bibliography and two supplements, including microfiching of more than
2000 titles to date in the collection. The microfiche collection thus far
is available institutionally (at a modest cost) through Kansa State
University. It is probably the best resources of ephemeral or fugitive
literature in farming systems research and extension available today.
A Farming Systems Symposium has been held at Kansas State University
for the past five years, bringing together the largest gathering of farming
systems practitioners in the world. As a networking function of the FSSP
this symposium not only convenes the FSSP support entity network but
includes an annual attendance of nearly 300 practitioners. The Sixth
Annual Farming Systems Research and Extension Symposium will be held at
Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas October 5-8, 1986. The theme
for this year's symposium is "Farming Systems Research and Extension: Food
and Feed." Simultaneous translation of presentations into French and
Spanish will be provided.
Sometimes it is the little things that make a big difference. A
Minimum Data Set was originated by members of the the FSSP network to
provide a consistency in reporting on projects and activities at the annual
symposium. The result has been a set of data for each report that allows
for ready comparison of projects and offers a minimum data gathering
standard for practitioners to follow. Similar formats are emerging from a
collaborative effort between the Population Council and the FSSP in the
form of guidelines for producing case studies, and through a training unit
development process of synthesizing information for training.
The FSSP Annual Meetings traditionally follow the annual symposium.
These are working meetings of various task groups of the project. As an
example of the nature of these working groups and their networking function
let me briefly trace the evolution of a livestock working group for you.
It is the interface of a number of informal and formal networks and relates
most directly to FSSP experience in networking among livestock systems
researchers in West Africa, having as their concern the reduction of
constraints to improved production in mixed crop and livestock systems.
Contributions to the emergence of a potential network in West Africa are
numerous; only a few are cited here (Poats et al, 1985).
ILCA and other international agricultural research centers have
provided the basis for addressing the issues through targeted applied
research. An FSSP task force involving university, consulting firm and
IARC input proposed a strategy for better understanding the
state-of-the-art in this important area through their Livestock Task Force
Report (Oxley et al, 1983). Also in 1983, the Farming Systems Symposium
focused on livestock systems. Several workshops in Africa (Burkina Faso,
Gambia) further specified a need for interaction of West African
researchers. Networking Papers, professional exchanges and FSSP Newsletter
articles further contributed to an emerging dialogue. In 1984 and 1985 the
FSSP participated in and supported workshops held at ICARDA, in Togo for
West African participants, and at ILCA to address needs in mixed crop and
livestock research from a farming systems perspective. From the literature
and from the workshop reports, FSSP program associates at Colorado State
University (an FSSP support entity) are putting together and publishing
guidelines for research with livestock in mixed farming systems.
Independent of the FSSP, Winrock International (also an FSSP support
entity) has been awarded a grant to develop training materials for the
economic analysis of livestock on-farm testing within mixed crop-
livestock farming systems. This year at the FSSP Annual Meetings, the
livestock working group will reconvene to assess its progress and outline
the scope of any future initiatives it might take.
These activities might be called networking, or they might be called
the interaction of many informal and formal networks, representing many
institutions and organizations. For the FSSP they constitute a part of the
ongoing effort to adhere to its mandate. The FSSP experience has been that
initiatives taken in the areas of training, networking and technical
assistance function best at the network level. This also appears to be
true for the scope of work for bilateral technical assistance and
international center commitment to regional activity. Networks serve as
support mechanisms for action while maintaining the integrity of support to
unique national programs and problems.
Supplemental Considerations for a
Latin American Communications Network
There are both short- and long-term considerations that this formative
group might wish to consider. Since short-term considerations are more
obvious and the easiest of ideas to consider, a few are listed here first.
These include near-term actions that this group might wish to undertake and
are intended only as supplemental to the eight principles critical to
building successful networks addressed earlier.
1) Report back to your home institutions the results of this
conference, not only to your communications groups but to the research and
field components of your organization. By your presence here they already
have an investment in this network.
2) Make arrangements to exchange newsletters, reports and working
publications not only with those in attendance here, but institutionally.
An institutional mailing list to a) the director or program leader, and b)
libraries or documentation centers is one that services the entire
3) Explore joint-venture (or cost-sharing) issuance of publications.
This might involve a division of functions such as editing, production,
mailing and translation. It might be a rotational series of networking
papers, rotational in the sense that institutions take turns issuing papers
in the series. This might take the form of a working paper or networking
paper series that is issues through the network base institution.
4) Consider a biodata file on all members of the network, including
experience and expertise. For the network to be self-supporting it will
have to draw on the abilities and skill of its members.
5) Consider communications short courses or workshops a) for network
members to improve their skills, and b) for researchers and field
practitioners to develop theirs.
6) Formalize a strategy to assess the communications components at your
home organization. The need for effective internal communications is
obvious to communicators, not necessarily so to administrators.
Coordination and integration of communications support activities must be a
part of the planning and evaluation process to be effective. A structured
assessment will offer the grounds for comparative analysis and discussion
of operations at the various organizations represented here in the future.
7) One product of this week's meetings might be a working document on
the opportunities and aims of a Latin American Communications Network.
This might be patterned after the summary of recommendations made at a
similar meeting of IARC communicators at IRRI in 1980, "Communication
Responsibilities of the International Agricultural Research Centers"
(Agricultural Development Council, Inc., IRRI, 1980).
Longer-term considerations can go in many directions. Hopefully the
organizational structure that is formulated this week will target some of
these. At the same time it is hoped that the structure will remain
flexible enough to direct itself to future needs as they evolve. The
ultimate success of the network will depend upon the activities it assumes,
leading to appropriate and useful technology development and results that
will assist farmers. Network activities might also be measured in terms of
their utility in supporting the interaction of scientists and practitioners
and in fostering inter-institutional linkages.
The scientific dimensions of the information age are engulfing us all,
at varying rates. Two decades from now our computers will be 1000 times
more powerful than they are today (Shultz, 1986). In a few short years the
most advanced technology of today will seem as obsolete as that of our
grandfathers seems today. The economic and political dimensions of this
new age are as revolutionary as its scientific and technical counterparts.
We will all be a part of this evolution. Perhaps for agricultural
development in the Americas, the Latin American Communications Network can
help to guide its course.
There is no way to determine what the most pressing problems will be or
in what order opportunities might arise. In the meantime we must work
together to take advantage of our present resources and prepare to get in
tune with emerging technology.
Consider that there is no central collection or clearing house for
information on tropical agriculture. With many countries and many diverse
groups the information that might serve us best is stored in bits and
pieces. There isn't even a key to information sources. No one has
committed the resources to put it together. Yet how many of us respond to
numerous requests for information in this area?
Although institution building is desirable it is costly. Consider the
cost of establishment of a scientific library. Coupled with the impedence
caused by the flow of currencies it is a wonder that the scientific
community has informational resources with which to operate at all.
Computer access to libraries and to stores of information will eventually
help alleviate these problems. To some extent it already has, but for most
of us it remains a luxury. How might a communications network serve the
scientific community in this regard, if it has a role at all?
One might ask, will a Latin American Communications Network serve its
own best interest by serving its membership first or by serving the
interests of the scientific research community, which it ultimately
represents? As the saying goes, the future is in your hands.
4 , P
Andrew, Chris O. Considerations for Network Development to Support U.S.
Technical Assitance. Paper presented at the Annual AUSUDIAP Meeting,
University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, 1985.
Harris, Susan C. Information Services: An Essential Mechanism in the
Communication with National Institutions. Paper presented at the 10th
Anniversary of the Inauguration and Dedication of CIATs Facilites,
Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, Cali, Colombia, 1983.
Kaufman, H.E. Some thoughts on Building Development Assistance Networks.
Paper presented at the Annual AUSUDIAP Meeting, University of Georgia,
Athens, Georgia, 1985.
McAnany, Emile G. (1983) From Modernization and Diffusion to Dependency
and Beyond: Theory and Practice in Communication for Social Change in
the 1980s. In Sigman (Ed.), Development Communications in the Third
World, Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, International
Agriculture Publications General Series November 2, 1984.
Oxley, James et al. Task Force Report on Livestock in Mixed Farming
Systems. Farming Systems Support Project Report Series, University of
Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 1984.
Plucknett, D. L. and N.J.H. Smith, Science, September 1984, p. 989.
Poats, Susan et al. Animal Traction in a Farming Systems Perspective.
Farming Systems Support Project Network Report Number One, University
of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 1986.
Popenoe, Hugh L. Priority Needs for Plant and Animal Sciences in the
Caribbean. Paper presented at the Caribbean Basin Advisory Group
(CBAG) Symposium, 1986.
Ray, Howard E. Incorporating Communications Strategies into Agricultural
Development Programs. Guidelines prepared by the Office of Education
of the Bureau for Science and Technology of the United States Agency
for International Development, 1985.
Shultz, George. The Shape, Scope, and Consequences of the Age of
Information. In Current Policy no. 811, United States Department of
State, Washington, D.C., 1986.
Communication Responsibilities of the International Agricultural Research
Centers. Agricultural Development Council, Inc. and International Rice
Research Institute, Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines, 1980.