FAO makes a major contribution to developing agricultural and rural extension institutions and programmes. It is actively committed to fostering multiple extension approaches and methodologies, organizing world conferences, exchanging information with external sources, and undertaking many field activities. Underlying this diversity, however, is FAOs special concern for participatory approaches and the development of equitable processes. It is this emphasis on participation and people-centred approaches that distinguishes FAO, and forms a central concern in its promotion of agricultural and rural extension.
FAOs assistance in support of agricultural and rural extension tends to involve various approaches and distinct methodologies for interacting with the clientèle and for interchanging information.
One outstanding FAO participatory approach is known as Farmer Field Schools. Farmer Field Schools (FFS), originally associated with promoting Integrated Pest Management, work at the grassroots level to advance the principle of stakeholder participation in programme decision-making with a view to eventually giving full responsibility to stakeholders for programme development. FFS underscores FAOs commitment to the development of agricultural extension participatory approaches - in line with its general philosophy and practice of seeking to advance equitable development. Originating in projects initiated in Asia in the mid-1980s, FFS has spread to other regions. And today, FFS is beginning to develop in Latin America as one of the alternatives to traditional national extension activities, in such countries as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. In its efforts to promote farmer-led extension FFS is proving to be a viable alternative to centralized and state-owned extension. The approach is currently one of the forefront extension- related activities sponsored by FAO, and the principles and methodology of the approach are being replicated by other technical services such as Irrigation and Water Use and Forestry. In fact, the Irrigation and Water Use technical unit has already successfully piloted an FFS project in Zambia.
«A Note on the Sustainability of the Farmer Field School Approach to Agricultural Extension» (Quizon, Feder and Murgai 2000) provides an interesting perspective on FFS as an alternative learning or problem-solving approach. They view FFS not as an extension approach for disseminating information, but as an empowerment and citizenship opportunity. At the same time, they raise FFS cost issues and their relevance to the sustainability of this approach.
FAOs Forestry Policy and Institutions Branch has also adopted the FFS approach, but has changed the name to suit its community forestry development purposes: Farmers Forest Management Schools (FFMS). According to Tanaka (2001), «FFMS has two objectives. The one is to allow forest users flexible community forest management for multiple use. FFMS assists forest users to gain/generate the knowledge, critical skills and self-confidence to make decisions about forest management based on their own experiments, observations and analyses so that the forest can sustainably provide them benefits suitable to their livelihood needs. The other is to provide a platform for negotiation among various forest users in the process of determining intended use of community forest. This process also helps them build the sense of ownership through delegation of decision- making and forest management process».
Another participatory programme approach is Farming Systems Development. Farming Systems Development (FSD) began in the 1980s as Farming Systems Research and Development and later became known as Farming Systems Research and Extension. On-farm research is seen as a link between farmers, technical research and extension (Collinson 1984). This approach has a dual character. Sometimes it is hailed as a multi-institutional, team approach; at other times it is considered a production-oriented approach (Berdegué 2000). The term Farming Systems Research (FSR) tends to suggest a production-oriented approach, while the term Farming Systems Development (FSD) suggests more of a team-oriented approach involving the farmers in the process. FAO has supported both these system approaches (Collinson 2000). A valuable FAO study on FSD was recently published entitled, Challenges and Priorities to 2030 (FAO 2000).
FAOs technical units also maintain or utilize extension services for their specialty purposes. For instance, Fisheries is creating distance education tools to extend information for modern fisheries engineering and fisheries capture techniques. This computer-based, distance education programme promotes «learning by doing». Distance learning is not only a major development in information and communications technology (ICT) but is already a leading instrument for extending information and knowledge.
The livestock development unit is also engaged in information exchange, especially for preventive animal health services. Extension methods are employed to reach pastoralists and breeders. Animal health is a major concern, as Europes current problems aptly indicate. As the list of those services providing a specialized knowledge base and new technology grows, the different purposes for extending information become obvious.
The value and importance of extension for different purposes extend even into areas that do not directly create extension services. Nutrition services, for example, while not engaged in extension per se, cooperate with extension services to respond to food crises in the developing countries and to manage food distribution and education.
Likewise, the Socio-economic and Gender Analysis (SEAGA) programme incorporates extension concerns. As an analytical programme aimed mainly at training development workers with methods and tools for conducting socio-economic and gender analysis, SEAGA seeks to heighten the awareness of gender issues and strengthen the capacity to incorporate gender considerations into development. Adopting a bottom-up approach to identifying development priorities, SEAGA promotes the participation of all the stakeholders, emphasizes gender roles and relations, and includes disadvantaged people as one of its priorities.
An interdisciplinary programme, the Integrated Support to Sustainable Development and Food Security Programme (known simply as IP), has been set up to develop and implement an integrated strategy that takes into account the main social, economic, environmental and technical aspects of sustainable development. One of the seven areas addressed by IP is the reform of agricultural extension systems to support poverty reduction, the integration of gender issues and sustainable development.
Apart from the technical extension programmes just mentioned, the Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE), which is the lead technical unit responsible for agricultural extension and training, education, rural youth, and communication for development, has embarked on several innovative programmes, including the National Agricultural Extension Systems Reform Initiative (NAESRI). Initial work under NAESRI includes strengthening decentralized extension services (Philippines), developing the coordination mechanism for pluralistic extension delivery (Zimbabwe), conduct best practices studies (Indonesia, China), draw up participatory extension delivery strategies for female extension workers (Pakistan), identifying the extension service needs of physically disabled farmers (Iran), developing of extension strategies to deal with HIV/AIDS (Malawi, Zambia, Uganda), and encouraging the wider adoption of hybrid rice cultivation (India, Viet Nam). A comprehensive extension and production support strategy, and a participatory farmer group extension approach have also been developed in support of the FAO Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) in Pakistan and Tanzania, respectively. Training modules on integrating the population and environmental messages into ongoing extension programmes have been prepared in Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Nepal, The Philippines, and Thailand. Monitoring and evaluation guidelines have been developed for national extension systems in the Caribbean. A number of country studies on AKIS/RD have been initiated in collaboration with SDREs sister unit, the Research and Technology Development Service (SDRR). SDRE has also developed the Strategic Extension Campaign (SEC) methodology, which has been implemented in a number of developing countries (Adhikarya, 1994).
SDRE, with SDRR and the World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT), has initiated FarmNet, a community-based programme that aims at creating farmer information networks for agricultural and rural development. This programme uses communication processes and tools to facilitate the generation, gathering and exchange of knowledge and information among rural people, and between them and the intermediary organizations that work for them. The Uganda National Farmers Association is one of the organisations that have shown interest in the programme. SDRE and WAICENT are jointly developing another programme, VERCON (Virtual Extension and Research Communication Network). Unlike FarmNet, VERCON is institution-based and aims at promoting communications between research and extension systems. These initiatives seek to exploit the great potential of electronic mass media and telecommunications to improve the transfer and use of agricultural information in the developing countries.
WAICENT and SDRE are developing a new participatory programme on «Information in Support of Sustainable Livelihoods». While still in progress, this sustainable livelihoods programme plans to promote a «mix of media» and various processes, procedures, methods and tools for promoting participatory information exchange between indigenous groups and the external environment.
In sum, FAO assists the developing countries in numerous and varied ways with the development of agricultural and rural extension. One common feature of these different endeavours is the participatory involvement of the people being assisted. All of the above-mentioned efforts - e.g. FFS, FFMS, NAESRI, FarmNet and Sustainable Livelihoods - encourage stakeholder involvement in the extension decision-making processes. Empowering local communities and small farmers in the use and development of extension services using participatory approaches remains one of FAOs most central and important goals.
In general, FAOs ground-level programmes underscore a number of goals aimed at fostering rural peoples advancement through agricultural and rural extension services. These goals include (a) improving the skills of farmers, extensionists and extension managers; (b) empowering farmers through participatory extension; (c) assisting special end-users, especially women; (d) cooperating with other agencies and organizations in extension development; and (e) assisting governments in extension policy formulation and programme development. Improving the relevance and effectiveness of agricultural extension activities for women farmers deserves priority status in any consideration of extension institutional and programme development (Das 1995). FAOs programmes reflect the diversity and stress the continuity affirmed in the framework of its Mid-term Plan and implemented through its technical cooperation programmes. The Organizations current programmes set the stage for what to do next.