Education Knowledge

September 2002

Global trends in agricultural extension: challenges facing Asia and the Pacific region

M. Kalim Qamar
Extension, Education and Communication Service
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

Part 2 of 2

This was the Keynote paper presented at the FAO Regional Expert Consultation on Agricultural Extension, Research-Extension-Farmer Interface and Technology Transfer, held in Bangkok; 16-19 July 2002.

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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 include subsistence farmers, commercial farmers, rural youth, women, rural poor, physically disabled and lately HIV/AIDS-affected farmers' families, and they all have different extension needs. This realisation has given rise to terms like client-oriented extension, and gender-sensitive extension.

In certain countries of the sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has changed the very composition of extension clientele, bringing young orphans, widows, physically weak, elderly and ill persons in the fields. The epidemic thus is not just a health problem, but it has become a serious development issue, challenging the validity of present agricultural extension strategies. FAO has recently completed studies on the impact of HIV/AIDS on public and private agricultural extension organisations in Malawi, Uganda and Zambia. Another FAO study has focused on identifying extension needs of farmers with physical disabilities in Iran, a country which has been subjected to a long war a decade ago.

Closely related to the preceding point is the increasing emphasis on developing special extension programmes for the farmers living in unique locations like mountains, small islands and deserts. The institutions like the International Institute for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal have been working towards addressing special needs of the farming communities located in mountainous regions. Recently, a meeting of the Mountain Grasslands Working Group was held with the assistance of FAO in Romania for reviewing the current extension assistance available to the people living in the mountains of East European countries.

Another budding concern is the development of urban agriculture. The underlying cause is increasing food needs in sprawling cities. This will definitely present new challenges to extension staff, which has been trained to work with the farming communities in rural areas. FAO has organised a conference, "Feeding the Asian Cities", in Bangkok in 2000.

Application of electronic information technology

The advanced information technology is already making headway in the area of rural and agricultural development. A number of countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Mali, are experimenting with telecentres, which have already exhibited their benefits in several West European countries. Virtual linkages are being established for bringing research and extension together, and one example is VERCON (Virtual extension, research and communication network), which FAO is trying to introduce in Egypt. Under an FAO project in the Philippines, the Internet and interactive e-mail facilities are being established at municipality level for supporting decentralized extension staff. Then, expert systems are being developed to compensate, to some extent, for rare visits of subject-matter specialists to farmers' field. The use of cellular phones is by now a routine practice and the equipment is being used for a rural development project in Bangladesh. Over 30% of extension staff in Estonia use Internet. One can find programmes like "virtual gardens" and "virtual farms" on the World-Wide-Web. The main challenge is how the powers of advanced information technology can be harnessed for the benefit of both extension agents and farmers without compromising the importance of human and unique local factors.

Participatory extension

The powerful trend towards involving farmers in decision making has led to the modalities like participatory farmer group extension, client-oriented extension, gender-sensitive extension, research-extension-farmers linkages, and to the development of participatory tools like PRA (participatory rural appraisal) and KAP (knowledge, attitude and practice) survey. The advocacy for empowering farmers has increased tremendously.

Indonesia has successfully established new institutions called Agricultural Technology Assessment Institutes at provincial level, bringing together farmers, researchers, and extension specialists. In Pakistan, groups of highly motivated small farmers established under FAO's Special Programme on Food Security, have been taking decisions in matters related to group cash savings, quality seed, fertiliser, water management, cultural practices, farm machinery, income diversification activities, and marketing of produce. The pilot experiment has proved to be so successful in terms of yield increases that the government has embarked upon replicating the approach in 100 villages, and a new FAO project has been approved to provide technical assistance in training aspects of the programme. In Argentina, one main factor for success of a federal programme for small- and medium-size farms is the involvement of all stakeholders in major decision-making. Similarly, Jordan's extension service has established Close Contact Groups of farmers while Tanzania has formed Participatory Farmer Groups of men and women farmers. In Philippines, under an FAO project, a methodology for participatory, grassroots extension programme development has been outlined, and an extension delivery partnership mechanism is being worked out, involving stakeholders such as extension staff, farmers, NGOs, private sector, research, and academic institutions.

Unified extension service

The extension services are being unified in the interest of optimum utilisation of resources and an efficient bureaucracy. Indeed, the farmer's time cannot and should not be wasted through individual visits of so many extension agents, each representing a different agricultural discipline. The creation or strengthening of multi-disciplinary subject-mater specialists teams during decentralisation of extension services in a number of countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, is a popular move. FAO has provided technical assistance to Uganda in the integration of agro-forestry and HIV/AIDS education in agricultural extension programmes, thus making the extension approach multi-disciplinary. In Iran, FAO has recommended the placement of a multi-disciplinary team of subject-matter specialists at district level, the composition of the team depending on the technical needs and priorities of each district. Thus the districts in coastal zones will have a fisheries specialist, and those with dominant livestock activities, will have a livestock specialist. In Indonesia, both agriculture and forestry extension has been placed under a single extension service assisted by a World Bank-funded project. In the Philippines, extension service covers both agriculture and fisheries under the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act. Under a new project funded by the Asian Development Bank, Vietnam's extension services will be reformed, and one of the reform measures will be unification of present extension services.

Challenges facing Asia and the Pacific Region

While the global forces are shaping future of agricultural extension worldwide, the national agricultural extension systems in some countries in Asia and the Pacific Region are going through some sort of institutional reform. However, as is evident from the following, the Region faces enormous challenges in making the extension services effective and meaningful.

Giving extension profession a proper status

Agricultural extension has played a vital role in bringing about agricultural and rural development in countries like the United States, Australia, Japan, and those in the Western Europe, as is obvious from their well established extension services and generous budgets since long. Unfortunately, even though most extension organizations in Asia and the Pacific Region were established over half century ago, the profession of extension has never received the proper status it deserves, that is in comparison to other agricultural professions. Agricultural extension is a tough and demanding profession, both physically and intellectually, yet even today, extension workers remain with very low salary, meagre benefits, and negligible opportunities for development of their professional career. No surprise that few young men and women venture to select extension as a career after graduating from high school. Suitable candidates will never be attracted to this profession until its service conditions are brought in line with other agricultural disciplines, and the present extension organizations are given adequate operational budget, career development opportunities and mobility means, something essential for proper field work. Without this long overdue reform, agricultural extension in Asia will remain a second class profession, in spite of its demonstrated importance in bringing about rural and agricultural development in highly developed countries.

Improving pre-service education in extension

Presently, the pre-service education in agricultural extension is no more than lip service. The curricula are outdated, audio-visual aids are missing, suitable educational methodologies are unknown, and above all, the students of extension are given doses of theory, without any exposure to real-life extension work involving rural life, farms and farmers. It is hardly surprising then if the new graduates have no technical competence and professional confidence while facing farmers, some of them for the very first time in their life. This is true that not many extension agents have aptitude of living in rural conditions, a result of both faulty selections of students for agricultural extension major as well as almost total disregard for practical training. Appropriate pre-service education will reduce the need and costs of future in-service training. Any serious effort at reforming the national agricultural extension systems must start with reforming of the agricultural education system, which currently produces extension workers of poor quality.

Meaningful extension policy

There may be only a few countries, like Bangladesh, in the Region that have formulated an extension policy. The existence of policy ensures political commitment, which ascertains financial allocation. The dismally low salaries and operational budgets, and a lack of career development path have been the fate of extension profession for decades, and it is high time to change this pattern through formulation of extension policies within the framework of broader national agricultural and rural development policies. The formulation of extension policy should be a collaborative effort, involving all stakeholders, and should take into consideration not only technical issues but also professional development concerns with an aim to provide motivation and morale to extension workers. It should also include the operational linkages and partnerships between extension and other relevant service institutions such as related to research, marketing, environment, commodities, farm inputs, rural credit, agricultural education and training, farmer associations, and information technology.

Proper place for extension after decentralization

While decentralization is a step in the right direction, it has proved to be disastrous for agricultural extension in several Asian countries as is evident in Philippines and Indonesia. The issue of the temptation of each autonomous district or municipality to go in its own direction without any regard for national policy and priorities is serious, but what has damaged extension most is the unwarranted influence and interference of local politicians and the mentality of local decision-makers and legislators, who cannot appreciate the importance of extension in rural and agricultural development. This has resulted in the diversion of extension budget to other activities, assigning of extension staff to non-extension tasks, and use of its few beaten-down equipment and vehicles for personal purposes. Since the local decision-makers mostly depend on central government for their financial needs, their preference is ruled by their strong temptation to earn revenue in order to reduce the dependency. Agricultural extension is understandably a slow process as it aims at changing human behaviour and generally does not show quick and tangible benefits. The local decision-makers, who are elected for two to three years term, prefer to select activities like livestock and estate crops, which give sizable, tangible and relatively quick returns, or to build roads and shopping centres, which could win voters' appreciation. This rather narrow mentality of local decision-makers, most of whom have limited education, needs to be changed through proper education, sensitisation and orientation to the importance and eventual benefits of extension. Unless this important group is "converted", agricultural extension will remain marginalized, or might altogether disappear, under decentralized administration. The experiences and lessons that FAO has learned so far in decentralisation should be brought to the attention of policy-makers in other Asian countries like Pakistan and Iran where devolution has just started so that necessary safeguards could be built for meaningfully retaining human behavioural disciplines like extension.

Assessment of the impact of extension

Agricultural extension services have to prove their worth to the farmers so that the latter could constitute a strong lobby for extension workers during the times of austerity measures like budget cuts or staff reduction. This can be best done by showing the positive impact of extension advice in the form of higher crop yields, increased use of farm inputs, productive use of farm credit, improvement in decision making capability of farmers, satisfaction of women farmers' extension needs, active participation of farmers in extension programme development, constructive programmes for rural youth, introduction of off-season income-generating activities for rural men and women, readily available advice on marketing, demonstrated increase in farmers' income, and overall reduction in rural poverty. There has always been concern for the difficulties faced in objective evaluation and impact assessment of agricultural extension programmes. The isolation of the impact of extension in an agricultural development programme is no easier task than catching a fish with bare hands. The need for impact assessment has recently gained more attention. The reasons may be, among others, reallocation of priority status to agriculture sector, the recognition of usefulness of extension in future development programmes, and the quantitative justification needed by donors and governments for further investment in agricultural extension. The social scientists in the Region must meet the challenge of working out appropriate methodologies and tools for measuring the impact of agricultural extension efforts.

Educating farmers in globalisation, liberalization and biotechnology issues

Presently, no one is educating the farmers in the issues related to globalisation, and liberalisation of markets, and biotechnology which are sooner or later going to affect their communities. For example, China has been admitted to WTO, and this major development is bound to result in significant reconsideration of present national policies and procedures of agricultural production, agro-processing, storage, marketing, and quality control. China's national extension system must be equipped with necessary knowledge and skills to start educating farmers in possible effects and expectations resulting from the country's entry into WTO. The issue of farm subsidies will also surface within the context of liberalisation of markets. Special training courses are needed for extension agents to enable them to properly educate the farmers. Similarly, it may seem a bit premature at this moment, but the time is not too far when farmers will be asking extension agents the questions about biotechnology and genetic engineering. Extension services should start developing necessary training and capacity building programmes in these areas.

Situation-specific extension methodologies

By and large, the countries of Asia and the Pacific Region have been using for decades top-down extension methodologies, Training and Visit (T & V) system of extension being the main one. Another major, popular methodology has been Farmer Field School, which was initially used for integrated pest management projects in Philippines and Indonesia. Basically, both of these extension methodologies were not developed locally but "imported", and in spite of some good features, suffer from a common weakness of being too costly, hence their questionable sustainability. Unfortunately, there has been little zeal for developing situation-specific methodologies as the Region does not seem to have gone beyond those two extension approaches. One fact established through observations and experience, beyond any doubt, is that no single extension methodology, no matter how successful in certain situation, is suitable for all situations. The situation comprises people and their characteristics, farming patterns, geographical location and spread of population, institutions, and so many other factors, which are to be kept in mind while developing an appropriate extension methodology. Therefore, a country like Nepal, which has plains, high mountains, irrigated areas, and rain fed areas, could rightly end up with several extension methodologies to cover each unique set of circumstances. Similarly, the extension strategies will be different for people who farm in the Pacific islands. The recent extension reform movement has identified some useful principles, which cut across all situations and may be used to develop specific extension methodologies. What is needed is a normative framework, based on those common principles, which may be used by Asian countries for developing extension methods suiting their individual situations.

Inter-institution linkages for integrated approach

Most countries in the Region are still faced with the persistent problem of poor linkages between research and extension. Agricultural extension, or for that matter any other agricultural discipline, cannot single-handedly bring about rural and agricultural development. The required inter-institution linkages are not just those between research and extension, but also between agricultural extension and farm input suppliers, rural credit agencies, marketing channels, transportation companies, storage facilities, agricultural academic institutions, weather forecast offices, rural development agencies, agricultural commodity research institutes, etc. The objective of establishing the linkages is to enable the extension agents to have ready access to the information needed to help farmers in making decisions. The inter-institution linkages will also help in developing an integrated, inter-disciplinary and comprehensive extension programme for the benefit of farmers. These linkages may be through periodic meetings, regular exchange of information, and through electronic information technology. Such linkages are still non-existent, or are very poor, and their establishment and strengthening presents a challenge to the professional community.

Unified and integrated extension service

Although steps are being taken in some countries of the Region for unification of extension services, yet it is both surprising and disappointing that in most of the countries, there is still a strong tendency towards multiple extension services, one for each major technical discipline. In the Philippines, where extension services have been decentralised many years ago, and where extension covers both agriculture and fisheries, the livestock component has been left out, and for some reason is still covered by veterinarians. One main weakness of the otherwise very successful Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Project in Indonesia was its creation of a parallel IPM mini-extension service rather than mainstreaming the IPM concepts into the national agricultural extension system in the interest of sustainability and institution-building.

The expected challenges in implementing multi-disciplinary, integrated extension organisation are expected to be effective coordination, resistance to the temptation of each technical department to have its own extension service, in-service training of field extension agents in a number of technical disciplines, and designing of an appropriate mechanism for technical backstopping of field extension agents by subject-matter specialists.

Extension advisory services for Central Asia

The creation of suitable extension advisory services in all countries of Central Asia remains a challenge. The countries, which exercised socialist policies for a very long period, are struggling to shift to market-oriented economy. With the privatisation of state farms, and distribution of land among public, hundreds of thousands of private landowners have become a reality. These new "farmers" have little knowledge of profitable farming and are in desperate need of technical advice. They also need assistance in agro-processing, rural tourism and marketing. The Soviet Union, which used to be a guaranteed market for agricultural produce for these countries, is long gone. There is, however, no source of sound technical advice for rural communities. The extension advisory services comprise mostly those persons who worked as specialists on state farms or elsewhere in very narrow agricultural disciplines, and as such, have no knowledge or experience in comprehensive farm management. Worse still, some donors are pushing these countries for starting private extension services, which does not make much sense under present circumstances. Unless appropriate national extension systems are established through institutional reforms, backed up by national policies outlined within the context of comparative agricultural advantage of different countries within the region, these countries would not be able to exploit their full potential in agriculture.

Educating farmers in sustainable development

During 1960s, the green revolution was the result of cultivating high yielding varieties, and application of high doses of fertilizers and pesticides. That recipe for gaining high yields is currently under criticism due to its unfriendliness towards conservation of environment and natural resources. This is the reason that the technologies like Integrated Pest Management and Integrated Crop Management have received more favourable attention. The rural population in Asia, which incidentally constitutes one third of the world's total population, depends almost entirely on three main activities, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and that means constant exploitation of these major natural resources. The rapid growth in rural population also takes its toll. Between 1970 and 1995, in spite of the fact that human fertility declined in most parts of the world, Asia's population increased by 60%, i.e. an addition of over one billion people. Agricultural extension services in Asia are faced with the challenge to educate the farmers in environment sustainability, natural resources management, and organic farming, something they are not used to. FAO has successfully demonstrated that environment education, population education and agricultural production can be incorporated into ongoing extension programmes, with positive results.

Looking beyond technology transfer focus

The mandate of almost all the national agricultural extension services in Asia and the Pacific remains the transfer of agricultural technology. As long as a new technology can raise yields, it will be fervently promoted by the extension agents, without any thoughts to its environmental friendliness. As there are calls for broadening the technical scope of extension, keeping the entire focus on just agricultural technology transfer is a case of short sightedness. There is pressing need that extension starts educating farmers in the interrelationship among agricultural production, food security, population, and environment. This indirect approach is far more promising than giving blunt messages to farmers on family planning, environment protection and increasing production. The changes in the world also demand that the Asian extension services engage in developing the human capacities of farmers, which go beyond technology. They should educate men and women farmers in subjects like problem solving, decision making, management, accounting, group dynamics, leadership, participation, gender sensitiveness, rural youth development, comprehension of market forces, good governance, citizenship, initiative and self help, nutrition, programme planning, monitoring and evaluation, applicable information technology, importance of education for children especially for girls, networking with other village organizations and farmer associations, etc. Obviously, this broader mandate will require appropriate in-service training of the extension staff and necessary adjustments in the curricula of formal education in agricultural extension.

Putting information technology in service of extension

The revolution in information technology must benefit extension. The benefits could take many forms. Interactive electronic linkages may be established between extension and relevant institutions. Extension data bases may be created, containing information on last few years' prices of various commodities and projections for the near future, climatic record on climate for the last few years and any expected unusual weather pattern in the near future, main agricultural technologies, contact mailing and e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers of subject-matter specialists and agricultural produce buyers, demand for grains and vegetables, etc. A variety of extension and training materials may be prepared with the help of computer, using creative techniques. Telecentres may be established in the areas, which are not normally covered by extension agents for reasons like less staff and remote location, ensuring that adequate human follow-up is available. The efforts to apply information technology should be started at locations which have necessary infrastructure and pre-requisites. The other areas, obviously, will have to wait. A note of caution: the information technology should not be considered as a replacement of human effort in extension, but just as a supporting tool.

Promoting pluralistic and participatory extension

Certain countries in Asia and the Pacific Region already have some sort of pluralistic extension pattern as, in addition to public extension service, commercial agricultural companies and NGOs are involved in delivering extension advice. However, there is no well organized system, which will allow active collaboration of stakeholders in both planning and implementation of extension programmes. Such a system is needed more than ever as more and more countries are introducing decentralised governments. A clearly defined role of government and suitable coordination and quality control mechanism will be needed for any pluralistic extension pattern to safeguard the interests of farmers.

The participation of men and women farmers in extension programme development is generally not practised since most of the countries in the Region have been following top-down models of agricultural extension for years. Necessary training modules and materials need to be developed for extension staff and stakeholders. Similarly, situation specific participatory extension methodologies will need to be developed keeping in view the sensitivity of religious, cultural and social norms. Extension staff should be able to organize special interest groups of men and women farmers in order to empower them so that they could exercise their group influence in requesting credit, procuring farm inputs, lobbying for extension services, and in farming and marketing matters.

Tackling extension privatisation issue

The challenge is not to privatize entire extension services for all farmers, but to privatise extension where it makes sense. Under the present conditions, hundreds of millions of Asian subsistence farmers are neither able nor willing to pay for extension advice. The accountability of extension agents to farmers should not be used as an excuse for the privatisation of the entire extension system. If the extension advice is worth paying because it enhances farmers' income, commercial farmers and farmers associations will be inclined to pay. In case partial privatisation of extension is opted, proper rules, regulations and procedures will be needed both for private extension advisers and their client farmers to protect the interests and rights of all parties. In addition, the government will have to take measures for quality control of extension advice to protect farmers from being exploited. It will be prudent for Asian countries to try various methods which have been tried elsewhere in the world to lessen burden on public extension services and encourage non-public parties interested in delivering extension services. Two methods could be contracting out, i.e. when the government gives contract to other parties for provision of specific extension services in a specific area for a specific period, or contracting in, i.e. when the public extension service signs a contract for providing specific extension services for a certain amount of fee to specific clientele for a specific period. However, the assumption for trying these methods is that a non-public extension source is available, which is both technically competent and trustworthy.

Extension's role in disasters

Extension's role in combating major attacks of insect pests and diseases is well known, but so far there has been none for major disasters. Human-induced and natural disasters have not spared Asia and the Pacific Region, like many other parts of the world. Afghanistan has been devastated by long wars and recent earthquakes. Bangladesh, India, China and Philippines have been experiencing damaging floods, resulting from continued torrential rains. Small islands in the Pacific have their own calamities from time to time. Extension is normally considered as a peace time activity. However, given the fact that a large number of farming people are affected by these disasters, and the surviving ones are anxious to return to their villages and start growing food, the extension services can launch special campaigns for rehabilitation of agriculture. This obviously should be done in close collaboration with other agencies, which are responsible for provision of credit, seed, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and farm equipment. Bringing the affected farming population back to their feet is a challenge, which has not yet been met by any extension service in the world. The Asia and the Pacific Region may take lead in this task.


Asia and the Pacific Region has made recorded progress in developing agricultural technologies. The green revolution brought wide prosperity to the Region. More recently, research institutes like IRRI and ICRISAT, which are engaged in biotechnology, are expected to produce additional technologies. However, these new technologies do not mean much if they remain confined to research stations and laboratories, and do not reach their real users, i.e. farmers. Out of total two billion rural Asians, 670 million people still live in poverty. Strong national extension systems, with a broader mandate beyond technology transfer, are needed to develop the human capabilities and capacities of men and women farmers. The organization, mandate, and practices of agricultural and rural extension systems are changing worldwide, and it is vital that this region keep pace with the latest developments. The challenge of introducing appropriate institutional measures must be accepted by the Asian and the Pacific governments in order to reform the national agricultural extension systems in response to the global changes, otherwise the extension services will become obsolete. This is necessary to reiterate, however, that efficient extension systems alone will not be sufficient for bringing about something like "green plus revolution". The governments will have to guarantee the availability of additional ingredients such as environment-friendly technologies, farm inputs, marketing and storage facilities, and appropriate pricing policies until that globalisation stage is reached when open markets will determine the demand and price of various agricultural commodities.


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