The HIV/AIDS epidemic is spreading so fast that taking any remedial measures has become almost a race against time. The agricultural extension organizations are not expected to be medically involved in the fight against AIDS, but they can play an extremely important role in preventing or at least minimizing the further spread of infection by educating the farming communities. The following measures may be of help in outlining a course of action.
The political will of national governments to recognize the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS issue and deal with it is the starting point. Recognizing the magnitude of the potential negative impact on development efforts, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry of Zambia has rightly warned that any development programme that does not deliberately address HIV/AIDS is bound to fail as the benefit that may be perceived in the programme could potentially be overwhelmed by the negative impact of HIV/AIDS. However, most countries in Africa are still without a national policy on agricultural extension let alone a policy on AIDS and extension. More than any other extension delivery actor, public extension services, being public, have both technical and moral obligations in this regard and should take the lead, and that too without waiting for a formal request from people to assist against AIDS. They should play a wider role, beyond the mere transfer of improved agricultural technology.
One finds more and more women in the fields due to demise of their male relatives
The governments should formulate a policy on the handling of the situation by extension staff in HIV/AIDS infected areas. The policy should be chalked out not just by the Ministry of Agriculture, but other ministries like those for health, population, social welfare, environment and youth should also participate in the exercise. However, while following a holistic approach, care must be taken to avoid the common temptation to see HIV/AIDS only as a health and welfare issue and thus losing the much needed collaboration between agriculture, health and welfare sectors. The relationship between the epidemic and food security and rural development needs to be clearly understood by the policy-makers.
There are few extension workers who presently possess scientific knowledge about the spread of HIV/AIDS. The following steps could be useful for improving the situation:
Revision of pre-service and in-service training curricula
Even if HIV/AIDS were not an issue, the existing curriculum of agricultural extension certainly needs thorough revision and updating in most of the developing countries in view of significant global changes that are shaping up the future role of extension in the new millennium (Qamar, 2000), presenting meaningful options for institutional reforms in the national agricultural extension systems (Rivera, Qamar and Van Crowder, 2001). The academic institutions and relevant in- service training institutes of the sub-Saharan African countries in particular should review and revise the present extension curriculum. The objective should be to mainstream the subject of HIV/AIDS in agricultural extension programmes within the context of overall food security, linking it to the shortage of farm labour, low farm productivity, enhanced rural poverty, and the emergence of a rather different type of farming population.
It is high time to revisit traditional extension strategies to face the HIV/AIDS challenge
Fast-track training of extension staff
Intensive orientation sessions of short duration should be organized for extension staff by the health specialists, rural sociologists, and anthropologists. At the end of the orientation, the extension staff should possess knowledge on the relationship between food security and HIV/AIDS, the main causes for the spread of HIV/AIDS, its visible signs, precautions to be taken in the handling of the patients, ethical and privacy considerations, development of a healthy and constructive attitude towards sick persons, coping with the new clientele of extension, common fears about the epidemic which have no scientific basis, and on tactful strategies to discourage certain sexual practices embedded in culture that expedite the spread of the HIV infection.
All the in-service training institutes for agricultural extension should run special courses on the role of extension in mitigating the spread of HIV/AIDS among farming communities. These courses should include the development of appropriate extension strategies, methodologies, technical content of messages, and materials keeping in view the changing situation of farmers and their farms.
An important area in which staff should be assisted by psychologists is on how to stay strong and keep morale high in an environment where so many colleagues are dying of AIDS, where absenteeism in offices is on rise and the workload is increasing, and on the financial and emotional burdens resulting from sickness and deaths of relatives which are causing depression.
Revision of extension strategies and technical messages
Agricultural extension strategies, methods, and technical content, should all be revised and adjusted in light of the fact that large numbers of inexperienced widows and orphans, and elderly persons are being forced into farming due to the death of their traditional able-bodied young men and women relatives. Many of these persons are sick or physically weak. They are not able to use heavy farm machinery and equipment, nor are they able to follow any cropping patterns requiring vigorous and frequent physical labour. The situation has been further aggravated by the shortage of routinely available farm labour and deepening poverty. In Malawi, for example, the families affected by HIV/AIDS are giving up labour demanding tobacco cultivation and post-harvest processing in favour of crops like cassava and sweet potatoes, which require less manual labour. Similarly, small ruminants like goats are now preferred over cows. All these developments demand new thinking about the selection of technologies, extension strategies and field activities.
Elderly women have to take care of grandchildren as the latters parents die of AIDS
Some of the technical initiatives that extension organizations could take in this respect would be as follows:
Incorporation of HIV/AIDS education messages into ongoing extension pro-grammes, with emphasis on the interrelationship between food security, farm labour, income levels, and HIV/AIDS. The FAO has developed training modules for the integration of population and environmental education into ongoing agricultural extension programmes, which have been successfully applied in many countries. The HIV/AIDS messages can also be incorporated using the same principles. An attempt has also been made to incorporate HIV/AIDS concerns into participatory rural extension in Zambia (Kurschner, 2000).
Introduction and/or strengthening of extension methodologies using a group approach that can be applied with relatively small number of extension staff in view of dwindling number of extension workers.
Development of HIV/AIDS-oriented participatory, client-focused extension approaches and technical messages in order to address specific extension and training needs of old and new clientele in terms of age, gender and experience to enable them to benefit from the extension services.
Involvement of rural youth in extension programme planning and implementation since they constitute the sexually most active social group and are therefore hardest hit by AIDS (Africa Recovery, 1998). In this context, South Africa makes a strong case where more than 40 percent of the population is under 18.
Identification of culture-based sexual customs and practices in villages that expedite the spread of HIV infection, and formulation of technical messages in consultation with anthropologists and rural sociologists to discourage the same among young rural men and women.
Adoption of a human-focused rather than the traditional agricultural production and technology-focused approach.
Preparation of multimedia extension materials on HIV/AIDS
Extension organizations should prepare and produce a variety of audio-visual aids and non- formal educational materials that could be used for education and the increasing of awareness about HIV/AIDS-related topics. These materials could include posters, charts, flip-charts, pamphlets, leaflets, audio-cassettes, videocassettes, newsletters, radio messages, songs, scripts for rural theater plays and puppet shows, etc. The central theme of these materials should be the relationship between rural poverty, agricultural production, food security, farm labour and HIV/AIDS. The materials should be prepared keeping in mind the target groups, gender, age, culture, religion, local languages, literacy level of the rural population, and the availability of electricity or battery cells in the area. The instructional aids should be used by field extension workers in the same group meetings and demonstrations where agricultural technologies are discussed and demonstrated.
Like many other organizations and institutions, extension organizations are supposed to provide support services and as such they cannot successfully face the challenge of HIV/AIDS all by themselves. They should forge new partnerships with other relevant public and private institutions. Such partnerships should be established not only with national-level institutions and organizations but also with those at regional and global level. The purpose of these partnerships should be to better appreciate the problem of HIV/AIDS, pool human and physical resources to combat the menace and share relevant knowledge and experiences. The following are some of the institutions with which extension organizations collaboration would be productive:
Institutions engaged in farming-systems research, farm machinery and equipment manufacturing, provision of rural credit to farmers, public health, formal and non-formal education, community development, philanthropy and religious affairs.
Educational institutes such as universities, colleges and especially elementary and high schools located in rural areas.
NGOs and the private sector whose aim is to assist HIV/AIDS victims.
Anti-AIDS extension campaigns
Anti-AIDS extension campaign is a strong tool for educating rural population
Public and private extension organizations including NGOs should join hands in launching national campaigns against AIDS. The objectives of the campaign should include alerting the rural population against the dangers of the epidemic, how to remain safe in infected areas, how to practice safe sex, and strong discouragement of culture-based sexual practices such as multipartners, cleansing, etc. The Strategic Extension Campaign methodology that has been used in certain FAO projects in some countries (Adhikarya, 1994) could be of value in this regard. The following actions could be useful in organizing the campaigns:
Using a combination of media including rural radio, television, printed materials such as posters, pamphlets and newspapers, pictures, audio cassettes, video cassettes, films, and folk media like rural theatre, songs, and puppet shows.
Organization of special meetings, discussion sessions and seminars in rural areas with the involvement of rural leaders where debates on undesirable sexual behaviour responsible for the spreading of the deadly HIV infection could be encouraged.
Raising and discussing the issue of AIDS in every meeting at all levels, both within extension organizations and in the field, no matter what technical purpose the meeting may have.
Preparation of rural leaders for collaboration
Extension organizations should seek active support and involvement of informal rural community leaders such as tribal chiefs, elders, mosque imams, church priests, school teachers, sportsmen and heads of youth clubs. However, this would be possible only if the leaders are made aware of the fact that even otherwise healthy looking individuals could be suffering from HIV/AIDS since the infection takes many years before the patients start showing clear symptoms and then it may be too late to treat them. Some of the actions in this regard could be as follows:
Organization of special orientation sessions for leaders in order to educate them about HIV/AIDS and how they can help extension staff in their activities against the epidemic.
Provision of short, intensive courses on different aspects of HIV/AIDS to leaders to enable them to help their respective followers meaningfully.
Invitations to the leaders to attend meetings for planning special AIDS-focused extension programmes.
Use of leaders in counseling and advising young people and children whose elders have died of AIDS, and in organizing their anti-AIDS action groups.
Extension-HIV/AIDS specific studies
Although international organizations, notably the FAO, have carried out several studies on the relationship of HIV/AIDS with agriculture, the national extension organizations should have further studies conducted on specific aspects of extension in relation to HIV/AIDS. The results of these studies should be used in formulating necessary government policies and extension strategies for rural communities that have been affected. Some suggested topics for the studies are as follows:
Extension needs of inexperienced and new farmers.
Feasible farming systems in HIV/AIDS infected areas.
HIV/AIDS education needs of farming communities.
Extension strategies requiring less field staff.
The suitability of existing farm equipment and machinery for HIV/AIDS-affected persons engaged in farming.
Fast-track training of extension workers is a start
intercountry extension networks on HIV/AIDS
Extension services of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa hardest hit by the epidemic should form intercountry or even regional extension networks on HIV/AIDS. This would greatly facilitate the sharing and pooling of experiences, data, initiatives and resources. Electronic information technology, wherever available and applicable, may be used for establishing the networks. Rural radio systems should be brought into use. Study tours should be arranged to countries like Uganda, Senegal, and Thailand, which are mentioned as good examples of countries that are successfully fighting the spread of AIDS.