Free information flow: How data lowers poverty

Cambodian rice farmers are affected by low rice prices

Cambodian rice farmers are affected by low rice prices (Photo: DDD)

Cambodian rice farmer Ly Prim is stuck in a vicious cycle she doesn’t know how to break. Low rice prices have hit her income directly, meaning she doesn’t make enough to pay back loans she took out at season’s start. “Adding up the cost of seeds, fertilizer and manpower, I can’t even break even,” she said. She also has no money to buy better seed that might improve her crop, and finds herself facing a mounting pile of debt. Her story is not unique and as she spoke at a public form in late May, the heads of those around her nodded in agreement.

She and around 75 other farmers gathered were airing their frustrations in Talaos commune, a rural area in Cambodia’s Battambang province, not far from the Thai border. They and four government officials had gathered at a meeting that was part of a project using open data to improve access to information and increase the levels of public participation in rural areas of the country with the overall goal of bringing down poverty rates and boosting food security.

By bringing publicly available, accurate data to communities often cut off from it and opening up channels of communication between citizens and decision-makers, the thinking went, community members will have tools at their disposal to make decisions that can improve their lives and better hold public officials to account.

Another project goal was to help Cambodia stay on track to meet its 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Poverty in the Kingdom’s has fallen sharply – the UN target of reducing the poverty rate to 19 percent has almost been met. However, a large majority of families who have lifted themselves out of poverty have only done so by a small margin. In addition, about 90 percent of those who are still poor live in the countryside; most of them are rice farmers.

That means the consequences of a drop in rice prices and a fall in income for those living near the poverty line or under it are serious.

Painful price drop

In Talaos commune, the fall in rice prices has been especially painful. About 90 percent of the adults living in the commune are rice farmers. They have watched with alarm as their already modest incomes have fallen along with the prices they get for their crops. In fact, in a survey, the low price of rice was listed as their primary worry.

Rice prices on the world market began slipping seriously around August 2013, and continued to fall or stay at low levels through the first quarter of this year. Events beyond Cambodia’s borders were largely to blame, namely developments in neighboring Thailand. A Thai government plan begun in 2011 paid farmers above-market rates for their rice. But government stockpiles eventually reached record levels, and officials began releasing large quantities of rice on the market, pushing up the supply and driving down prices.

According to the rice news portal Oryza, the price for a ton of Cambodian jasmine rice fell by 7 percent between December and February. The price for Thai hom mali rice fell 17 percent between December and March. That had ramifications throughout the supply chain. Rice millers lowered their prices and paid less for the paddy rice they got from farmers like Ly Prim.

Free Information Flow

While this kind of trade issue affecting rice prices is outside Cambodian farmers’ control, there are tools they can use to weather the economic storm. An important one is good, reliable data, which was at the center of this project, which was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and implemented by the German development agency GIZ and the media development organization DW Akademie.

Easy access to information is not a given in Cambodia, where some 80 percent live outside of urban areas. Many villages have limited electricity or none at all. Poor roads in many areas make newspaper delivery difficult or impossible and online access can be rare. In addition, data from government agencies, NGOs and development organizations are often seen as representing a particular position; viewers tend to be wary of it. But without good information – for example, on markets, price trends or new agricultural techniques – farmers are ill equipped to make the kinds of decisions and changes necessary to respond to a changing world.

At the public forum, villagers craned their necks to see a series of slides projected on a screen up front. They showed the types of rice Cambodia exports, price trends, and the country’s top exporters. The slides were from a report that had been produced at a data journalism workshop in the capital Phnom Penh earlier in the year. Much of the information came from open-data sites such as Open Development Cambodia (ODC), which aggregates and disseminates publically available data on development trends in the country.

The slides brought information found online at sites like ODC to largely offline communities like Talaos commune. The data provided a fact-based foundation for debates on important development issues like this one.

“The visualized data really inspired the forum since it reached people in a friendly and understandable way,” said Tep Bunthan, a forum moderator and manager at the Women’s Media Centre (WMC), a Cambodian broadcaster. “The graphs helped people take part in productive discussions.”

Armed with the new information, community members were more informed as they addressed the government officials who were there, sharing their experiences and asking directly what could be done.

“There’s no accurate information about buyers and we don’t know who or where to sell our paddy rice,” said rice farmer Keo Chreub. “Could the Ministry of Agriculture and rice mills give local farmers accurate information about rice prices and provide a guide on producing premium seeds for fragrant rice inexpensively?”

The officials listened to their concerns and several offered new strategies, including suggesting that farmers form a community-based rice association to share knowledge and increase their bargaining power with buyers. The provincial agriculture department agreed to share more information about rice varieties that are more attractive on the export market.

The public forums were aired live around the country on WMC’s radio station. The broadcaster also held a call-in show on rice prices several weeks later with national-level officials.

In addition to the rice issue, other issues addressed by the project were passports and ID cards for migrants and the low-wages earned by Cambodian garment factory workers.

Helping meet development challenges

Cambodia, while showing strong economic growth over the past few years, still faces myriad development challenges. Rice prices and outward migration are two this project has addressed, but others such as land rights, natural resource use, a culture of impunity and good governance are equally critical. They are all challenges to implementing the UN’s post-2015 sustainable development goals, which are currently under discussion.

Few people think increasing citizens’ access to information is a panacea, but history shows giving people information they need helps them make more informed decisions and take concrete action to boost their livelihoods.

For example, the information about prices, markets and popular rice varieties can help farmers determine which types of rice and how much of it they should plant. Data on the country’s top rice exporters gives farmers information about who they might approach when the harvest comes in, making them less dependent on middlemen.

Even though the scope of this project was modest, it bore fruit in several areas: increasing political participation by giving citizens direct access to decision-makers, providing practical information to boost livelihoods and food security, and spurring officials to promise concrete steps toward improvement.

Whether those promises will actually be kept is still an open question. There are also concerns that Cambodia’s strong hierarchical structure and ingrained patronage system will prove resistant to change, even if its traditional culture of secrecy is slowly eroded by open data and a freer flow of information.

But for advocates of open data and free information flows like Thy Try, ODC’s executive director, making better data available to more people is a promising move toward increased political participation, more democratic governance and sustainable development. It gives information, and power, to the people who need it.

“In the absence of good data and information, too often dialogue on development issues is driven by emotions and personal opinions. This has certainly been the case in Cambodia,” he said. “One student noted that she really likes ODC because no one tells her what to think. She can look at the information and make her own analysis.”

In Battambang, rice farmer Ly Prim did something similar. At the public forum, one of the slides presented a breakdown of the most popular types of rice Cambodia exports, including Phkar Romdoul. Ly Prim decided to take advantage of that new knowledge.

“I want to sell my rice at a higher price, so this year I’ve switched to growing Phkar Romdoul,” she said. While she’s not confident that the government will do all that much to help struggling farmers like her, the forum did allow her to at least tell officials about the issues she faces. The data presented there spurred her to go ahead and take concrete action on her own.

By Kyle James and Penhleak Chan

This article about the Cambodian pilot project was first published on Digital-Development-Debates.  

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