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Posted March 1996

Organizing for extension: FAO experiences in small farmer group development

by John Rouse
Senior Officer
Rural Institutions and Participation Service (SDAR)
FAO Rural Development Division
(extracted from "Ceres" magazine, No. 145, Vol. 26 No. 1)
See also Special: Participation in practice - Lessons from the FAO People's Participation Programme

Enthusiasm for scientific management was a hallmark of the 1960s and '70s, from the "Space Race" that culminated in the 1969 moon landing to the Green Revolution launched by Norman Borlaug and his associates in agriculture. The widespread conviction was that the right dose of determination and new technology could solve almost any problem.

Farm extension was no exception. The rapid dissemination of Green Revolution technologies in the Third World during the 1970s was due not just to the technological package's appeal, but to new extension methods - the most notable being the so-called "Training-and-Visit" (T&V) system. Popularized in the mid-1970s, T&V was introduced in many developing countries with the help of massive donor funding. Though input-intensive, requiring significant increases in the number of extension staff and their re-training, its systematic, managed and disciplined approach seemed to offer considerable improvements over traditional extension methods. Furthermore, T&V provided a mechanism for farmer involvement in the extension process, something traditional approaches lacked.

Dramatic increases in per capita cereal output in countries like the Philippines, India and Pakistan seemed to confirm T&V's effectiveness. But doubts soon arose: follow-up studies indicated T&V was much better at channelling extension to large and middle-sized growers than reaching small-scale or tenant farmers. While T&V allowed for more farmer participation than other extension methods, critics argued it was too narrowly focused on involving just a "contact farmer," not the wider community.

Another criticism was that the type of farmer participation T&V encouraged was unidirectional - from the top downward. While reasonably effective in getting farmers to test and adopt new technologies developed at research stations, T&V wasn't particularly good at getting extensionists to listen and learn from farmers, especially small farmers. The latter weren't involved directly in identifying research problems, setting research priorities or formulating extension strategies and methods.

Cooperatives' failure

By the late '70s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Green Revolution had led to a widening of the gap between rural rich and poor. Large-scale commercial farmers were taking rapid advantage of productivity gains, while small farmers and other rural poor were left behind. To many at FAO, this was a signal that the Green Revolution had reached its "institutional limits," i.e. that, due to bureaucratic, socio-political and economic factors, extension and related development services were unable to reach the small and marginalized farmers who constituted the vast majority of producers. To benefit from Green Revolution advances, small farmers and the rural disadvantaged had to be organized to create economies-of-scale in both an economic and socio-political sense. To be heard in the marketplace as well as parliament, they had to be organized - on their own terms, not those of outsiders - and this could be done only by collective self-help action, working through autonomous farmers' organizations.

However, most farmer organizations in the Third World weren't suitable vehicles for small farmer participation. While International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) statistics indicated there were hundreds of thousands of officially recognized co-ops in developing countries, ICA officials privately confessed many existed only on paper. Those that were real were often dominated by rural elites or government officials.

The failure of co-ops to represent and protect the interests of the general farm population has its roots in colonial days, when many of them were established. Colonial administrators tended to see co-ops as instruments for achieving certain economic and political objectives, set by government - such as generating increased export crop earnings and tax revenues or maintaining local political control - rather than as self-managed, self-financing organizations with ends determined freely by members. After independence many nationalist leaders saw these "inherited" structures in much the same way. Committed to ambitious nation-building programs, most believed government should continue playing an active role in promoting and, if necessary, controlling farmers' organizations.

Unfortunately, as in colonial times, co-ops continued to be promoted in a top-down manner, with government often heavily involved in their management and financing. As a consequence, farmers frequently saw themselves as belonging to the "government cooperative" or the "landlord's cooperative," not their own. Member participation in running co-ops was virtually non-existent and their potential to function as partners of government extension systems was hopelessly limited.

FAO's early work

Not all FAO technicians were convinced that either the T&V approach or other more traditional extension methods were the best vehicles for delivering new technologies to small farmers. Aware that existing farmer organizations were a "weak link" in the chain of technology transfer, a small cadre of sociologists, extensionists and co-op specialists at FAO headquarters in Rome in the early 1970s began conducting research on organizational strategies that promoted active small farmer participation in rural development.

Their findings highlighted four main characteristics of successful autonomous, sustainable small farmer organizations. First, successful organizations tended to be based on small, informal groups of eight to 15 members, much smaller than the typical village-wide cooperative. Second, groups whose members came from similar backgrounds, had common interests and similar resource bases, tended to have fewer internal conflicts and functioned better than those with a more heterogeneous membership. Third, groups that focused on solving common problems felt by all members - instead of those identified by outsiders - had higher success rates.

Finally, where outside promoters had assisted in a group's development, better results were obtained when the promoter took a low-key, participatory approach that encouraged members' "learning by doing."

In 1973, two pioneering extensionists at the FAO Regional Office in Bangkok decided to test a methodology for building sustainable small farmer organizations, using the above approaches. The result was the Small Farmers' Development Program (SFDP), launched in Nepal in 1975 in collaboration with that country's Agricultural Development Bank. It soon became a model for small farmer development throughout Asia. By 1980, SFDP pilot projects were under way in Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines and the number of groups formed in Nepal alone had grown to 4 554, serving nearly 42,000 small farmer members. While the SFDP's approach couldn't be considered participatory agricultural extension per se, it had all the elements. A recent evaluation found one of the program's major achievements was linking small farmer groups to delivery systems for extension, agricultural inputs, credit and other services.


Support for participatory rural development approaches received a further boost at the 1979 World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD) in Rome. A major conference aim was to review progress in the field of rural development. Review findings, however, were quite critical of technology-based strategies for rural development, which seemed to have ignored the participation of rural people (especially the rural poor) and were aggravating rural-urban imbalances and widening the income and equity gap between rural rich and poor. This, in turn, was restricting balanced growth of domestic markets and creation of urban and rural employment opportunities, leading to social and political discontent. To close these gaps, the conference concluded, rural people had to be encouraged to participate actively, through their own organizations, in the formulation and implementation of programs designed to assist them.

Donor response to the WCARRD mandate was prompt and FAO soon found itself implementing a number of WCARRD follow-up programs, including the People's Participation Programme (PPP), that took as its major objective the expansion of the SFDP methodology on a much bigger scale, with a special focus on Africa. The PPP project in Africa, however, got off to a slow start. Many governments expressed keen interest in PPP, but were nervous about the potential political consequences of introducing participatory rural development in areas long-accustomed to "top-down" political rule from the capital cities. Projects that did finally obtain approval tended to be located in out-of-the-way places, far from the critical eye of politicians and government officials.

It turned out this was not such a bad thing. In PPP's early years, there was much trial-and-error, both in the project action areas and at FAO headquarters. Unlike traditional FAO projects with predetermined objectives and rigid time frames, PPP projects provided only a loose, participatory framework for promoting group-based initiatives. Group objectives were determined by the groups themselves, with facilitation from specially-trained Group Promoters (GPs) who lived and worked in the action areas. These innovative projects, which had relatively small budgets of less than US$200,000 emphasised training rather than equipment, and made heavy use of local staff. They were implemented through a variety of agencies, including government ministries, semi-autonomous cooperative organizations and NGOs. These features, and the rather loose, participatory design of PPP projects created problems for many FAO administrators, who felt more comfortable operating projects with well-defined objectives and time frames.

This led to a lot of "teething problems" both within FAO and at country level. Mistakes were made, but the emphasis was always on learning from them, and improving. For example, frequent problem-focused workshops of PPP project staff from neighbouring countries were held (in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1985, in Mbabane, Swaziland, in 1987, and in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1989) to reflect on these mistakes and develop improved approaches. New contractual procedures were developed to facilitate decentralized project management and guideline manuals were prepared to assist local project staff in such areas as training of GPs, group-based credit and savings arrangements, and participatory monitoring and evaluation.

Throughout the 1980s, seven PPP projects were begun in Africa: in Ghana, Lesotho, Kenya, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and in Asia, in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. By the end of the 1980s, PPP projects worldwide had succeeded in organizing 900 groups and 120 inter-group associations, serving more than 11,000 farmer households. PPP group structures not only helped these farmers and their household members solve their own problems more effectively, but also to mobilize their own savings for investment purposes and better utilize existing government and NGO service delivery systems. By mid-1991, PPP groups had mobilized US$185,000 in savings and gained access to more than $500,000 in group loans.

While these figures may seem lightweight - compared to food aid projects with hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries or agricultural credit projects that deal in millions of dollars - they are significant since they represent formation of autonomous self-help organizations of the rural poor, run by them and serving their needs.

Participation in practice

While all PPP projects aim to link small farmers more effectively with development support services, only three - in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Zambia - have been directly implemented by farm extension agencies. Interestingly, these three seem to have been the most successful.

The Thailand SFDP/PPP project, for example, implemented through the Thailand Department of Agricultural Extension (DOAE) and completed in 1987, was instrumental in a major shift in DOAE's national agricultural extension policy toward use of more participatory group-based approaches to reach small farmers.

In Zambia, the Women's Extension Service of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Development is the implementing agency for a PPP project located in the country's remote Western Province. Through careful work over eight years, the project has built a network of 155 small farmer groups and 69 inter-group associations that serves as a vehicle for delivery of agricultural extension information to 1,800 farmers (77 percent of them women). Access to credit has played a minor role in the project, with less than K587 735 in group loans granted, but the majority of groups are self-sustaining. They've shown this by mobilizing more than K188 690 in savings (averaging K1 945 per savings group) despite high domestic inflation rates - a unique achievement in rural Zambia. Much of the savings mobilized has been invested in the adoption of new technologies, such as ox-ploughing, mango drying, cashew production and fruit production. With expansion of activities to all of Western Province's districts scheduled to begin late last year, the project is beginning to attract international attention.

The Sri Lanka project represents FAO's most articulated and developed PPP intervention to date and appears to have come closest to reaching long-term sustainability. Implemented by a team of extensionists seconded from the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Research (MADR), its three-tier, self-governing network of more than 200 small farmer groups, 24 village-based inter-group associations and two inter-group federations has made it possible for MADR's grossly understaffed Extension Service to involve and provide assistance to more than 2,000 marginal farmers in central Sri Lanka. (For further details, see Analysis: Mahasahana - a participatory extension network in Sri Lanka.)

The Sri Lanka case illustrates how participatory approaches to extension can improve the cost-effectiveness of extension services by promoting more "cost sharing" between extension agencies and their farmer clientele. Thanks to this project, MADR extensionists have been able to work through a self-supporting network of small farmer groups and higher-level associations to deliver their extension messages. Instead of going directly to small farmers, which would be very costly, they now delegate many tasks and responsibilities - such as organizing technology demonstrations, distributing inputs, monitoring and evaluating extension results - to the small farmer network, thus considerably reducing extension delivery costs while, at the same time, broadening extension coverage.

Basic principles

Over the past 20 years, experiences such as those described have taught FAO a lot about what works and what doesn't in small farmer group development and promoting increased small farmer participation in extension. The findings can be briefly summarized:

Developing sustainable small farmer groups is a long-term process, requiring a minimum three to four years. The best way to start this process is by creating small informal groups (five to 15 members), organized around a common need or interest. The small group environment provides optimal conditions for group learning of organizational, problem-solving and technical skills. Homogeneity of membership is critical - it reduces the likelihood of conflict between group members, which negatively effects performance;

The soundest and safest starting point for group activities is cooperation to improve members' income generation potential. The cash surplus generated then becomes the basis for savings growth and further group development activities. Use of low-interest credit as an incentive for group formation is not advisable - it's better to adopt a "savings first" approach. Regular member cash deposits (the size of the contribution is not as important as its regularity) into a group savings fund help build financial strength and mobilize working capital essential for the development of group activity. They provide members a source of "innovation risk insurance," (e.g. in case of crop failure or other emergency), help promote group financial discipline and strengthen group unity;

The use of specially-trained, resident group organizers (GOs) is usually fundamental to success. One of the most important skills these development workers can teach groups is collective problem-solving and decision-making, both of which enhance group learning capacities. One example is the technique of "shared leadership," through which every member is encouraged to assume a leadership role in the group on a rotational basis, so that he or she can exercise organizational and leadership skills;

Formation of small, informal groups should not be seen as an end in itself, but the first step in long-term organization building aimed at linking small groups into larger inter-group associations and farmer organizations. These associations help small group members achieve additional economies-of-scale (e.g. through bulk purchase of inputs), to link up with extension agencies and other development services, and to assume some support functions previously performed by the group promoter. In this way, the GP can gradually withdraw as group self-reliance is achieved.


"But is it cost-effective?" That was the question raised by the representative of a large donor agency at a regional workshop on PPP project replication held in Tanzania in 1989. His point was that while participatory approaches do channel services to marginalized groups that would otherwise be ignored, the cost might exceed the economic benefits.

It was a good question, one that FAO had never adequately answered, partly because the benefits of PPP were slow in emerging. In an attempt to respond to the question, a series of long-term evaluation studies of some PPP interventions were launched two to three years after FAO assistance had ceased. Five studies have been launched so far in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Lesotho, Sri Lanka and Thailand. These studies show that during the project, the average cost per beneficiary fell sharply in the second and third year of FAO assistance. For example, a study of the average cost per beneficiary of providing GP services revealed an average cost of around US$24, which continued declining as time went on. Of course, the "acid test" of cost-effectiveness was to see how many groups, formed under the above projects, survived two or three years after FAO assistance ceased.

Surprisingly, in four of the five cases mentioned, 30 to 60 per cent of PPP groups continued to function effectively even without external technical support. Genuinely autonomous farmer organizations seem able to become key partners of government in improving the cost-effectiveness of development services, many of which are now faced with budget and personnel cuts caused by global recession, falling government revenues and structural re-adjustment policies. Governments have to learn how to get along with less, and the PPP approach is one very promising avenue to pursue. But the benefits governments can derive from such approaches aren't just economic.

The democratically governed and self-financed organizations that result from this process also provide their small farmer members with ways of participating more actively in local politics and government. This is important because, ultimately, it is the political participation of small farmers in rural development policy-making that makes extension systems more accountable and responsive to farmers' needs.

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