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Agricultural extension at the turn of the millennium: trends and challenges

M.K. Qamar

M.K Qamar is Senior Officer (Agricultural Training and Extension) in the Research, Extension and Training Division of FAO's Sustainable Development Department at FAO headquarters in Rome; e-mail: kalim.qamar@

This article presents a brief but critical account of the following key trends and challenges in agricultural extension which have become global issues as the new millennium starts: emphasis on a broader role, decentralization, privatization, pluralism, client-orientation, emphasis on location, effective methodologies, application of electronic information technology, introduction of the "distance extension" modality, incorporation of non-agricultural messages, participatory extension, revitalization necessitated by reforms, interdisciplinary and integration trends, impact assessment, and roles in sustainable development and livelihoods. Both the positive and the negative aspects of these are briefly discussed.


La vulgarisation agricole au seuil du nouveau millénaire: tendances et défis

L'article est un exposé à la fois succinct et critique des principales tendances et défis représentant globalement les engagements du nouveau millénaire dans le domaine de la vulgarisation agricole. Ce sont: l'accent mis sur un rôle plus vaste, la décentralisation, la privatisation, le pluralisme, l'orientation en fonction des clients, une meilleure identification des sites, des méthodologies efficaces, l'application des technologies d'information électroniques, l'introduction des modalités de «vulgarisation à distance», l'incorporation de messages non agricoles, la vulgarisation participative, la revitalisation exigée par les réformes, les tendances interdisciplinaires et l'impératif d'intégration, l'évaluation des impacts, et le rôle dans le développement durable et dans l'économie de subsistance. Les avantages et inconvénients sont brièvement exposés.


La extensión agrícola en el nuevo milenio: tendencias y desafíos

El artículo presenta una breve pero esencial reseña de las tendencias y los desafíos que se plantean a nivel mundial en el campo de la extensión agrícola al comenzar el nuevo milenio y que son: el conferimiento de una función más amplia, la descentralización, la privatización, el pluralismo, la orientación hacia las exigencias del usuario, la necesidad de hacer hincapié en la localización, la aplicación de metodologías eficaces, el empleo de tecnología electrónica de información, la introducción de la modalidad de «extensión a distancia», la incorporación de mensajes no relacionados con la agricultura, la extensión participativa, la revitalización que requieren las reformas, las tendencias interdisciplinarias y la integración, la evaluación del impacto, y la función de la extensión en relación con el desarrollo y los medios de sustento sostenibles. Asimismo se examinan sucintamente los aspectos positivos y negativos de estas tendencias y desafíos.


Agricultural extension began as a discipline more than a century ago, and has come a long way since then. Much has been learned from the experiences of educating farming communities. The process of learning is an ongoing one which continually draws attention to a longstanding challenge: the reform of agricultural extension in such a way as to ensure provision of the best possible services to rural populations. As history shows, those organizations that were vigilant in adapting to the changing needs of their clients lasted far longer than those that ignored the call for change. This article briefly reviews the major trends and challenges observed at the turn of the millennium, which may well shape agricultural extension services for many years to come.

The key trends and challenges

Broader role

The very definition, scope and technical focus of agricultural extension are now under scrutiny. The question being raised is why should extension services focus exclusively on the transfer of agricultural technology, which is not only a passive function but also utilizes a top-down approach? The result is that more emphasis is now being placed on human resources development, i.e. on developing the problem solving and decision-making capacities of farmers.
Another issue under discussion is whether extension should cover only agriculture, as in the past, or whether it should also address other aspects of rural and agricultural development. The logic behind a broader technical coverage is that the farmer should be considered a person with a number of educational needs, of which agriculture is just one. Another relevant line of thought is the multifunctional character of agriculture and land, an apparently controversial topic that brought hundreds of participants to a global conference in the Netherlands in 1999.1


There is a drive to decentralize agricultural extension, and a number of countries have disbanded the top-down, multilayer organizational structure. The new emphasis is on having a small unit at the national level to handle policy, coordination and training matters and to delegate the functions of programme planning, implementation and even fiscal authority to district-level administrations.
In many instances, decentralization has placed the responsibility for agricultural extension in the hands of local government. Initial observations show that the success of decentralization is variable. In the case of the Philippines, for example, the dominance of district-level politicians has compromised the effectiveness of extension programmes. In Ghana and Indonesia, the move towards decentralization seems to be working relatively well, although not fully satisfactorily. In Uganda, some district authorities have preferred to spend their extension budgets on constructing feeder roads, leaving extension staff with no pay for several months. In Colombia, by law, each municipality has to create its own multidisciplinary extension service, but these services still receive most of their budgets from the central government.


Such new terms as "outsourcing extension", "cost-recovery for extension services" and "contracting out extension" are related to the drive for privatization of agricultural extension services. There are three main forces behind this drive: general dissatisfaction with the performance of public extension services; the dwindling financial resources of government departments; and the commercial interests of private companies.
Costa Rica has a unique system under which the government provides farmers with extension vouchers which can be used to obtain extension advice from private specialists. In the United Kingdom, the public extension service has evolved over time into a private consulting practice. The positive result is improved staff efficiency, while the negative effect is the exclusion of small farmers from extension services, owing to their inability or unwillingness to pay.
In the Netherlands, about 60 percent of the extension budget comes from farmers and the remaining 40 percent is provided by the government. Benefits of this system include increased efficiency, improved quality, client-orientation, job satisfaction for staff, and expanded marketing opportunities for farmers. The problems faced include loss of government authority, the government's inability to keep its financial promises, and poorer communication with stakeholders resulting from the creation of competition among them. In Albania, private sector entrepreneurial initiatives to create a long-term relationship with farmers have proved successful. Bulgaria privatized a number of state farms to be used as demonstration farms, with the objective of establishing a private extension service. Since the experiment was unsuccessful, the government has decided to establish a national extension service with external financial assistance. Estonia has both a public extension advisory service for poor farmers and a private service for better-off farmers. To take an example from Central America, extension services in Nicaragua are both decentralized and semi-private.
In Israel, efforts even to semi-privatize the national extension service have not met with success. The government is still responsible for providing extension advice, but encourages privatization in the following ways: growers contribute a portion of their incomes to research and development, including extension; there is public and private partnership in financing and operating units within extension services; services over and above a basic extension package are paid for by commodity production and marketing boards; more intensive extension activities are provided when needy growers request them; there are special agreements with commodity farmers' organizations; on their days off, extension staff work for direct payment from farmers; growers' associations provide equipment such as mobile phones to extension advisers; and farmers pay directly for participation in training activities.
Advocates of the privatization of extension services believe that farmers should pay for extension advice. However, there is a genuine concern that the zeal for cost-recovery could prevent small farmers from benefiting from the services. Small farmers either do not believe that the extension advice is worth paying for, or they simply cannot afford to pay. A satisfactory solution would be for commercial farmers to pay for extension advice, while services to small producers are provided free of charge by the government.


In some developing countries, such as Mali, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private companies and semi-autonomous bodies are engaged in delivering extension advice to farmers. Several factors are responsible for bringing so many actors into agricultural extension. These include the slender resources of the public extension system; structural adjustment reforms; the removal of farm subsidies; withdrawal of the farm inputs supply function from public extension organizations; and inadequate extension coverage in terms of clientele, subject matter and opportunities for selling farm inputs at a profit.
The modality of using both public and non-public institutions for delivering extension services to farming communities, called the pluralistic extension system, is gaining popularity. The obvious rationale is the pooling of all available resources in order to reduce unhealthy competition, obviate redundancy of services and compensate for low ministry of agriculture budgets. A recently formulated national policy on extension in Bangladesh favours collaboration with the private sector and NGOs under a decentralized extension system. In Honduras, where extension services are being privatized and small farmers are unable to pay, some 70 NGOs reach about 50 000 farmers, most of whom live in remote areas.
The main potential challenge in installing a proper pluralistic agricultural extension mechanism is its coordination among various agencies. The absence of such coordination has sometimes led to conflicting technical recommendations, which creates confusion among the farmers.

Client orientation

The old practice of delivering the same technical messages to all farmers using the same extension methodology is gradually being replaced by client-focused approaches. The extension clientele includes subsistence farmers, commercial farmers, rural youth, women, the rural poor, the physically disabled and, recently, the families of HIV/AIDS-affected farmers. These groups of clients all have different extension needs. This realization has given rise to such new terms as "client-oriented extension" and "gender-sensitive extension".
In certain countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has changed the composition of the extension clientele, bringing young orphans, widows, the physically weak, the elderly and ill persons into the fields. It has caused deaths, prolonged illness and absenteeism among extension staff. The epidemic is thus no longer just a health problem - it has become a serious development issue, challenging the validity of present agricultural extension strategies. FAO is currently investigating the impact of HIV/AIDS on extension organizations. Another FAO study is aimed at identifying the extension needs of farmers with physical disabilities in selected countries that have been subjected to long wars.

Location emphasis

Closely related to the preceding point is the increasing emphasis on developing special extension programmes for farmers living in particular locations, such as mountains, small islands and deserts. Institutions such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have been working towards addressing the special needs of farming communities located in mountainous regions. Recently, with the assistance of FAO, a meeting of the Mountain Grasslands Working Group was held in Romania to review the current extension assistance available to people living in the mountains of Eastern European countries.
Another budding concern is the development of urban agriculture, the underlying cause of which is the increasing food needs of sprawling cities. This will definitely present new challenges to extension staff who have been trained to work with farming communities in rural areas. FAO organized a conference on feeding the Asian cities, in Bangkok in late November 2000.

Effective methodologies

The search for improved extension methodologies is an ongoing process. The triggering forces are growing dissatisfaction with existing methodologies and socio-economic developments that necessitate fresh approaches. The village aid programme was followed by the integrated rural development approach, farming systems methods, the training and visit (T&V) system, the farmer-to-farmer extension approach, Farmer Field Schools (FFS) and other even more recent methodologies. Of the various methodologies developed over the past two decades, the T&V system enjoyed the widest geographical coverage and financing, owing to World Bank patronage. However, this methodology is now losing favour. Two of the main criticisms levelled against it are that it follows a top-down approach, and that it is not sustainable, collapsing as soon as external funding runs out. Many countries are modifying the T&V system for several reasons, including high recurrent staff costs and difficulties in creating a unified extension service.
The extension through integrated rural development approach did not prove to be effective, mainly owing to a lack of interdepartmental coordination. Farming systems methods remain useful when the planning of several farming-related components is focused on achieving optimal efficiency in resource use. Participatory extension methods have taken different forms, such as farmers' group methods, community-based planning and FFS. The FFS method has demonstrated its usefulness in integrated pest management (IPM) programmes, especially in Southeast Asia, mainly because it is environmentally friendly. However, this method is now being almost overpromoted, and other suitable and less expensive extension methods are not being identified - a situation that is reminiscent of the history of the T&V system. The main strength of the FFS system is its use of participatory processes for learning and decision-making by farmers, who attend regular training sessions which are led by a facilitator and held in a farmer's field throughout a cropping season. Its main weaknesses are that the method is too costly, hence sustainability is questionable, barely involves national extension systems and demands farmers' and facilitators' physical presence in the field for long periods for IPM education alone.
The main strength of the farmer-to-farmer extension method lies in its use of farmers' indigenous knowledge and the high value that it attaches to their opinions. While the objective is to promote a grassroots methodology that does not have significant involvement from extension agents, it has its limitations. The organization of farmers in viable, homogeneous and sustainable groups is a challenge in itself. Furthermore, the technical knowledge of farmers may not reflect the latest developments in agricultural technology, and may encourage the continuation of inappropriate traditional practices. The old problem of weak linkages between research and extension still persists, and it is unlikely that there will be any real participation in research agenda formulation on the part of farmers (many of whom are illiterate).
Experience shows that no single system of agricultural extension is suitable for all situations and, therefore, extension approaches and methodologies should be developed according to the specific situation at hand. For this reason, it is possible that different methodologies may be needed for different situations, even within the same country. Nepal, where there are numerous microclimatic zones and agricultural activities take place both in the mountains and on the plains, provides an example of such a country.
The search for improved extension methodologies is bound to continue. Turkey's extension service now offers its clientele a package of technical assistance and human resource development. A recent FAO-sponsored case study carried out in northern Pakistan examines female extension officers' use of rural women's community development groups. The women extension officers have used these groups as a platform for imparting extension advice rather than making individual field visits, which are difficult for cultural and religious reasons as well as from the point of view of personal safety.

Applying electronic information technology

Extension organizations in developing countries face two major problems regarding direct contact between farmers and researchers: the physical distances involved and a lack of transport. The new information technology (IT) could remove these physical barriers to a great extent through the development and application of appropriate, interactive information mechanisms (e.g. video conferencing).
Advanced IT is making headway in the area of rural and agricultural development. A number of countries, including the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Viet Nam and Mali, are experimenting with telecentres, which have already been initiated in several western European countries. Virtual linkages are being established to bring research and extension together. One example is the Virtual Extension, Research and Communication Network (VERCON), which FAO is trying to introduce in Egypt. Expert systems are also being developed to compensate, to some extent, for the scarcity of subject-matter specialists' visits to farmers' fields. The use of cellular phones is by now routine, and the technology is being used for a rural development project in Bangladesh. More than 30 percent of extension staff in Estonia use the Internet, and there are such programmes as "virtual gardens" and "virtual farms" on the World Wide Web. The main issue is how to harness the powers of advanced IT, for the benefit of both extension agents and farmers, without compromising the importance of human and unique local factors.

Introducing the distance extension modality

A new concept, the distance extension modality,2 which makes use of both indigenous and advanced IT but gives due consideration to the human factor, may be used in the following conditions:

The modality of distance extension would follow the principles of distance learning, but the strategy for putting the concept into action will require serious consideration of factors such as clientele characteristics, the nature of technical messages and physical infrastructure. While distance extension has great potential, it should not be considered as a substitute for conventional extension systems. Instead, it should be used as a supplementary tool, maintaining the focus on the human factor rather than aiming for total dependence on modern IT.

Incorporation of non-agricultural messages

In developing countries, public agricultural extension departments have a major comparative advantage over other technical departments: their field agents visit farmers more frequently than the staff of any other technical units. This fact has generated fertile opportunities for using extension agents to "piggyback" non-agricultural educational messages to farmers while they are introducing improved agricultural technologies. Examples include messages on the environment, population and HIV/AIDS-related issues.
Training modules on the integration of environment and population education into extension programmes, which were developed by FAO, have been satisfactorily introduced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and, more recently, Egypt, Jordan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Lebanon. The new messages have been incorporated in a way that highlights the relationships among natural resources, food production, population and environment, and seem to have strong learning appeal to farmers.

Participatory extension

The forces of democracy and civil society are demanding that agricultural extension programmes be developed with the full participation of farmers. This powerful trend has led to modalities such as farmer group extension, client-oriented extension, gender-sensitive extension, FFS, and research-extension-farmer linkages. It has also led to participatory tools such as participatory rural appraisal, the knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP) survey and the strategic extension campaign. Advocacy for empowering farmers has increased greatly.
Powerful farmer associations are now common in Uganda. Recently, the Netherlands' Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) has initiated participatory extension research in a number of African countries. Indonesia has successfully established new institutions at the provincial level called Agricultural Technology Assessment Institutes, which bring together farmers, researchers, extension specialists, NGOs, the private sector and universities. In Pakistan, groups of highly motivated small farmers, established under FAO's Special Programme on Food Security (SPFS), are taking decisions on matters related to group cash savings, quality seed, fertilizer, water management, cultural practices, farm machinery, income diversification activities and the marketing of produce. In Argentina, one of the main factors contributing to the success of a federal programme for small and medium-sized farms is the involvement of all stakeholders in major decision-making. Similarly, Jordan's extension service has established the Close Contact Groups of farmers.

Revitalization necessitated by reforms

At present, it is possible to identify three main categories of countries where major efforts are needed to revitalize agricultural extension services. The first of these categories comprises countries such as Jamaica that have been subjected to structural adjustment reforms resulting in the drastic downsizing of extension services. Second are countries, located in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia, that were once communist and are now struggling to follow demand-driven market policies. Third are such countries as the United Republic of Tanzania and the Philippines, where extension services have been weakened, at least initially, by decentralization.
In an international workshop help in Poland in June 1999, FAO presented a paper on the restructuring of agricultural extension and research services in Central and Eastern European countries as they prepare to join the European Union (EU). Another FAO-sponsored paper, on the subject of extension management in the region, was presented at a conference held in Hungary in May 2000. Indonesia's decentralized extension services are being strengthened under a World Bank project, while the Philippines is seeking FAO's assistance in revitalizing its devolved extension services.

Interdisciplinary and integration trends

The trend towards making extension interdisciplinary and integrated within other developmental programmes is growing. Recently, the World Bank and FAO jointly outlined a vision for reforming agricultural knowledge and information systems (AKIS). A group of bi- and multilateral donors (the Neuchatel Group) meets every year for informal consultation on the strengthening of national extension systems in sub-Saharan African countries within the context of donors' overall development efforts. FAO is also running an integrated programme in southern Africa, which is funded by Norway and Finland. This programme comprises agricultural research and extension, household resource management, gender-disaggregated data collection and analysis, socio-economic and gender analysis (SEAGA), domestic animal diversity, meta-database development and communications technology.
In Burkina Faso, farming system researchers have introduced an integrated method called Farm Management Groups Counselling. This is a participatory approach based on farm diagnostics and leading to the introduction of innovations within the context of a training programme. In Sri Lanka, extension efforts are being integrated by the departments of agriculture, export agriculture, animal production and health and the Coconut Cultivation Board.

Impact assessment

There has always been concern for the difficulties faced in carrying out objective evaluation and impact assessment of agricultural extension programmes. Identifying the impact of extension within an agricultural development programme is a difficult task. The topic has gained more attention recently, probably as a result of recognition of the usefulness of extension in future development programmes and the quantitative justification needed by donors and governments for further investment in agricultural extension, among other factors. FAO is planning a regional workshop to be held in the Caribbean in 2001 on the subject of the monitoring and evaluation of extension programmes, based on case studies from six countries.

Roles in sustainable development and livelihoods

Ever since the Earth Summit was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there has been a global campaign for environmental protection, natural resources management and sustainable development. Almost all international development agencies, donors, national governments, universities, the private sector and NGOs have created new departments and have taken various initiatives in the desired direction. Farmers in France, in collaboration with professional agricultural organizations, are voluntarily managing nitrogen practices because the excessive application of nitrogen fertilizers has damaged water quality through nitrate infiltration and regulatory measures have not proved very effective. In certain Western European countries and in the United States, there is growing interest in organic agriculture among farmers. The pro-organic and non-organic, and the pro- and anti-biotechnology, movements are worldwide phenomena.
Agricultural extension services are being looked at more seriously for their potential role in educating the rural masses in management of natural resources and protection of the environment. For example, in collaboration with researchers and farmers, extension organizations might screen new technologies for their environmental friendliness, in contrast with the old practice of introducing all improved technologies without assessing their environmental impacts. FAO's initiatives for integrating environment education and population education within ongoing agricultural extension programmes are in line with the promotion of sustainable rural and agricultural development through extension. Another emerging area where extension is expected to play an important role is that of sustainable livelihoods. While the concept of sustainable livelihoods is a good one, its comprehensive implementation across all aspects of life in developing countries is bound to present formidable operational challenges.


The key trends and developments in agricultural extension observed in this new millennium reflect current global socio-economic change. Certain concepts, such as participation, client-orientation and decentralization, are interrelated and overlap with one another. Some developments, such as those related to modern IT, are highly attractive, which brings the risk of ignoring the human factor in favour of the sale and installation of IT equipment, no matter what common sense dictates. The distance extension modality could be a useful tool with which to apply the new IT judiciously. There has never been one single agricultural extension model or methodology that could be applied universally. The real challenge, therefore, is to find normative frameworks and guidelines that may be used by developing countries to prepare extension methodologies that suit their respective conditions technically, culturally and financially. It is difficult to see that all the recent initiatives in extension will prove to be as beneficial as intended, and much work still needs to be done to develop them. Only time will tell whether the right assumptions have been made. A thorough re-examination of the agricultural extension discipline is under way, and this is good news both for the subject and for rural and agricultural development.

1 FAO/Netherlands Conference on the Multifunctional Character of Agriculture and Land, 12 to 17 September 1999, Maastricht, the Netherlands.

2 The term "distance extension" was coined by the author of this article.


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