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 1 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.

1 2

Introduction

The changes in the working environment within which an organization functions, force the organization to make necessary adjustments if it wants to continue functioning efficiently. Without such adjustments, the organization will either collapse or will keep working inefficiently, moving gradually towards eventual obsoleteness. The changes in the working environment, which may be called as "forces of change", vary in nature and scope, i.e. they could be political, technical, economic or social. They could be location specific, regional, national or global. The effects of these forces of change may be immediate, medium-term or long-term, and they may be direct or indirect. In response, the organization may make adjustments internally, externally, or both. National agricultural extension systems are no exception to this rule. They are also directly or indirectly affected by the changes and, in response, must make internal and external adjustments in order to keep functioning at the same or at higher level of efficiency. Before going into explanation of global trends in agricultural extension, it will be useful to identify the main global forces of change, which are affecting or are bound to affect the existing structure, mandate and practices of national agricultural extension systems in developing countries.

Global Forces of Change

Globalisation and market liberalisation

Globalisation in its extreme and true sense means that the world becomes a single entity for living and business, being governed by a common law, without any restrictions on peoples' movement. This however, remains a Utopian dream. The present scope of globalisation is limited to more interaction and linkages among countries in the matters of trade, information flow, and finance, encouraging open competition through removal of trade and other national safeguard barriers, supposedly under fair and relatively equal conditions for producers of goods and services no matter which country they live in, thus mutually benefiting from international contacts and opportunities. The controversy comes from the issue of fair and equal conditions for producers, irrespective of advantages, disadvantages, potential and risk of globalisation. This is because under present conditions, the developing countries cannot compete with the developed nations in the international market in terms of production, quality and exports. The general impression, drawn from now familiar demonstrations at the economic summits, is that the globalisation is going to make rich countries richer and poor countries poorer. Apart from the politics of globalisation, it will expose the farming communities to both risk and opportunities in less developed countries. The communities, therefore, must be educated and prepared to adjust their agricultural operations within the context of globalisation, a burden which, by and large, the national agricultural extension systems will have to carry, and they must prepare themselves in time to meet the imminent challenge.

Liberalisation is an integral part of globalisation, which calls for removal of trade barriers, tariffs and other regulatory measures that are usually put into force by countries to protect their own industries and products to discourage the inflow of the articles produced elsewhere in the world. Therefore liberalisation asks for opening of markets, or deregulation, so that goods could move freely between countries. It also advocates removal of artificial price controls and of public support to farming sector in the form of farm subsidies so that the market can realistically determine the price of various commodities and products on the basis of their demand, supply and quality, and the consumers could freely make a choice what is the best for them. Both commercial and millions of subsistence farmers in developing countries are bound to be affected, directly or indirectly, sooner or later, by market liberalisation, and national agricultural extension services will have to be knowledgeable enough to educate the farmers in properly entering into liberalised market.

Privatisation

So many services that were managed in the past by governments are now being managed and delivered by the private sector. This is especially true in economically advanced countries. In many developing countries, institutions and services such as banks, railways, post offices, airlines, industries, hospitals, academic institutions, etc. are gradually being transferred to the private sector. The underlying reason is dwindling budgets of governments and business-as-usual attitude of permanent government employees, which makes the public institutions inefficient, less productive, causing financial losses and creating discontent among people. Private sector, on the other hand, has more resources, innovative ideas, and a motive for profit thus keen to offer efficient and better services to its clientele.

There is strong lobbying from major multilateral and bilateral donors for privatising national extension services. The main argument is that public agricultural extension systems have failed or are at best unsatisfactory when it comes to delivery of services to farmers. Another equally strong argument is that since farmers profit from extension advice, and the government budgets for public services are sliding, the cost of delivering this advice should be recovered by charging fee from the clientele. Yet one more argument in favour of privatisation of extension services is that the private sector is actively involved in selling farm inputs and machinery then why should it not handle the task of advising farmers on agricultural matters, supposedly more efficiently than usually done by the public sector. The argument, healthy competition among service providers will lead to better quality and less costs for services, is also heard. The trend to privatise extension services will certainly shake the traditionally friendly and informal relationship between government extension staff and the subsistence farmers in developing countries, since the latter were never asked to pay for extension advice. Apart from the question whether total, partial or no privatisation of extension is needed in developing countries, the national extension services should be well versed in the pros and cons of this major issue.

Commercialisation and agri-business

Commercial agriculture has been practised for centuries in all parts of the world, by individual farmers holding vast pieces of land, by colonial powers in their respective colonies, by socialist and communist regimes through state farms and cooperatives, and by commercial agricultural companies, both national and international. Millions of subsistence farmers have rarely participated in commercial agriculture due to the fact that they produce barely enough for their own consumption, and in some very favourable cropping season, produce a bit surplus for marketing. However, currently, there is an all out force aimed at commercialisation of farming even at small scale. There are questions, both ethical and technical, whether it makes sense to let the subsistence farmers continue as they have been doing for generations, or whether their operations should be transformed towards agri-business, rural enterprise, rural industries, or commercialisation. These questions seem to be valid in light of the evidence that rural poverty has persisted, if not worsened, and in many countries rural young people, unlike their parents, are less inclined to stay in villages and continue farming. Appropriate agricultural policies and land consolidation laws will be required if privately owned and cultivated small units of land are to be combined or merged to create larger, commercially viable plots. The agricultural extension services will have to come up with the strategies that could help subsistence farmers in organising themselves for commercialising their operations profitably, without losing the pride of land ownership.

Democratisation and participation

The civil society is advocating, more than over, why democracy, participatory decision making, transparency in government affairs, and good governance are necessary for eradication of poverty, uprooting of corruption, relatively equal distribution of benefits among various sections of society, welfare of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, optimum utilization of human and physical resources, sustainable livelihoods, and overall human development. Even the economic aid to be given by bilateral donors to poor countries, in many instances, has been tied with the government records on human rights and good governance. These powerful forces are challenging the ages old traditional practices in almost all walks of life, at household, national and international level, in political, economic, and social terms. A large number of strategies have evolved during recent years which supposedly ensure participatory decision making and involvement of all stakeholders in joint planning and implementation. The agricultural extension services, and for that matter, all grassroots level service institutions have been influenced by these conceptual thrusts. However, the national agricultural extension systems in most developing countries have still to learn to translate the concept of farmers' participation into action. This is because most of them have been following for decades the top-down models of extension.

Environment concerns

A global campaign for maintaining healthy environment emerged out of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and has been gaining momentum since then. There has been hardly any national or international meeting on development, which has not mentioned environment, no matter what technical focus. In addition to special departments in international development agencies, national ministries and institutions have been created in developed and developing countries to handle environmental affairs. Similarly, teaching and research programmes have been initiated in academic institutions worldwide. Global warming and El Nino have become relatively common concerns, and freak storms, devastating floods, torrential rains, forest fires of biblical proportion, noticeable rise in ocean level, increased shark attacks on humans, fast melting of ancient glaciers, visible disturbance in wildlife patterns, and even occurrence of earthquakes have been attributed to global warming. The NGOs like Green Peace have established a record of frequent interventions in government actions that in any way compromise the health of environment. There is no way for a profession like farming, which depends on nature, to remain aloof from environmental impact, or to ignore environment concerns. The national agricultural extension systems also come under scrutiny for the extent to which environmental friendliness is practised in their daily operations.

Disasters and emergencies

Whatever reasons, human miseries are on rise in this age of civilisation and scientific progress, some through man-made and some through natural disasters. There are conflicts, wars, droughts, famines, storms, earthquakes, epidemics, and many such calamities, which take enormous human and physical toll and disrupt normal course of life. There has been steep increase in the number of countries afflicted by human-induced disaster, i.e. from an average of 5 in 1980s to 22 in 2000, mainly due to conflicts. Between 30 and 40 countries were engaged in conflict at the end of the 20th century, adversely affecting thousands of millions of people. In the recent years, weather-related disasters have risen from 10 to 18 per year. In 1998 alone, some 32,000 persons were killed and 300 million were displaced from their homes and livelihoods. The disasters have hit both urban and rural population. There are countries where farmers cannot farm due to land mines in the fields. Basic farming ingredients like seed, water and soil are not readily available. Extension services have dissipated and the farmers have no source of technical advice. Infrastructure has been damaged, making the transportation and delivery of farm inputs impossible. Although food aid agencies and NGOs have been active in disaster hit areas yet food handouts work only to a limit. Agricultural extension services cannot face all these colossal challenges by themselves. They have to work in collaboration with relevant institutions and help the rural population in growing food for survival using whatever resources available. The disasters have been cruel forces of change and a comprehensive response from national agricultural extension systems is still awaited.

Information technology break-through

We are in the middle of information technology revolution. The fast advances in this field are rapidly changing the way people have been living on this planet. This development has virtually shrunk the world and has affected almost every walk of life. Never before was an event unfolding in a remote location shared more instantly by the people living elsewhere in the world. The information technology is tremendous power that could be harnessed by organizations for the benefit of mankind. The agricultural extension services cannot keep themselves aloof from the popular application of information technology in daily life. Agricultural extension services can exploit this potential to strengthen their own capacities and to educate the rural populations who have access to media. The extension organisations in developing countries have two major problems when it comes to having face-to-face contacts with the farmers and researchers: first, physical distances and the second, lack of transportation facilities. The new information technology could erase these physical barriers to a great extent through the development and application of appropriate, interactive information mechanisms.

Rural poverty, hunger and vulnerability

There have been internationally renewed calls for eradication of rural poverty and hunger, and for support to vulnerable groups such as rural landless, women and youth. The number of poor has gone up in recent years. Moreover, even though there is enough food produced for everyone in the world, yet 800 million people, almost one in seven persons, do not have enough to eat. Hunger, poverty and vulnerability are inter-linked. While the world celebrated the new millennium, 13 million people were brought to the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa, while the European farmers and livestock industry were hit by mad-cow and foot-and-mouth diseases. New anti-hunger programmes initiatives are underway and will definitely involve all those institutions, which deal with rural population. There is no way that agricultural extension services that are in frequent contact with the rural people will remain isolated from these international efforts against rural poverty, hunger and vulnerability. They need to develop suitable strategies to effectively participate in the war against these human miseries.

HIV/AIDS epidemic

Some 40 million people are affected by HIV/AIDS worldwide of whom 95 per cent live in developing countries, 28.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 7.1 million in Asia. The epidemic has killed millions of people. According to an estimate, about 32 million people are currently infected with HIV, and the number is spreading fast. In 2001, AIDS killed over two million people, and may kill additional 70 million in the next 20 years unless drastic measures are taken to effectively end this invasion of death. There are indisputable, negative effects on manpower, resulting in the loss of trained, skilled and experienced workers in all disciplines. Farm labour, plentiful in the past, is diminishing fast. The epidemic has also affected agricultural extension organizations in the sense that not only there have been deaths and long absenteeism among the staff but also the old, traditional extension approaches have been rendered unsuitable. This is due to the fact that the current cropping patterns have been changed due to weakening physical condition of farming population, emergence of "new farmers" comprising elderly, widows and young children, unsuitability of current farm tools, and unsuitability of existing rural credit approval criteria. Extension organizations in the countries affected by HIV/AIDS, especially in the sub-Saharan Africa, have to come up with fresh extension strategies, supported by modified farming systems and appropriate farm tools.

Sustainable development

Just like environment concerns, the global emphasis on the need for sustainable development has increased. People in all parts of the world would like to ensure that they do not deplete natural resources to the extent that future generations will be left with hunger and poverty. The sustainable rural and agricultural development requires environment-friendly technologies as well as sensitization among farming communities about the need to properly utilize and conserve natural resources, especially those which are used by the community at large, such as common grazing grounds, forests and fishing ponds. The excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, deforestation, and excessive fishing have to be reduced and suitable on-farm water and soil management is to be introduced. The practices like organic farming and integrated pest management are being promoted, and there are expectations that agricultural extension organizations will not only become conscious of the need to conserve natural resources but will also educate farming men and women to adopt environment- and natural resource-friendly agricultural practices.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering

A global debate has started on the issue of producing and consuming genetically modified food. There are positions taken from different angles. On one side, one has to use all possible means to feed ever increasing population, and on the other side, one has to retain biodiversity and be alert about potential health risks to humans and livestock from genetically modified diet. In all this debate, the people who remain most ignorant are the farmers in developing countries who are growing food for millions of people. No agricultural extension services have so far felt the need to educate them in this increasingly controversial but important subject. Since biotechnology is not yet widespread in developing countries, there is no urgency to start extension programmes. But this is the right time when necessary steps be taken for preparing training courses and teaching materials both for extension workers and farmers.

Criticism of public extension services

A serious criticism of public agricultural extension services of almost all developing countries has become a global force of change. The services have been criticised on several grounds such as being supply-driven, technically weak, patronizing only big farmers, insufficient coverage of and contacts with farmers, practising top-down extension approach, etc. Some of the criticism is genuine while some has been levied without understanding the underlying causes which are beyond the control of extension workers, such as poor pre-service education, little in-service training, burden of non-extension tasks, low salaries, low status, lack of opportunities for professional career development in comparison with other agricultural services, and needed coverage of a very large number of farmers scattered over a very large area without having adequate operational budget or transportation facilities. Not surprisingly, the extension services have usually become the first victim of any major economic reform. For example, the number of public extension workers is drastically reduced due to structural adjustment measures, recommended by major donors. In addition, during the process of decentralization, extension services are marginalized and downgraded. Also, the remote areas, which extension agents rarely visit due to lack of transportation facilities, are increasingly being covered by NGOs. The global criticism has called for alternatives such as privatization of extension services, inclusion of other partners in extension delivery, contracting-out of extension work, and farmer-to-farmer extension modality.

Integrated, multi-disciplinary and holistic development

There is a strong global preference for multidisciplinary, integrated, and holistic approach to development. The rationale is that simultaneous, multi-sector development is more meaningful than individual sector development at a time. More and more organisations are revising their structure in favour of this choice. The reorganisation at the Asian Development Bank is a recent example, where several technical departments have been placed in each newly created country departments unlike before when the focus of the organisation was on having a number of individual technical departments to cover all the member countries. The "integrated rural development approach", which was applied during 1960s in many countries, is returning in a reformed mode, including elements of bottom-up emphasis, participation of stakeholders, emphasis on eradication of rural poverty and gender-sensitivity. Many multilateral donors, such as UNDP, have adopted a programme approach, abandoning the old project approach. Hence, the number of multi-disciplinary and integrated programmes is on increase. FAO is running an integrated programme in Namibia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which has as many as six technical components including research and extension. The sustainable livelihoods concept also promotes holistic development. The Neuchatel Initiative Group, interested in reforming national agricultural extension systems, is currently exploring the role of extension in a wider rural and agricultural development context.

The institutional response to global forces

Several countries as well as bilateral and multilateral donors have felt the need to reform national agricultural extension systems in response to the global forces of change. Currently, there are three international initiatives aimed at the reforms. The first is the Neuchatel Initiative (NI). The NI is an informal group of major European bilateral donors, the World Bank, IFAD, USAID and FAO. The NI Group has been meeting every year since 1995, to discuss possible reforms in national agricultural extension systems, mainly in sub-Saharan African countries. Lately, the NI has been discussing extension experiences in other parts of the world. The second initiative comes jointly from FAO and the World Bank in the form of a revised AKIS/RD (agricultural knowledge and information systems for rural development). Third initiative comes from FAO in the form of National Agricultural Extension Systems Reform Initiative (NAESRI). The institutions have produced individual publications containing principles of reforms, which may be used as guidelines for reforming the national agricultural extension systems in the developing countries.

Broader role of extension

The very definition, scope and technical focus of agricultural extension is under scrutiny. The question being raised is why should extension services focus just on the transfer of agricultural technology, which is not only a passive function but also, utilises a top-down approach. Instead, more emphasis is being laid on human resources development, i.e. on developing the capabilities and capacities of farmers in terms of problem solving, management and decision-making.

Another issue under discussion is whether extension should cover only agriculture as in the past, or should it also address other aspects of rural and agricultural development. The logic behind a broader technical coverage is that farmer should be considered as a person with a number of educational needs, agriculture being just one of them. That is why one finds the term "agricultural and rural extension" rather than just agricultural extension, in recent literature. Another relevant line of thinking is "multifunctional agriculture", an apparently controversial topic that brought hundreds of participants to a global conference in The Netherlands in 1999.

The public agricultural extension departments have a major comparative advantage over other technical departments in developing countries: their field agents visit the farmers, more frequently than the staff of any other technical units. This very fact has generated fertile opportunities for using extension agents to "piggyback" non-agricultural educational messages, such as those related to environment, population, HIV/AIDS, to the farmers while introducing improved agricultural technologies. The training modules on integration of environment and population education into extension programmes, developed by FAO, have been satisfactorily introduced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, and more recently in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The new messages have been incorporated in a rather subtle way, highlighting the relationship among natural resources, food production, population and environment, and seem to have strong learning appeal to farmers.

Decentralised extension services

A number of countries have disbanded the conventional, centre-focused multilayer organisational structure in favour of a decentralized mechanism. The new emphasis is on having a rather small unit at national level to handle functions of policy, co-ordination and training and delegating the tasks of programme planning, implementation and even fiscal authority to the provincial or district or municipality government.

The decentralisation has placed, in many instances, agricultural extension responsibility in the hands of the ministry of local government or ministry of home affairs. Although decentralization is good in principle, the initial stage shows quite a bit of setback for extension. In case of Philippines, for example, the interference of municipality-level politicians has compromised the effectiveness of extension programmes. Also, the career development opportunities of extension staff have been adversely affected. The latest thinking is that since the municipalities are not viable economic unit for delivering extension services, the extension responsibilities should be moved back to provincial level. In Indonesia, the extension services have been marginalized because most district governments have certain priorities, irrespective of national policy, which would generate quick revenues, and agricultural extension which, unlike estate crops or livestock, generally gives a long-term return, is not considered as a priority. Tanzania's decentralized extension service at field level suffers from lack of operational budget. In Kosovo, where the government comprises UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo) expatriates, the decentralized government units do not want to do much with the central government. In Uganda, some district authorities have preferred to spend the extension budget on constructing feeder roads, leaving extension staff without salary for several months. One reason for this "institutional chaos", which applies to many countries, is that the central government adequately prepared neither itself nor the local governments in advance for decentralisation. Decentralisation is truly a double-edged sword, and if not handled properly, could cause more harm than good.

Fully or partially privatised extension

Several developed countries have fully or partially privatised their agricultural extension services. The new terms like outsourcing extension, cost-recovery for extension services, and contracting out extension are related to the drive for privatisation. Costa Rica has a unique system under which the government provides farmers with extension vouchers, which can be used for getting extension advice from private specialists. In England, the public extension service has evolved over time into a private consulting practice. The positive result is enhanced efficiency of staff, and the negative effect is the deprivation of small farmers from extension services due to their inability or unwillingness to pay. In Holland, about 60% of the extension budget comes from farmers while the remaining 40% is provided by the government. The benefits include increased efficiency, improved quality, client-orientation, job satisfaction for staff, and expanded marketing opportunities for farmers. The problems faced include loss of government authority, government's inability to keep its financial promises, weaker communication with the stakeholders due to creation of competition among them. In Albania, the private sector entrepreneurial initiatives to create long-term relationship with farmers have proved to be successful. The extension services in Nicaragua are both decentralised and semi-private. Bulgaria privatised a number of state farms to be used as demonstration farms, with an objective of establishing private extension service. Since the experiment was not successful, the government has decided to establish a national extension service with external financial assistance. Estonia has both, a public extension advisory service for poor farmers and a private service for better-off farmers. Uganda is experimenting with the privatisation of extension through creation of a pool of private extension specialists out of its existing public extension service, which farmers associations could call upon for providing services, and pay for the services from the funds given to them by the donors through central and decentralised government units. The sustainability of this arrangement seems to be questionable.

In Israel, the efforts to even semi-privatise national extension service have not met with success. The government is still responsible for providing extension advice, but encourages privatisation through: standing practice of growers to contribute portion of their income to research and development including extension, public and private partnership in financing and operating units within extension service, payment for services by commodity production and marketing boards beyond a basic extension package, the provision of more intensive extension activities at the request of needy growers, special agreements with commodity farmers' organisations, extension staff working on their day off for direct payment from farmers, provision of equipment like mobile phones to extension advisers by growers associations, and direct payment by farmers for participation in training activities.

The advocates of privatisation of extension services believe that farmers should pay for the extension advice. However, there is genuine fear that the zeal for cost-recovery would deprive small farmers from benefiting from the services. The small farmers either do not believe that the extension advice is worth paying for, or they simply cannot afford to pay. As pointed out earlier, this is true even for some developed countries like England. The common wisdom would dictate that in developing countries, commercial farmers should pay for extension advice while the government should provide extension services to small producers free of charge.

Pluralistic extension system

The modality of using both public and non-public institutions for delivering extension services to farming communities, called pluralistic extension system, is gaining popularity. The obvious rationale is the pooling of all available resources in order to reduce unhealthy competition, delete redundancy of services, and compensate for low budgets of the ministries of agriculture. In certain developing countries like Mali, one finds many NGOs, private companies and semi-autonomous bodies engaged in delivering extension advice to farmers. A recently formulated national policy on agricultural extension in Bangladesh recognises, for the first time, the need for partnerships with NGOs and private sector, under a decentralised extension system. In Honduras, where extension services are being privatised and small farmers are unable to pay, about 70 NGOs reach about 50,000 farmers living mostly in remote areas. In Zimbabwe, a number of public, semi-government, and private institutions are involved in delivering extension services to farmers.

The main challenge in installing a proper pluralistic agricultural extension mechanism would be the co-ordination among various agencies, the absence of which has led, in some instances, to conflicting technical recommendations creating confusion among the farmers. FAO has recently conducted a study in Zimbabwe, which focuses on defining the role of the government and a coordination mechanism for a pluralistic pattern of agricultural extension.

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