Posted July 1996
by L. Van Crowder
Agricultural Education Officer
Agricultural Extension and Education Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division
Forestry Extension Officer
FAO Forestry Department
Weak linkages among research, education and extension (REE) institutions result in systematic "bottlenecks" in national agricultural technology systems and can limit their effectiveness to contribute to development. Evidence shows that integrating research, education and extension can improve the overall performance of agricultural technology systems (Merrill-Sands & Kaimowitz, 1989; Engel, 1990; Ortiz, 1990; Roling, 1990). If this is the case, why then is the "problem of weak linkages" so persistent and so pervasive?
A related problem is that in many REE systems the "users" are mostly inactive recipients in a technology-driven process. The technology receives most of the attention, often to the detriment of the "non-technological" factors (i.e., social, economic and cultural) which influence farmers' behaviour. Such technology oriented REE systems seem to work best when farmers are literate, organized, well-endowed with biophysical resources, grow export/cash crops, can diversify against risk, have access to transport, storage and processing facilities and can acquire improved inputs. Unfortunately, these requirements are rarely present in many developing countries.
National agricultural and rural policies often affect REE linkages. Sometimes, national level agricultural policies target certain crops and even certain production levels. Centralised and quantified policies may inhibit the flexibility that REE organisations need to be responsive both to farmers and to each other, and may increase competition instead of cooperation. REE policies should create an enabling environment for an integrated REE system, including specification of organizational responsibilities for working together and by providing incentives for cooperation.
Structurally, research, education and extension are often compartmentalized in separate institutions, or even ministries, and have a history of functional specialization which hampers the establishment of effective linkages. Institutional boundaries, which are heightened by competition for scarce resources, can undermine policies aimed at integrating REE activities.
Recurrent linkage problems would seem to require formal, institutionalized solutions. There is the risk, however, that linkages become overly institutionalized, thus defeating their purpose. Ultimately, for formal linkages to work requires that all involved parties perceive that they receive benefits from the linkage relationships.
In many countries in the past, the prevalent REE model assumed that technical services were the sole responsibility of government agencies. Government institutions often had an exclusive mandate and were assumed to have singular REE skills.
Recent shifts in public sector control and the trend towards decentralized services point to the error in expecting one single organization to be able to deal effectively with all farmers -- poor semi-subsistence farmers and rich commercial ones alike -- and all rural sector issues --from resource conservation to crop production. Conceptual shifts and economic constraints have lead to a greater consideration of pluralistic REE approaches, i.e., multi-organisational partnerships including non-governmental actors in the broadest sense.
For example, differences in objectives and motivations between public and private extension organizations mean that one or the other of them may be more appropriate for certain kinds of extension activities and clients. Pluralistic extension systems seem to make sense not only in terms of flexibility and complementarity, but also in terms of the range and number of farmers served as well as their different technological needs (e.g., commercial agri-business technologies compared to low external input technologies). Pluralistic approaches explicitly underscore the need for integrating mechanisms.
A key player in most pluralistic REE systems is the NGO community. In recent years, non-profit NGOs have received support from donors as a non-mutually exclusive alternative to government research and extension institutions. Less attention has been paid, however, to linking NGOs to public-sector REE institutions so that there is complementarity between their efforts. While NGOs often focus on small, resource-poor farmers, their reach is limited and they often lack a solid technical base (Francis et al., 1995). Pluralistic approaches to REE should stress the importance of improved collaboration between NGOs and government agencies.
When research, extension and education institutions are organized and function in an integrated systems approach, even when physically separate, then linkages among them and with farmers are more likely to receive attention. An integrated approach to REE attempts to link all system participants -- researchers, extension workers, educators, input suppliers, farmers and others -- so that they are jointly involved in the agricultural technology innovation process. The common denominator among these participants is information and knowledge; when linked, they form an agricultural knowledge and information system that draws on both modern science and farmers' indigenous knowledge.
An integrated REE approach emphasizes the importance of interactive, mutual learning between formal and informal knowledge/technology systems and stresses linkages with farmers so that they actively participate in agricultural technology innovation efforts. While in the traditional technology transfer approach more attention is paid to "trickle down" flows of information from research to extension and from extension to farmers, an integrated REE approach shifts attention to feedback and upwards communication from farmers and to facilitating research-extension-farmer interactions.
There is no single, ideal and easy recipe for improving REE linkages. The strategies and mix of mechanisms employed depend on the policy, institutional and resource context of a particular country. The complexity of national agricultural technology systems requires, however, that governments foster linkage mechanisms and play a coordinating role. This involves identifying "linkage gaps" and where and how research, extension and education organizations, both public and private, can overlap with each other and with farmers. It also means establishing vertical and horizontal links at multiple levels -- at the field level and at different hierarchical levels between and within REE institutions.
Operational measures are often needed that redefine REE roles and tasks in ways that promote functional interdependent. Measures that have been taken to close linkage gaps include allocating staff time and operating funds to linkage activities; creating special linkage or liaison positions; building linkage responsibilities into job descriptions; forming farmer advisory committees and integrated field teams; training REE managers to support and provide leadership to linkage activities; and REE joint problem diagnosis, priority-setting and planning (Merrill-Sands & Kaimowitz, 1989).
Linkages are facilitated when research institutions, extension agencies and education organizations recognize the value of shared or complementary information and promote group or team approaches to problem solving -- for example, between experiment station researchers and on-farm researchers; between front-line extension workers and subject-matter specialists; and between faculty members from different disciplines, especially between biological and social scientists.
Linkage issues and mechanisms need to be addressed at several levels: At the farm level through farmer-participatory REE activities; at the national level through policies and management strategies that develop REE organizations capable of adapting successful technology innovations at the field level to widespread practice in national programmes; and at the international level through donor support and technical assistance support that strengthens REE systems to better address national (and regional) agricultural technology development.
It is one thing to observe that an integrative and systems approach should be taken to REE, but quite another thing to translate the observation into action. Many "organizationally elegant" models of the REE linkages can be described, but they never quite seem to materialize.
To begin with, a dialogue on REE linkages might be best encouraged by a focus, not only on REE organisations and their structural linkages, but on REE functions. A focus on the extension function, for example, may make it clearer that we are talking about a system that includes such actors as farmers themselves, vendors, media personnel, government staff, NGOs, etc., and such places as farms, waterholes, local weekly markets, etc. Donors wanting to support the REE "matrix" while focusing on extension might, therefore, support any of a series of interlocking actors of which the formal extension agency would be but one part.
The internal organisational pressures and cultures of traditional REE institutions are often insufficient to assure that linkages take place. For these organisations to coordinate and integrate their activities pressure often must come from outside. The inter-dependence of research, education and extension points to the importance of the international donor and technical assistance community directing its efforts to the integration of national REE institutions as a coordinated agricultural technology system. This requires country and regional projects that seek to establish, integrate and "synergize" REE linkages.
Steady, long-term, external demand that promotes better integration has to come from another quarter, logically from one that needs and consumes REE outputs. The groups that could provide this pressure, and do in some countries, are farmers themselves. Donors can play an important catalyst role, and promote long-term integration, by supporting the mobilization and empowerment of diffuse, inarticulate and poorly organised rural producers into collective actors strong enough to pressure REE institutions. This pressure is not directly on linkages -- it is pressure for improved performance which will compel better linkages.
Finally, linkages may imply a formality and a dependence that is artificial and burdened with "transaction costs". Perhaps the linkages approach reflects more of a mechanical system than an organic one. In fact, the relationships may be so fluid and the surrounding environment so shifting that mechanical formal linkages are inappropriate. Perhaps, extension agents should meet with researchers on an "as needed" basis - instead of a fixed schedule of periodic and ritualistic meetings, as is the case in Training and Visit (T&V) extension. While integrating and coordinating mechanisms seem like a logical need, perhaps the organisational model should be similar to that of the Internet, which provides for linkages but without "overhead". Flexible, semi-formal networking might be encouraged instead of creating formal, bureaucratic linkages.
To improve linkages, and thereby improve the effectiveness of agricultural technology systems, several elements seem to stand out as particularly important:
Engel, P. (1990). "The Impact of Improved Institutional Coordination on Agricultural Performance: The Case of the Nariño Highlands in Colombia". Linkages Discussion Paper No.4. The Hague: ISNAR.
Francis, C.A., et al. (1995). "Designing an Integrated Cropping Systems Research Program: Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), Liberia". Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, Vol. 5 (3).
Kaimowitz, D., et al. (1990). "A Conceptual Framework for Studying the Links Between Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer in Developing Countries". In "Making the Link: Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer in Developing Countries" (D.Kaimowitz, ed). Boulder: Westview Press.
Merrill-Sands, D. & D. Kaimowitz. (1989). "The Technology Triangle -- Linking Farmers, Technology Transfer Agents and Agricultural Researchers". The Hague: ISNAR.
Ortiz, R. (1990). "A Joint Venture in Technology Transfer to Increase Adoption Rates". In "Participatory Action Research" (W.F. Whyte, ed). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Roling, N. (1990). "The Agricultural Research-Technology Transfer Interface: A Knowledge Systems Perspective". In "Making the Link -- Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer in Developing Countries" (D. Kaimowitz, ed). Boulder: Westview Press.