The role of agricultural extension is vital to the diffusion of new technology, but extension is currently failing (Malawi 2000) or moribund (Eicher 2001) in many African nations. In other low-income developing countries, extension is in disarray or barely functioning at all. Staff are bloated, under-trained, not mobile, and therefore not proactive. There is also little, if any, coordination between extension and research, and even less between extension and agricultural higher education.
Meanwhile, other forces are affecting the development of agricultural and rural extension services emphasizing issues and challenges for much needed reforms (Qamar 2000). A «complex» of extension providers has emerged, involving nonprofit non-governmental organizations and for-profit private companies, and farmer organizations and commercial associations of extension specialists have also come to the fore. In some cases, these non-public sector extension service providers hire public sector extension agents on secondment, which has been termed «contracting-in» (Anderson & Crowder 2000).
The worlds expansion beyond the global village is a reality that has strongly affected public sector extension. Globalization is inextricably linked to privatization, and countries are finding themselves confronted by a new and highly competitive global market. Major economic restructuring is taking place in both the developed and the developing countries, and has greatly changed the balance of responsibility between the public and private sectors (Fresco 2000). In many cases, trade liberalization places the developing countries at a disadvantage in the global market. The question arises: In this climate of change, what is FAOs role?
Increasingly privatized, agricultural information has in fact become a price-tag «commodity» (Buttel 1991; Rivera 2000). This commodification of agricultural knowledge is a major factor in the present worldwide transformation of public sector agricultural extension and the advancement of private sector technology transfer systems. This change towards information commodification reflects the privatization of information and agricultural industrialization (Wolf 1998). One result is that farmers, especially in high-income and middle-income countries, have begun to pay for extension services. While this may not yet be the case in many lowincome countries, the trend indicates the value placed on agricultural information. One way of reducing poverty is to generate incomes through the training and information-sharing that agricultural and rural extension services can provide (Yonggong 1998). It therefore appears to be in the interests of low-income countries to promote services to provide practical, income-generating agricultural information to their rural populations. Apart from the immediate value of educating their rural populations in the financial value of agricultural information, they will also help them to reach a financial level at which they can pay for such services. Contemporary extension reform strategies demand attention because they have long-term consequences on economic growth and short-term consequences in terms of improving rural situations by helping to reduce poverty.
The world has in many ways become smaller. Globalization has occurred with the ease and rapidity of the development of transport and telecommunications. There is a tendency towards greater transnational corporate development. Some argue that there has been a «power shift» (Mathews 1997) from public sector dominance to private sector hegemony. As this development emerged, fiscal problems in the public sectors of the developing countries became apparent, and donor organizations began to impose structural adjustment programmes to bring the developing countries into line with the financial demands of a stricter financial «world order». These structural adjustment programmes have strongly impacted the national governments of less developed countries - many of whom were, and continue to be, under pressure to reform their public sector systems.
A new paradigm towards market-driven reforms and with an agribusiness orientation has resulted from this, severely affecting the funding and delivery of agricultural and rural extension. These changes have produced a turning-point, and are having radically repercussions in term of the way public sector agricultural extension is conceived and practised.
The agricultural sector faces increased competitive challenges. Urban centres will continue to attract people from rural areas. The advancement of science and technology will increasingly pressure countries to modernize. Technologies must be tailored to new contexts if they are to be effective, and such adaptations require an educated workforce.
Preparing an educated workforce will require considerable investment in education, in-service job training (e.g. for under-trained agricultural extension and rural development agents), and the knowledge exchange component of the technology system. At the same time, governments will probably find it difficult to continue to operate status quo ante. New strategies are taking on primary importance for policy-makers concerned with meeting the demands of the global market place, while at the same time catering for the needs of their rural populations. Lowincome countries are faced with the inescapable challenge of qualitatively and quantitatively increasing the rate at which they are moving forward if they are to survive in the global market place. Yet it is still obvious that there is under-investment in extension, and in research and agricultural education (Swanson 1997).
In the final analysis a number of policy questions will need to be addressed again: Who will pay for such services as agricultural and rural extension? Who will deliver the services? And equally important: Who is to be served? How will they be served? and, for what purpose?
In some cases, the solution to the developmental problem may be not to improve agriculture. Where there is little potential, an agricultural programme cannot have much impact and there will be only small returns on investment. Out-migration in the short-term, or industrialization in the long-term, may be the appropriate solutions. Where agriculture is a viable development option, commitment should be clear-cut, recognizing that there will be different target groups to be served.
The implication of target group analysis is that there must necessarily be different extension systems to meet a wide variety of different needs. Extension or extension- related services will become more purpose-specific, target-specific, and need-specific. In some instances, such services will transmit high-tech messages. In others, farm management skills will be developed (Ngala 2000). In some instances, farmers will organize themselves for marketing purposes. In short, a wide range of institutions will be established and developments take place, expanding the range of educational, organizational and technology exchange services for agricultural and rural development.
At this juncture, farmers have to be convinced that extension systems and the information they communicate are valuable for income-generation in particular and for improving their living standards in general. Assisting resource-poor farmers with appropriate technology may provide the opportunity for rural households to increase their productivity and incomes. In some cases, the new opportunities envisaged by farmers may slow down rural-urban migration.
Small, low-resource farmers represent a vast segment of developing country populations; higher incomes, education, and greater involvement in development can also encourage them to make more efficient use of the land, labour, and capital resources in rural areas. This can be done in several ways, according to Swanson (1997); for instance, (a) small farm households could be helped to intensify and diversify their farming systems, (b) small farmers need to be brought into the market economy, (c) small farmers also need encouragement to practise agricultural sustainability, and (d) small farmers need to be helped to organize themselves around their mutual agricultural interests. Swansons language may appear supply-driven and top-down, but the basic aims expressed are in line with current development needs.
There is a growing consensus that to create a demand-driven technology system there must be direct involvement by farmers in identifying problems, establishing priorities, and carrying out on-farm research and extension activities (Rivera, Zijp & Alex 2000). Demand-driven extension is desirable in many instances, although a balance must be struck between the demands of government and those of farmers in different economic categories (e.g. estate, emerging, low-income, and marginal). Striking a balance between institutional «supply systems» and farmer-initiated demand-driven extension/technology systems should in many cases be the ultimate goal of countries eager to advance to higher stages of development and competitive power.