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Chapter 23 - The role of nongovernmental organizations in extension

John Farrington

John Farrington is an agricultural economist and Director of the Rural Resources and Poverty Research Programme at the Overseas Development Institute in London.

NGO characteristics
Examples of potentially replicable NGO-GO interaction
What extension services can do to further collaborate with NGOs

In recent years, many observers have suggested that agricultural and rural development strategies would benefit from increased collaboration between government research and extension organizations and nongovernmental development organizations, hereafter called GOs and NGOs, respectively (Can-oil, 1992; de Janvry et al., 1989; Jordan, 1989; Korten, 1987). Donors in particular have begun to call for more NGO involvement in programmes that have traditionally been implemented through the public sector, and there has been a recent upsurge of donor interest in direct-funding south-based NGOs (World Bank, 1991a, 1991b; Farnworth, 1991; Bebbington & Riddell, 1994).

These advocates of closer NGO-GO collaboration have tended to underemphasize:

· The wide range of interaction that currently exists, not all of it collaborative; much involves pressure by one side or the other.

· The limitations facing efforts to work together.

· The preconditions for successful collaboration; in particular, the prior informal contacts necessary to build up mutual trust.

· Limitations as well as successes of NGO action.

· The extent to which certain functions relating to, for example, "public goods" will remain more cost-effectively performed by the public sector than by NGOs. Analysis of how GOs might work with NGOs must be accompanied by continuing attention to ways of improving public sector management, an area in which structural adjustment reforms have not had the success expected.

This chapter draws on a recent major study of the role of NGOs in sustainable agricultural development and the potential for collaborative links with GOs (Farrington & Bebbington, 1993; Bebbington & Thiele, 1993; Farrington & Lewis, 1993; Wellard & Copestake, 1993). The following will be reviewed: the characteristics of NGOs, their strengths and weaknesses in relation to agricultural technology, and the practical ways in which they and public sector extension services might collaborate more fully in the future.

NGO characteristics

NGOs are defined here as nonmembership development-oriented organizations. Our concern here is with the stronger of the south-based NGOs that provide services either directly to the rural poor or to grass-roots membership organizations, and with the local branches of international NGOs that enjoy varying degrees of autonomy. They are therefore distinct from (but, as discussed below, often linked with) formal and informal membership organizations such as farmers' associations. But even within this definition, there exists wide diversity of origins and philosophy. Some NGOs were set up by left-leaning professionals or academics in opposition to the politics of government or its support for or indifference to the prevailing patterns of corruption, patronage, or authoritarianism. Some are based on religious principles, others on a broadly humanitarian ethos, and yet others were set up as quasi-consultancy concerns in response to recent donor-funding initiatives. Some NGOs reject existing social and political structures and see themselves as engines for radical change; others focus on more gradual change through development of human resources (usually through group formation) to meet their own needs or to make claims on government services; yet others focus more simply on the provision of services (e.g., advice, input supply) largely within existing structures. Their ideological orientations also differ widely in relation to agricultural technology: many are concerned with low external input agriculture, 1 others pursue fundamentally organic approaches, 2 and, especially in the case of Andean societies, some are concerned to strengthen or reinstate traditional agricultural practices which formed the basis of social organization (CAAP, 1991).

Of crucial importance when considering NGO-GO links is that NGOs are independent: they are not mandated to collaborate with research and extension services in the way that government departments might be. They will therefore collaborate only if GOs have something useful to offer.

NGO Strengths

· The majority of NGOs are small and horizontally structured with short lines of communication and are therefore capable of responding flexibly and rapidly to clients' needs and to changing circumstances. They are also characterized by a work ethic conducive to generating sustainable processes and impacts.

· NGOs' concern with the rural poor means that they often maintain a field presence in remote locations, where it is difficult to keep government staff in post.

· One of NGOs' main concerns has been to identify the needs of the rural poor in sustainable agricultural development. They have therefore pioneered a wide range of participatory methods for diagnosis3 and, in some contexts, have developed and introduced systems approaches for testing new technology, for example in Chile (Sotomayor, 1991). In some cases, these approaches have extended beyond fanning systems into processing and marketing, as with soya in Bangladesh (Buckland & Graham, 1990), sesame in the Gambia (Gilbert, 1990), and cocoa in Bolivia (Trujillo, 1991).

· NGOs' rapport with farmers has allowed them to draw on local knowledge systems in the design of technology options and to strengthen such systems by ensuring that the technologies developed are reintegrated into them (Chaguma & Gumbo, 1993).

· NGOs have also developed innovative dissemination methods, relying on farmer-to-farmer contact, whether on a group or individual basis (e.g., Sollows, Thongpan, & Leelapatra, 1993).

· In some cases, NGOs have developed new technologies such as soya production in Bangladesh (Buckland & Graham, 1990) or management practices such as the sloping agricultural land technology in the Philippines (Watson & Laquihon, 1993), but more often they have sought to adapt existing technologies, such as PRADAN's efforts in India to scale down technologies developed by government for mushroom and raw silk production and so make them accessible to small-scale farmers (Vasimalai, 1993).

· Undoubtedly, one of the main strengths of NGOs has been their work in group formation. This has been in response to perceived needs at several levels: (1) To meet the technical requirements of certain types of innovation. Thus, Action for World Solidarity in India worked with grass-roots organizations to achieve simultaneous action in an integrated pest management programme (Satish & Vardhan, 1993). In the Gambia and Ethiopia, NGOs helped farmers to organize local informal seed production in ways to avoid undesirable cross-pollination (Henderson & Singh, 1990). (2) To manage "lumpy" assets. In Bangladesh, NGOs have helped to organize landless labourers to acquire and operate water-pumping technology (Mustafa, Rahman, & Sattar, 1993). (3) To manage common property resources. Many examples exist of formal and informal associations, often supported by NGOs, which manage irrigation water. In other cases, NGOs have supported group efforts in soil and water conservation, whether on private land or on a micro-watershed basis involving both private and common land (Fernandez, 1993a). They have also helped in managing common grazing and forest land in a sustainable fashion in relation both to technology and the creation of a capacity to make demands on government over, for example, access issues (Femandez, 1993b).

Box 1. Chile: INDAP contracts NGOs to carry out extension.

In its Programme for Technology Transfer, the part of the Chilean NARS responsible for technology transfer (INDAP) provides extension to farmers through a number of private consulting companies. The activities of the companies are financed by a government subsidy of about $US330 for each subsistence farmer who participates. INDAP plans the allocation of resources and monitors the extension programme.

Following the restoration of electoral democracy and civilian rule in 1990, INDAP began to allow NGOs to participate as consulting companies. NGOs have criticized various aspects of the programme on the grounds that it is designed for individual farmers, covers only technical assistance and is not related to credit programmes, is top-down, and is short term. Even so, many of them have chosen to participate in the programme, in part to influence it, and in part to gain access to funds. AGRARIA presented itself as a consulting company and, by 1991, had seven separate INDAP programmes (this has since increased). Extension methods were based on the prior experience of AGRARIA in the region. Although the programme has become more flexible, its rigidity still affects the way extension is carried out. Nonetheless, since the state is providing resources for transfer activities, AGRARIA feels it can no longer countenance funding transfer work with its own funds.

GIA also decided to enter the INDAP programme, and several of its technical teams have formed themselves into a consulting company. GIA's motivations for doing so are, however, slightly different. By working within the programme in an action research mode, GIA's objective is to examine its impact on peasant farmers and to make recommendations to INDAP on how the programme can be strengthened.

To date, GIA has done this by contracting for three modules within the programme and by experimenting with different ways of implementing them. For instance, it has used group instead of individual approaches in extension and, on the basis of broadly positive experiences, has made recommendations to INDAP on how these might be introduced more widely.

Source: Aguirre and Namdar-Irani (1992); Sotomayor (1991).

AGRARIA is a Chilean NGO, best rendered in English as "Food and Agrarian Development." GIA is also a Chilean NGO: "Grupo de Investigaciones Agrarias," or Agrarian Research Group.

NGO Weaknesses

· NGOs' small size means that their projects rarely address the structural factors that underlie rural poverty. Small size, independence, and differences in philosophy also militate against learning from each other's experience and against the creation of effective forums, whether at national or provincial levels.

· Some "fashionable" locations have become so densely populated by a diversity of NGOs that problems have arisen not merely of competition for the same clientele, but of some undermining the activities of others (Ayers, 1992).

· NGOs have limited capacities for agricultural technology development and dissemination and limited awareness of how to create effective demand-pull on government services.

· Some NGOs are more accountable to external funding agencies than to the clientele they claim to serve. Donor pressure to achieve short-term impacts, combined with a lack of cross-learning, has led in some cases to the promotion of inappropriate technology, such as protected horticultural systems in the Bolivian Andes (Kohl, 1991).

· Many NGOs place great emphasis on voluntarism. Whilst such concepts as "volunteer extension workers" have great intuitive appeal and reflect widely commended values, they are some times promoted at the expense of financially sustainable alternatives. This was evident in SIDA's farm-level forestry project in North Vietnam, for instance, where the scope for supporting an emerging private nursery sector in the provision of technical advice was ignored, and complex and largely voluntary advisory services at the village level were promoted instead (author's observation, April 1994).

Examples of potentially replicable NGO-GO interaction

The examples that follow illustrate the types of NGO-GO configurations that offer potential for replication and adaptation in three areas: providing technical advice and feedback, training, and working with groups.

NGO-GO Configurations for Providing Technical Advice and Feedback

This chapter argues that the extreme institutional position in which all extension services are provided by the public sector is likely to be inefficient. At the other extreme, only in very specific circumstances can government hand over large parts of the extension function entirely to NGOs. This has been done in Chile, where government has contracted private technology companies to cater to the larger commercial farmers, and NGOs for small subsistence-oriented farmers (Box 1).

However, similar attempts in India have been largely unsuccessful. A proposal in the Eighth Plan to hand over the entire range of technology transfer and training activities to NGOs in parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orrisa, Kerala, and West Bengal, with some technical support from the state agricultural universities and departments of agriculture, has generated only a lukewarm response from NGOs. One reason for this is the NGO concern that many of the technical recommendations from GOs that they would be expected to disseminate are not relevant to small-scale farmers. Another reason is that mechanisms for bottom-up feedback in existing technologies and for the articulation of demands for new technologies remain weak.

An attempt by the secretary of state for agriculture in Rajasthan to hand over responsibility for extension to NGOs in Udaipur District - renowned for its high density of NGOs - provoked a reaction that is likely to be typical of NGOs in many countries: namely, that by doing so the state is abrogating what is properly its responsibility to ensure a regular supply of technologies relevant to small-scale farmers.

Models developed elsewhere to provide a division of tasks more closely corresponding to the respective comparative advantages of the two sides have been more successful. One of the best-known models is in eastern Bolivia, where public sector extension services have long been characterized by chronic weakness (Thiele, Davies, & Farrington, 1988). Under a new strategy devised in 1989, Centre for Tropical Agricultural Research (CIAT) established a coordination unit - the Technology Transfer Department (DTT) - whose role was not to work directly with farmers, but with various intermediate users of technologies who had their own local extension services. NGOs are one of the most important types of intermediate users.

The DTT has subject-matter specialists and zonal specialists whose work is supported by a communications section. The subject-matter specialists (SMSs) are in regular contact with their corresponding CIAT researcher and collaborate on some research work. They package research information for delivery to intermediate users and are mandated to transmit feedback on farmer needs to the researcher.

Frequently, technologies developed in the experimental centres are still not ready for transfer. SMSs therefore carry out on-farm adaptive trials, in addition to ensuring that extensionists pass on the appropriate messages to farmers. Other dudes of the SMSs include preparing technical bulletins for extensionists, enhancing feedback and advice to extensionists (for instance, on the establishment of demonstration plots), and explaining how to give talks to farmers.

Informal collaborative arrangements rely heavily on the initiative of GO staff to feed lessons back into the next round of the research and extension agenda. In Bolivia, feedback was encouraged through a range of instruments, including NGO representation on the research planning committee of the local research station, and consultation with a number of zonal substations, part of whose function was to assemble users' views on the technologies being made available.

A different type of formal arrangement being developed in Udaipur District of India is a quarterly forum hosted by a "hybrid" NGO-GO institution - a government Farm Science Centre located in an NGO - in which interested NGOs and GOs participate. In essence, it is intended to promote familiarization by allowing cross-visits to be set up to each other's programmes, to allow training courses to be designed to meet NGOs' requirements, and to allow NGOs to "feed back" on currently available technologies and to voice further technology needs that are not currently being met. The forum is also intended to develop lessons for future interaction from efforts to monitor the process and impacts of current NGO-GO interaction within the district. The forum is beginning to make progress in some of these areas, but a major difficulty remains in the form of pre-programmed "targets" that the Department of Agricultural Extension has to meet each season in terms of, for example, the number of demonstrations of a given type. The forum has had the added benefit of facilitating substantive interaction among GOs (departments of agricultural extension, of animal production and health, and of horticulture) which otherwise meet on a monthly basis, but only for administrative purposes, and among the large number of NGOs in the district.

What remains to be addressed is the scope for similar formal links between NGOs, the membership organizations they are working with, and the GOs (such as the revenue and forest departments) which control large areas of land suitable for grazing or fodder collection. Although the central government has approved wider access by villagers (often with the assistance of NGOs) to such land under "joint management" arrangements, parts of the land have been encroached upon by wealthier farmers, and local-level officials find it difficult to rectify this so as to make the land accessible to village groups.

NGO-GO Configurations in Training

Some of the farmer training conducted by GOs is linked more strongly with GOs' programmes and targets than with farmers' needs. Much training is given in a classroom environment, without the practical content necessary to engage farmers' interests. NGOs have sought to work with GOs to address these shortcomings in several contexts:

· In Gujarat, India, the Aga Khan Rural Support Project (AKRSP) identified village training needs through discussions with farmer groups (Shah & Mane, 1993). Initially, AKRSP organized government provision of this training, but the courses were formal in style (lectures in a classroom), and farmers' evaluations showed that they had learned little of practical value from them. In response, AKRSP developed an alternative needs-based training and dissemination methodology which it tested over several areas. Government staff were then brought in to observe, participate in, and finally adopt the methodology. Successful adoption was reinforced by informal networks and exchange of experience at workshops and consultations. AKRSP, along with Myrada (Femandez, 1993a), has also been instrumental in training GO staff in participatory methods.

· In a different context, the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction in the Philippines brought together resource people from NGOs and GOs at a one-week workshop, the objective of which was to produce a completed Agroforestry Resources Training Manual. The manual is now widely used (Gonsalves & Miclatteves, 1993).

· Clearly, there are also many instances in which NGO staff benefit from the skills which GO staff are able to impart; training in grafting techniques, for instance, has been found useful by a number of NGOs (Giordano, Satish, & Farrington, 1993).

NGO-GO Configurations in Group Formation

Substantial scope exists for GOs to benefit from NGOs' group-organizing skills. In India, for instance, recent modifications to the training and visit extension system now require village-level extension workers to interact with groups of approximately twenty farmers instead of with individual "contact farmers." However, extension workers are not trained in group formation skills, and groups that they form are unlikely - if they survive at all - to become interested in anything other than the testing of immediately available technology. The examples cited above illustrate how NGOs can effectively organize groups around integrated pest management, soil and water management, and the management of common property resources and capital assets.

Box 2. Technologies for women and the landless: improved poultry production promoted by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).

In Bangladesh, almost 50 per cent of rural households are landless or near-landless, and women face cultural restrictions on work outside the household compound. Livestock production is one activity which can be conducted within the compound. Poultry production alone is estimated to account for 23 per cent of per capita animal protein consumption in the form of both meat and eggs, but mortality is high and productivity low.

After unsuccessful efforts to upgrade poultry production between 1979 and 1983, by the mid-1980s, BRAC had devised a complementary set of technical and local institutional innovations. By 1990, these efforts had been replicated by government and other NGOs in 7,400 villages, affecting some 10 per cent of poultry production. The innovations comprised:

· One poultry worker (female) per 1,000 birds, trained in rearing techniques, health care, and vaccination

· Vaccines for the poultry worker provided by the Department of Livestock (DoL) and training provided jointly by DoL and BRAC; worker's remuneration covered largely from vaccination fees

· The establishment of systems to allow poultry keepers access either to day-old chicks from government breeding farms or, if they felt confident enough to handle such young birds, to two-month-old chicks reared at special units set up by BRAC and DoL, but managed by local key rearers, and capable of rearing batches of 250 chicks from day-old to two months

· A feed production centre serving several villages to provide a balanced feed supplement for cross-bred stock

Scaling up the scheme means that more than 33,000 key rearers are now operating commercially, and almost 5,500 poultry workers have been trained. Demand for day-old chicks from government hatcheries has risen from 0.5 million per year in the mid-1980s to almost two million currently. However, the system remains crucially dependent on the capacity of government to deliver inputs, especially vaccines, down to the local level.

Source: Mustafa et al. (1993).

What extension services can do to further collaborate with NGOs

The foregoing has several implications for extension services which aim to develop closer links with NGOs:

· Explicit recognition of the wide diversity of NGO types will be necessary. Not all Many NGOs seek to support the establishment and growth of membership organizations capable of meeting their technology requirements over the longer term either from their own resources or by creating demands on government services or by a combination of both. Thus in seed supply, Cromwell and Wiggins (1993), for instance, quote numerous examples of ways that NGOs have supported local groups to produce seed, including vegetable and soya bean seed production in Bangladesh, and the multiplication of planting material for potatoes in the Ecuadorian Andes. In other countries (e.g., Nepal, the Gambia) local seed production initiatives have arisen plant breeding focused more fully on the needs of the rural poor, and the facilitation of linkages among the various agencies concerned with seed production and distribution. Some of these efforts see viable commercial arrangements as an essential feature of longterm sustainability. Thus PRADAN, in India, in an effort spanning several years to support the introduction of chrome-leather tanning by a local group, encouraged links with commercial lending organizations and private leather traders, not least because the latter could give accurate feedback on product quality. In a more complex example of experimenting over several years with several types of women's groups for poultry production, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee finally devised a multitier structure embracing rearing, local feed production, and health care by women paravets. These women drew on government for the necessary vaccines, earned a living by charging for injections, and provided elements of the extension function by giving advice on management and nutrition to those who paid for vaccinations (Box 2) will be willing to enter into a collaborative "service delivery" relationship with government, and those that do will do so only if GOs have something to offer appropriate to their clients' needs. Extension services therefore need to search for links with NGOs from a position of confidence that the research-extension system already has, or at least has the capacity to generate, something useful to NGOs and their clients.

· Close interaction will be impossible if extension departments expect NGOs merely to assist in fulfilling preset targets such as the achievement of a given number of demonstrations of a given kind each season. GOs will have to bring an open agenda into the relationship, where possible keeping some resources "unallocated" in order to be able to respond to needs as they are articulated by NGOs.

· Very specific efforts will have to be made to convey both feedback on existing technologies and NGOs' requirements for new technologies to researchers. In many GOs, reward systems pro vide no incentive among either researchers or extensionists to respond to feedback.

· GO and NGO staff can jointly participate in training courses (ideally led by a joint team) in the action-oriented methods such as participatory rural appraisal favoured by NGOs. The relevance of these to individual NGO staff will vary, but their capacity to enhance awareness of farmers' perspectives is important.

· Depending on their philosophy, NGOs are concerned to develop local capacities for experimentation which build solely on farmers' indigenous knowledge or on this and relevant "outside" ideas. This strategy may contribute to rural advancement in its own right, and the capacity it creates may prove a useful independent source of innovations in the absence of usable technologies from government. Alternatively, where GOs are willing and able to work with the poor, it will be a useful complement to what extension service can offer.


The examples now becoming available offer wider lessons on ways that NGOs and extension services can work in a mutually reinforcing fashion. Predictably enough, it is the group-organizing and human resource development skills of NGOs which have tended to complement the technical skills and facilities available to government. Less predictable are the types of interaction that might evolve in specific settings: much appears likely to develop on an ad hoc basis in response to the individual characteristics of NGOs and the settings in which they work. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a formal forum is required for certain types of interaction, including training, the joint planning of research and extension agenda, and the securing of joint management agreements for soil and water, fodder, and grazing resources. The task for the coming decade will be to develop these in ways which are nonthreatening both to the organizations involved and to the informal interaction they already undertake and, as a prior requirement, to develop the mutual trust and awareness of each other's activities on which formal interaction depends.


1. For examples, see the Newsletter of the Information Centre for Low External and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA), based at PO Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, Netherlands.

2. Such as organizations affiliated to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

3. For reviews of these methods, see, for example, Farrington and Martin, 1988; Chambers, Pacey, & Thrupp, 1989; Scoones and Thompson, 1994. For a recent review of the concepts and practices of farmer participatory research, see Okali et al., 1994.


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This book offers a critical review and inventory-analysis of the "state of the art" in agricultural extension theory and best practices written by internationally known agricultural extension practitioners, educators and scholars. A total of 38 authors from 15 countries contributed to the 23 chapters of this book, providing broad international perspectives covering both theory and practice as well as micro and macro issues related to agricultural extension. This is the third edition of a classic reference manual on agricultural extension published by FAO. Aimed at agricultural extension planners, managers, trainers, educators and field practitioners, the book could be useful in improving the quality of agricultural extension and in generating new ideas and methods for increasing further the cost-effectiveness of agricultural extension programmes. It provides many sound and practical suggestions for developing and improving the conceptual, technical and operational methods and tools for strategic planning, efficient management and scientific evaluation of problem-solving, demand-driven and needs-based agricultural extension programmes.

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