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Purpose and rationale

This paper outlines three agricultural and rural extension market reforms and two non-marketing reforms, at all times emphasizing stakeholder, and particularly enduser, participation in the approaches employed in these reforms. It also recognizes the need for non-farm microenterprise development initiatives, and advocates coordinating this effort with other international organizations. The paper recommends that FAO should explore these and related institutional reform options with the developing countries, as an important means of assisting them to revitalize their agricultural and rural extension systems.

In the present climate of change, poverty alleviation and food security are major concerns to FAO and its member states. This was evidenced at the 1996 World Food Summit, at which the representatives of FAO member countries pledged their dedication to alleviating poverty using every means available. Agricultural and rural extension is one of the means available to help alleviate poverty and improve food security. It promotes the transfer and exchange of information that can be converted into functional knowledge, which is instrumental in helping to develop enterprises that promote productivity and generate income.

In addition to technology transfer, agricultural and rural extension is a unique service in that it provides access by small farmers and the rural poor living far from the urban centres to non-formal education and information services. While it can provide these populations with services to increase their productivity, their food security will depend on institutional development and income-generation, together with increased food crop output. Studies of food security and malnutrition (Von Braun 1993) have concluded that the primary cause of malnutrition in the less developed countries is not the scarcity of food so much as distribution problems, and the existence of poverty. In a major report on world agriculture, the World Bank stated: « the long run, people can attain food security only if they have adequate income.»

On the subject of productivity, FAO’s Director-General notes that «farm output by small farmers in low-income food-deficit countries is feasible (often using quite simple and low-cost technologies) and can, under most circumstances, achieve the combined objectives of improving rural livelihoods, increasing food supplies within rural communities, having a multiplier effect on economic growth, and reducing foreign exchange expenditure on food imports» (FAO 2001). Similar assumptions underlie the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach espoused by the UK’s Department for International Development, the Sasakawa Global-2000 programme and the Soil Fertility Initiative. It is becoming increasingly more evident that the long-term solution to world hunger lies in "helping the poor to produce more and better-quality staple food more efficiently in order to take the first step out of poverty" (Diouf 2000). This implies the need to raise farm productivity per unit of input, improve the competitiveness of food marketing systems (so that local producers have incentives to raise productivity when faced by the reality or prospect of cheaper food imports), and raise the incomes of the poor throughout the developing world. Certainly, if farmers are to increase production, adequate attention needs to be paid to helping them keep their production costs per unit competitive with prevailing market prices, which are notoriously fickle (FAO 1987).

Yet, as the FAO’s The State of Food and Agriculture 2000 concludes:

Reducing poverty and food insecurity is not simply a question of enhancing agricultural productivity and production or of generating more income. Institutions are the structuring features that command access of people to assets, to voice and to power over their lives and that regulate competing claims to limited resources. It is fundamental to address those institutional, governance and politico-economic factors that tend to exclude individuals and population groups from progress.

Perhaps it goes without saying that extension as an institution is only one component in agricultural and rural development processes, and that it is only one vehicle for fostering change in agricultural and rural development. Yet the importance of knowledge and the rapidity of its transfer and exchange in the modern world are increasingly recognized as central to trade and development, in high-income as well as in low-income countries (Drucker 1998; Zijp 1994). Extension’s high economic rates of return indicate its potential to bring about change (Birkhaeuser, Evenson & Feder 1988). The world has entered a new economic system that has evolved from «structural adjustment» and trade liberalization, and also from technological progress and advances in telecommunications and greater interdependence of the world labour, product, and financial markets. While knowledge and capital are becoming increasingly more central to achieving success in this new economic system, some countries have yet to consider the value of making knowledge available through revived extension services. The pressures of the new economy may soon induce these countries to re-examine their extension institutions and their extension institutional arrangements with a view to reforming and revitalizing them.

The extension reforms being adopted worldwide offer new ways of viewing and addressing the issue of agricultural and rural development.

Change today is global and rapid. A new paradigm has emerged towards a market- driven, agribusiness orientation, stressing comparative advantage in a highly competitive global market. This globalization and market orientation is placing new pressures on governments and their people to produce more, for both domestic consumption and trade.

At the same time, the developing countries have implemented structural adjustments that have made them reduce public spending on services. But the international organizations are nevertheless urging the developing countries to foster educational activities and enhance their human capital. The commitment to poverty alleviation and food security is an expression of that concern, especially for rural areas remote from the urban centres.

Although learning via agricultural extension services is only one component of the complex process of development, studies suggest that this process produces high economic rates of return (Birkhaeuser, Evenson, & Feder 1988). Few would deny that work-related functional knowledge is central to economic success. In the present context of change, one of the challenges facing FAO is how to promote the economic success of the countries that represent the billion or so people who lack the functional knowledge which agricultural and rural extension can help to provide.

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