Extension Knowledge

Posted September 1996

Decentralized Extension: Effects and Opportunities

by L. Van Crowder
Agricultural Education Officer
Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

The current general consensus is that extension decentralization can have benefits and costs as well as advantages for some farmers and disadvantages for others (Malvicini, et al., 1996; Rivera, 1996). While it is possible that the decentralization of public-sector services can allow extension to be more responsive to the needs of local farmers, and especially small-scale farmers, major questions are what factors contribute to successful decentralization that benefits small, resource-poor farmers, what are the costs and who will pay them?

Decentralized of extension has, of course, historical models. For example, the extension systems in the United States, Canada, Brazil and India are all, in varying degrees, decentralized, with overlapping financial and administrative responsibility for extension at federal, state and local levels.

In recent years, the chronic difficulties of maintaining a public-sector extension service and the importance of farmer participation have led to wider scope for extension through non-governmental intermediaries (NGOs and farmer organizations). Financial pressures have led to exploration of ways to reduce government costs by decentralization, privatizing extension services and cost-sharing arrangements with NGOs and farmers' organizations.

Recent decentralization efforts take place in a context of extension re-conceptualizing and re-structuring that generally acknowledges that supply-side extension should be abandoned for demand-driven approaches that are more responsive to farmers' needs. Several factors argue for a re-assessment of extension, including the fiscal crisis that has made it hard for governments to provide adequate resources for extension and pressures towards more participatory approaches that allow farmers to influence the design, implementation and evaluation of extension activities. Decentralization not only gives local government control over personnel and finances, but in theory focuses control closer to the level of farmers and thus can improve extension accountability to their needs.

Rivera (1996) observes that extension decentralization is dominated by three policy directions:

  1. to decentralize the burden of extension costs through fiscal system redesign that provides for greater local government participation in financing and managing extension;
  2. to decentralize extension through structural reform with the goal of improving institutional responsiveness and accountability; and
  3. to decentralize the management of extension through farmer participatory involvement in decision making and responsibility for extension programmes.
The success of extension under decentralized conditions can be undermined by the structural-adjustment induced budget cuts that have left government extension services in many developing countries at reduced strength, forcing them to use available funds primarily for personnel, even where staff cuts have been achieved. A weakened public sector extension service has produced an "institutional vacuum" that has left many farmers, and especially small-scale farmers, without access to government services. The impacts of structural adjustment may merely confirm, however, the perception that small-scale farmers have not been much affected by government extension to begin with.

If decentralized extension is to fill this institutional vacuum, then it will be necessary to direct benefits to small-scale farmers instead of large ones as has occurred historically. It is probable that large-scale farmers, and to some extent medium-scale farmers, are somewhat less affected by this vacuum since they have the option of obtaining technical services from private-sector agricultural firms or contracting services through their commodity boards and producer associations.

Some countries are attempting to direct decentralized extension services to small-scale, limited-resource farmers and to implement cost-sharing and fee-based extension strategies with farmers who can afford to pay. Colombia, for example, has decentralized extension and other services, turning local responsibility over to municipalities. Costs are paid by local tax revenues and service fees for farmers who can afford them. However, the quality of extension services varies greatly among municipalities and local effectiveness is often hampered by the lack of trained staff, insufficient fiscal resources to successfully carry out extension activities and weak links to regional and national institutions.

Given the importance of linkages for successful extension, an important issue is the effect decentralized extension has on linkages to research -- does it result in a de-coupling of research-extension linkages, weakening local access to knowledge that only exists in central locations, or does it actually improve linkages, not only at the local level but also at regional and national levels? In the absence of political commitment for central government to support "devolved" extension workers and researchers, and unless traditional extension-research linkage problems are addressed, it seems unlikely that decentralization by itself will result in improved integration of extension and research functions. On the other hand, if decentralization improves farmer participation and feedback by giving farmers, and especially small-scale farmers, more of a voice in setting agendas, then the outcomes will be positive, including the development and dissemination of technologies that more closely fit farmers' needs.

A recent study on decentralization of extension services in the Philippines (Malvicini et al., 1996) found, however, that "Most upland farmers go about their business unaffected by changes in a system that, historically, has not adequately met their needs". A series of recommendations resulted from the study that are intended to improve local extension including the formation of partnerships based on collaboration among extension units, NGOs, peoples' organizations, and universities among others; training for "devolved" extension agents to help shift them from centralized to community-based approaches; operationalization of decentralization through special representative bodies and councils so that farmers can participate in local decision making; and strong linkages with regional and national offices of the Department of Agriculture to facilitate information and knowledge sharing.

An important question that remains to be answered is whether decentralized extension serves the needs of small-scale, resource-poor farmers. According to the Philippines study, to do so will require a "multi-sectoral collaborative approach" that includes community-based partnerships. In this regard, Rivera (1996) observes that "To date, the centrist tradition in developing countries has inhibited self-reliance and the development of civil institutions at the community level, two elements that are critical for the smooth functioning of decentralized local administrations". This strongly suggests that for decentralized extension to be effective requires efforts to strengthen local-level intermediary organizations, especially those that represent the interests of poor farmers.


Malvicini, P.G. et al. (1996). "Decentralization of Agricultural Extension in the Philippines: Forming Community-Based Partnerships". Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Rivera, W.M. (1996). "Agricultural Extension in Transition Worldwide: Structural, Financial and Managerial Strategies for Improving Agricultural Extension". Public Adminstration and Development. Vol. 16, 151-161.

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