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Session 2a: Experiences with international cooperation and the developing countries

A critical evaluation of experiences and strategies

Chairperson: Carlos Correa

A critical evaluation of experiences and strategies

1. Introduction
2. Patterns of international cooperation
3. Selected experiences and strategies
4. Difficulties of the developing countries: Partners in international cooperation

Jacques Tocatlian


After providing an overview of the contributions of various types of bodies participating in international cooperation - (1) non-governmental organizations and professional associations, (2) organizations of national character, and (3) intergovernmental organizations, with those of the United Nations system in a separate category - the paper discusses three intergovernmental conferences that considered the question of improving access to scientific and technical information. Particular attention is given to an examination of the strategies that governed the establishment and execution of the sets of actions and programmes that emerged. Finally, attention is given to special difficulties in access encountered by the developing countries.

1. Introduction

During my last three of four years at Unesco, I had the privilege to be concerned with the project for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria [25]. I cannot help but recall that this great library of classical antiquity was in many ways the first information and learning centre with an international dimension. Its policy was to collect manuscripts in different languages from every source, translate the texts, prepare them for use by bibliographic control, and make them available to the scientific community of the time. It was in the intellectual environment of this information centre that scholars came to explore, exchange information, invent, and study astronomy, physics, mathematics, geometry, anatomy, biology, geography, literature, philosophy, and engineering. The numerous findings and inventions born under the roof of the ancient Bibliotheca Alexandrina are clear evidence of the close relationship that has always existed between information and the advancement of science and the role that scientific and technical information (STI) plays in the discovery of new frontiers.

From the time of the international library of antiquity to the international information systems, networks, and services of today, history is rich with examples of international cooperation pointing the way for the information world of tomorrow.

The most advanced countries have indeed already entered the Information Age - a creature of information technology that itself results from the marriage of computers and telecommunications, hardware and software, information systems and services. We are told that "by the year 2000, to all intents and purposes, information technology will be able to create a nearly Information-transparent world, while fiber optics will carry libraries of information to anyone, anywhere, who pushes a button!" [9]. It seems that three revolutionary technological changes will be required to bring about affordable individual access to global on-line information: efficient large-scale database construction and maintenance, high speed digital transmission networks, and highly precise intelligent searchware. "As these technological revolutions appear over the next several decades, they will result in a worldwide information system that will have a major impact on the entire information industry" [11]. And, indeed, on society itself, since they will affect the way people work, the way they act and organize themselves, and even the way they think.

We are gathered in Kyoto today to explore the role of information technology in facilitating access to science and technology. The objective of the symposium is to assess the potential of scientific and technological developments for enhancing the capacity to handle, transfer, exchange, and access information. Towards the conclusion of the symposium a panel will discuss and recommend new modalities of international cooperation for the future.

It seems useful to consider past experiences in international cooperation. A shared knowledge of past efforts and a better understanding of the strategies used, their impact and limitations, will help prepare the future. This paper is not a comparative review of international information systems and programmes, nor is it an evaluation of performances and results. Although the information needs of the developing countries permeate the whole presentation, it cannot be considered a review on the subject. The panel in Session 2B, "Achievements and Limitations in International Cooperation As Seen by the Developing Countries," is complementary since it will provide a perception that the developing countries have of international assistance, international programmes, and other schemes and systems set up under the banner of "international cooperation."

The paper first describes the various patterns of international cooperation and then analyses three experiences and strategies resulting from high-level intergovernmental conferences. In the three cases sovereign states discussed the question of improving access to STI. Their recommendations and the sets of actions that emerged provide matter for a critical evaluation of the strategies selected for international cooperation.

From the outset it should be emphasized that the international support systems involved in international cooperation, whether governmental or non-governmental, bilateral or multilateral, can hope to play only a catalytic role in assisting national efforts. Decisions on the nature of involvement in new technological areas, the kind of infrastructures to create, and the areas for priority action are all primarily the responsibility of the developing countries concerned [32].

International cooperation among nations is founded on the belief that everyone stands to gain from the benefits of sustainable growth, prevention of deterioration of the national environment, and satisfaction of people's basic needs - including access to information.

As we approach the end of the millennium, we observe that the developing countries are recognizing the value of self-generative efforts to orient their internal development strategies as an essential precondition to engaging in international cooperation. At the same time, the international community should conceive new ways of organizing international cooperative efforts that will take the real needs of the developing countries into greater account [32].

A first set of questions comes to mind: What bodies are concerned with international cooperation in the field of information? What are the prevailing patterns? What are the driving forces behind such cooperation? What are the strong points and weaknesses of these different patterns? What are the implications for the developing countries?

2. Patterns of international cooperation

The literature contains several papers that cover some specific aspects of international cooperation in information. In general, the literature on this subject is descriptive rather than analytical or critical. Some review articles do provide a useful general overview [e.g. 1, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 21, 22].

We may attempt to elucidate the subject under three main headings:

(1) Professional associations and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
(2) National systems, agencies, institutions, and foundations
(3) Intergovernmental organizations

But before doing so, it may be useful to establish working definitions. In this paper the term "information" is generally used in a generic sense, irrespective of the sources, form of presentation, or transfer medium used. The term "data" denotes groups of numerical and statistical facts. The term "information system" is also used in a generic sense to denote libraries, documentation and information services, data banks, etc., as well as networks of these components.

2.1 Professional Associations and International Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs)

International cooperation has long been an essential characteristic of both the scientific and the information communities.

Since the early days scientists have developed a tradition of interchange of information and data. This tradition has survived the challenges of distant communication, wars, and totalitarian regimes. Of course, political, military, and industrial interests prevent a totally free exchange of information, but cooperation remains an intrinsic element in the advancement of science - a fact well illustrated at the international level in the work of the ICSU, the International Council of Scientific Unions.

Parallel to the trend towards cooperation among scientists is, of course, that in the information professions. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the International Federation for Information and Documentation (FID) are known internationally for their achievements in this area. The FID will soon celebrate its hundredth anniversary and is the senior NGO in the information field. To name but a few of the numerous non-governmental bodies that have programmes for fostering worldwide cooperation in information transfer, we may also cite the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI), the ICSU Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), the International Council on Archives (ICA), and the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO).

It should be recalled that many national professional associations in the industrialized countries also have international cooperative programmes and, therefore, participate in international cooperation.

The work of these international associations and non-governmental organizations is essential and their contribution in international cooperation is fundamental. They are non-profit organizations, the driving force of which is the advancement of their respective professions in the service of society. They usually assemble, on a voluntary basis, top specialists in their fields and implement an impressive variety of useful activities and projects. However, there may never be resources enough to allow all their plans to be carried out. A critical study of these organizations [34] showed as early as 1973 that their proliferation to help solve information problems created an information problem of its own! Their number is continuing to grow, especially in Europe, underlining an urgent need for overall coordination. A recent World Guide [5] lists over 600 associations in the field of library, archives, and information science around the globe, of which 76 are international.

Most NGOs are concerned with the problems of the developing countries, and many have branches in or members from the various regions of the world. However, all in all, the participation and influence of the members from the third world remain weak - in many cases because of the high cost of travelling involved. Consequently most of the NGOs and professional associations having international missions and programmes are still primarily oriented around Europe and North America.

2.2 National Systems, Agencies, Institutions, and Foundations

Under this second pattern of cooperation we have grouped structures of national character - created, funded, and governed essentially at the national level - such as national information systems and services, national development agencies, and institutions and national foundations that undertake some form of international cooperation but are neither professional associations, NGOs, nor intergovernmental organizations.

In the last 30 years, agreements signed by information systems from different countries, in the same or in different regions, have grown in number and proliferated rapidly. These may provide for the operation of joint information services; the sharing in information systems' input and output; the creation of databases; the setting up of information networks; the distribution of information products; the development of common tools; the exchange of indexed literature; and the training of personnel; as well as, in general, for the sharing of workload.

Such cooperative work patterns exist among publishers and editors, abstracting and indexing services, information systems and services - at every step of the information-transfer chain, from the producer of information to the final user [22].

The impetus for this type of international cooperation or sharing of resources varies. It is usually economic, aiming essentially at reducing product costs, increasing timeliness and reliability, improving access, and extending the usefulness of recorded information. The driving force is often commercial, information being considered a commodity. Economic and time pressures are forcing organizations to share rather than duplicate information and resources. In most cases international cooperation among institutions and services is achieved rapidly when the economic advantages of doing so become clear. In the next section we shall see that many regional cooperative schemes, systems, and networks, linking a number of national institutions in the developing countries, are sponsored by intergovernmental organizations.

Under this second pattern of international cooperation many national development agencies or institutions carry out bilateral assistance to the developing countries. Most industrialized countries have a national agency, ministry, or programme within a governmental structure devoted to international cooperation, especially with the developing countries. We may cite for the purpose of illustration JAICA, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs; NORAD, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation; SIDA, the Swedish International Development Agency; DANIDA, the Danish International Development Agency; The British Council; The Direzione Generale Cooperazione Allo Sviluppo, Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the French Ministries of Cooperation and of Foreign Affairs; the USAID, the US Agency for International Development; and the BMZ, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation.

The impetus for such international cooperation, often referred to as "bilateral assistance," is essentially political in nature; it aims most often at helping friendly countries. The recipient countries may sometimes feel that this type of cooperation has more "strings attached" than does the more "neutral" cooperation with the NGOs or the intergovernmental organizations. However, the relatively larger funds invested per project by these development agencies provide incentive. In addition, there is often an element of project evaluation with strong possibilities of follow-up and phasing of the project until the national authorities can absorb its management.

A very interesting tendency can be observed among some national development agencies to shift from offering purely bilateral to the so-called "multi-bilateral" assistance. In this framework individual development projects, while financed by a donor agency, are entrusted to a specialized agency of the UN system such as Unesco, FAO, or UNIDO, for execution. In such cases, the national development agency enters into a funds-in-trust agreement with the executing agency. This trend indicates that some donor agencies recognize the competence of the specialized agencies in their respective fields and the difficulty they themselves have in dealing with projects in a very wide array of technical fields. The "multi-bilateral" approach is also preferred in sensitive areas such as communication, because, as said earlier, the association with the UN is perceived as "neutral" and void of political interests.

One agency that deserves to be singled out on two accounts is Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). First, although the IDRC is funded by the government, like the other development agencies mentioned above, it is autonomous in its policies and activities. Its Board of Governors is international and reflects the non-partisan, multicultural nature of the organization. It assists developing countries in creating their own long-term solutions to pressing development problems. The second important fact is that the IDRC has designated information as one of its major sectors of activity.

This is not generally the case. Development agencies may sometimes include an information-related component within a larger development project, but seldom assign priority to a project dealing exclusively with the establishment of an information system or network in a developing country. Access to scientific and technical information is generally not viewed as a need at the same level as food, health, education, etc., when priorities for assistance to the developing world are assigned.

This is also true of the numerous foundations that in the industrialized world support a wide variety of activities in many different areas, including music, restoration of art, study grants, etc. There again information-related activities tend to find little favour except in the form of support to publications.

2.3 Intergovernmental Organizations

While there is ample justification for bilateral modes of cooperation among countries and for their preferred orientation, it is generally recognized that there are some problems that are universally significant and appropriate for multilateral efforts, and that require concerted political will. Access to STI falls within this category. We shall consider this issue under two broad classes of intergovernmental organizations: (1) Intergovernmental organizations outside the UN system and (2) the intergovernmental organizations belonging to the UN system.

2.3.1 Intergovernmental Organizations outside the UN System

Since the end of the Second World War, we have witnessed the emergence of regional groupings of countries for cooperative purposes in the areas of politics, economics, and development. In many cases, the countries have recognized regional cooperation in information as a necessary basis for their cooperation in other fields. This has been the case, to various degrees, for instance, for the Arab League, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Commission (EC), and Les Sommets de la Francophonie (summits of countries using French as one of their languages), which created BIEF, a data bank of francophone countries that constitutes an example of successful North-South cooperation.

A regional approach to the development of cooperative information systems appeals to the countries concerned

in that it focuses attention on their specific needs and fits into a framework of other co-operative programs in the social, economic, and cultural fields. The possibility of sharing their resources for the development of national information infrastructures and for the improvement of their capacity to utilize international information systems, services and programs is also a positive feature of regional co-operation.... Similarly, the sharing of resources among countries of the same region results in greater effectiveness, particularly with regard to the training of information personnel, the use of telecommunications, the elaboration and application of norms and standards, and the improvement of access to information sources. [16]

We shall cite as an example of successful regional cooperation the EURONET - the European On-Line Information Network. Homet [8] described European policy in mass communication and telecommunication in the 1970s and pointed out the domination, rarely challenged, of the national postal, telephone, and telegraph agencies (PTTs). The engineering predilection for a single, standardized telecommunications system prevailed over arguments in favour of innovation. In fact, when the Commission of European Communities decided to establish EURONET, no public European network existed, but thought had been given at some point to building a private network with limited PTT involvement. By mid-1975 it became evident that such a network would make economic sense only if it were eventually extended for computer services and community-wide information. The technical network of EURONET became a sub-network of a public PTT network. It created for the first time a distance-independent tariff. Following the agreement with the national telecommunications authorities, EURONET was replaced by interconnected national networks in 1985.

In parallel, the European Commission encouraged the creation of European databases and their use across the Community. International collaboration was stimulated and many projects were supported by the Commission. By the end of 1988, Europe was offering more than 900 databases on 88 computer hosts. The direct information access network in Europe became known as EURONET DIANE. Many users were dissatisfied with the variety of retrieval languages that had to be used, so the Commission encouraged the use of the Common Command Language (CCL). Now, the European Commission Host Organization (ECHO), a non-commercial organization, offers access to unique databases and data banks that are not available on other on-line host services. ECHO is also a Community instrument for the development of the information services market and the promotion of new technologies [3].

This is an example of concrete and successful international cooperation within a regional group of countries. Two important ingredients were basic to the success: political will and adequate funding. All technical problems could be solved in due time.

2.3.2 Intergovernmental Organizations of the UN System

Most organizations within the UN system have developed information systems to support their internal needs as well as international information systems in their fields oriented toward member states. We are concerned here with the latter, since they contribute to improved access to science and technology. Large amounts of substantive information are gathered and disseminated by these systems. Improving the accessibility of the UN information resources has been, since its creation in 1983, one of the main objectives of ACCIS, the Advisory Committee for the Coordination of Information Systems. Earlier, the JOB, the Inter-Organization Board for Information Systems, had had this role. The Directory of United Nations Databases and Information Services [33] produced by ACCIS is a guide to 872 computerized databases and information systems and services.

These cover a wide variety of subjects, including natural resources and the environment, agriculture, industry, health, population, human settlements, science and technology, and education. In spite of their shortcomings, they have had a very positive impact. It is doubtful that such international development could have occurred solely under the auspices of national governments or private firms and in the absence of the "UN family." The legitimacy of UN systems has generated in the developing countries an interest and activity in the information field that would not have come about in their absence [7]. In fact, a developing country, in order to participate in and take advantage of the UN information systems has to develop a minimum information base, that is to train personnel, collect nationally produced documentation as input into the international systems, organize the diffusion to national users of the information made available through the UN information systems, and in many cases obtain high-level decisions and develop national policies. In all cases, a certain infrastructural development, including the use of information technology, is necessary. A statement by C. Keren, who reviewed the literature [10] deserves repetition: "Information activities in less developed countries would probably never have reached their present state without the active support of international organizations, such as Unesco, UNIDO, FAO and IAEA; professional organizations, such as FID and IFLA; and funding organizations, such as IDRC."

On the problematic side, one may say that countries without the necessary information base have not been able to benefit from these systems. The information provided by many of them is in the form of bibliographic citations, which are of limited usefulness if access to the primary literature cannot be provided. The information retrieved from these systems in large quantities often needs to be organized, evaluated, and digested by qualified personnel with a good grasp of the scientific subject covered before it can be utilized by the end user. In addition, these systems are costly and their operating budgets at the international level are usually. low. This often impedes the granting of substantial assistance to the developing countries.

A few selective examples will serve to illustrate the wide array of information services offered within the UN family:

(a) The United Nations Bibliographic Information System (UNBIS) of the Dag Hammarskj÷ld Library is an on-line bibliographic and factual information system covering the publications and documents of the United Nations. About 25 per cent of the citations concern STI.

(b) The United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) has developed the Corporate Profile System (CPS) dealing with the activities of transnational corporations in developing countries and the issue of technology development (transfer of technology, the role of transborder data flow, impact of new micro-electronic technologies). Over 60 per cent of users of the system are from the developing countries.

(c) The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) operates a regional multidisciplinary bibliographic information system called the Pan-African Documentation and Information System (PADIS), containing references to information on African economic, social, scientific, and technological development.

(d) The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) operates two major information systems, the Industrial and Technological Information Bank (INTIB) and the Technological Information

Exchange System (TIES), combining referral, retrospective search, and the provision of consolidated and repackaged information. The first, INTIB, covers bibliographic information generated by UNIDO as well as information on institutions and technology suppliers. TIES provides information on the terms and conditions of technology contracts. UNIDO also assists countries in establishing information services for industry.

(e) The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) operates the on-line International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information (INFOTERRA), which directs users to sources of information in a wide range of scientific and technological topics pertaining to the environment. UNEP also runs the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC).

(f) The United Nations University (UNU) operates a bibliographic database entitled Abstracts of Selected Solar Energy Technology (ASSET), covering solar, wind, and bioconversion energy.

(g) The two major information systems of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are the International Information System for Agricultural Sciences and Technology (AGRIS) and the Current Agricultural Research Information System (CARTS). AGRIS is a decentralized cooperative bibliographic network of centres in charge of collecting, processing, and disseminating information on published agricultural literature. CARIS is a referral system on ongoing research in the field. FAO also provides technical assistance for strengthening national information services in agriculture in the developing countries.

(h) The International Labour Organisation (ILO) operates the International Labour Documentation (LABORDOC) - a global bibliographic database covering industrial relations, technological changes, labour laws, employment, etc.

(i) The World Health Organization (WHO) is a highly decentralized organization comprising a headquarters in Geneva, six regional offices, and a number of programme coordinating units. Information systems exist at all levels on a large number of specific medical subjects.

(j) The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) operates an International Patent Documentation Centre (INPADOC) that provides information on technological solutions as described in patent documents.

(k) The International Nuclear Information System (INIS) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) covers the substantive literature of nuclear science and its peaceful applications. It is organized on the same pattern as AGRIS. It provides for decentralized input, centralized processing, decentralized access, and utilization of information.

(l) The World Weather Watch (WWW) provided by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is considered among the most successful and truly global cooperative information networks.

(m) Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, carried out in 1991 through its clearing-house an inventory of its information services [30] and lists 69 operational databases as well as 15 under development (46 per cent referral, 43 per cent bibliographic, and 10 per cent numerical). Among the numerical ones, we may cite the Statistical Yearbook, which provides access to over 2.1 million statistics from over 200 countries and territories concerning population, education, science, culture, communication, and information.

But Unesco is unique within the UN family since it not only provides information services in its areas of competence, as do the other UN agencies, but it also covers "information" as a subject and has developed programmes in this field known as UNISIST and the General Information Programme (PGI). Through these, Unesco has been concerned with improved access to STI and has provided a conceptual framework for the establishment of national, regional, and international information systems and services, including technical assistance to the developing countries. We have seen that other agencies, such as FAO and UNIDO, also provide technical assistance to member states to create national structures. Because of their scope, magnitude, "horizontal" nature, and evolution, UNISIST and PGI deserve particular attention and will be the subject of separate sections in this paper.

Another separate section will be devoted to the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development (UNCSTD), the recommendations of which are implemented by the Intergovernmental Committee on Science and Technology for Development with the support of the United Nations Centre on Science and Technology for Development. It will be remembered that UNCSTD also gave particular attention to the problem of access to STI.

The analysis of Unesco's programmes in STI, UNISIST and the PGI, their evolution, changes in emphasis, difficulties and achievements, as well as the analysis of UNCSTD's original ambitions and later problems of implementation, will provide a basis for evaluating past experiences and strategies. These programmes have offered, at various periods, high-level international forums for the expression by all countries of their information needs and requirements, their wishes and priorities, and their views regarding international cooperation in the field of information. The lessons to be drawn are important and should help in designing future programmes and aid reflection on new modalities of international cooperation.

Emphasis will be placed on strategies, choices, and approaches rather than on activities, projects, and modalities of action. Regarding modalities, we may simply recall that international programmes of cooperation have attempted to reach their objectives by a range of actions, including the convening of intergovernmental conferences, congresses, and symposia; meetings of working groups and committees; publication and diffusion of guidelines, studies, surveys, and technical documents; promotion of norms, methods, and standards; demonstration of new technologies through pilot projects; organization of training programmes and workshops; granting of fellowships, equipment, software; provision of experts and consultants; etc. In view of the emergence of new information technologies, we may ask whether: there are modalities, other than those mentioned above, to be experimented with. Will the new information technologies offer new ways of communication and exchange that will allow innovation and the exploration of new horizons in international cooperation?

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