For those policy-makers who would like to refresh their knowledge of the concept of extension, this is a function of providing need- and demand-based knowledge and skills to rural men, women and youth in a non-formal, participatory manner, with the objective of improving their quality of life. If the extension function is applied to agriculture, it will be called agricultural extension; if applied to health, it will be health extension, etc. Since most of the target population is adult, extension commonly applies the principles of adult education to educational approaches and materials to enhance learning. Extension is essentially education, although it falls outside formal education systems, and as such, aims at bringing about positive behavioural changes among those targeted.
It is logical that policy-makers first be convinced of the key role of extension in national development before giving serious thought to reforming and modernizing the present national agricultural extension services. This is important because unfortunately a somewhat unhealthy perception of extension prevails, caused by a weak extension lobby in most developing countries, faulty initial organizational set-up, an inherent lack of trust in extension by most of the research organizations, and traditionally poor career development conditions in the profession of extension.
Since the start of structural adjustment programmes in developing countries many years ago, extension services have been a prime target of downsizing. In some cases, the donors concerned have guided the governments in this direction, while in other cases strong lobbies in certain agricultural disciplines notably agricultural research and economy have challenged the usefulness of extension. Extension work is a very difficult task in less-developed countries. It is not carried out from air-conditioned offices or laboratories by formally dressed persons, but mostly in the field under severe weather and logistic conditions with minimum facilities. The extension mission of interacting with mostly illiterate and poor rural people with the aim of changing their behaviour positively is indeed a formidable task when compared to working with plants and animals in the comfort of research stations.
This is indeed a misfortune for the developing countries. Extension has been and still is treated as an inferior subject by most agricultural researchers, in spite of evidence that if extension is weak, some otherwise excellent technologies never reach the farmers. During 1960s, extension played a significant role in bringing about the Green Revolution through the strategic introduction and promotion of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties and the use of farm inputs as recommended by researchers. Agricultural research agendas remain largely academic unless extension workers provide input in terms of the identified and as yet unsolved field problems of the farmers. Research focuses on the technical aspects for generating useful technologies, while extension focuses on the acceptance and adoption of those technologies by users. Applied research institutions need strong extension services to work in a field problems-oriented mode, and the extension services need the backstopping of strong applied agricultural research institutions to effectively serve the farming communities.
Recommendations on meeting the food security challenge
Development of a new and expanded policy agenda by the government for agricultural extension and communication for rural development focusing national attention on food security and income generation of the rural poor.
Building of a platform by the government to promote dialogue and cooperation among relevant institutions and programmes in all sectors with the aim of developing an extension and information services network for food security and income generation.
Activation of institutional change within the public sector, by the government, aimed at supporting and promoting the new and expanded policy on extension and food security and the determinations instituted by the nationwide platform.
FAO. 2003. Agricultural extension, rural development and the food security challenge, by W.M. Rivera and M.K. Qamar. Rome.
The common belief among researchers that, if they develop a good technology the farmers will automatically adopt it therefore, there is no need for extension is not sound. If this were true, hundreds of good technologies developed by researchers, as pointed out in a major international conference held in Addis Ababa in 1995, in which Sasakawa Foundation was also involved, would not be sitting on shelves to the dismay of good scientists.
The good technologies, in order to be considered by the farmers for possible adoption, must first travel the distance between relevant research institutes and the farmers fields. Then, they should be introduced to the farmers in non-technical language and the advantages of the technology over traditional practices must be demonstrated in a convincing manner, such as through field demonstration. Next, the necessary ingredients for trying the new technology, such as cost and any risk factors will have to be explained. Later, various adult education methods and participatory decision-making approaches need to be followed in order to encourage discussion on the information provided on the new technology in order to assess both positive and negative issues. Assuming that some progressive farmers are willing to try the new technology, arrangements will have to be made for other farmers to benefit from this limited sample adoption opportunity. The regular monitoring of the trial of the technology, including discussion with the progressive farmers, will be required for any trouble-shooting and eventually to assess the overall performance of the new technology under in situ field conditions. Good or bad results and possible reasons for them must be conveyed to the relevant researchers who recommended the particular technology. If the benefits outweigh the problems, the technology will have a better chance of being adopted by other farmers; otherwise, it will have to be categorized as an inappropriate technology and dropped from the list of extension recommendations.
This is an oversimplified explanation of the procedure which every extension worker has to pass through whenever a new technology is recommended by researchers. Now, if there are no extension workers, who will be responsible for following this procedure? One possible answer may be the researchers themselves. If this answer is accepted then in fact the researchers will be performing the function of extension, even without being employees of any extension service, which is perfectly acceptable. But would this solution really be possible in real life, when most researchers prefer to stay within the boundaries of their institutes, making rare visits to farmers fields, if any. So, logically, if extension services are abolished, researchers should be willing to be trained and work as extension workers a scenario which is probably unacceptable to researchers at the present time.
In the past, agricultural research institutes in a number of developing countries created small extension units as a part of their organizational structure for publicizing their technologies mostly through publications. While the publications were a source of satisfaction for the researchers, such publicity rarely went beyond the confines of the institutes. Such units were later disbanded. Several research-outreach projects were also tried, within the framework of which research trials were conducted in farmers fields. This approach gave more positive results, but only in those places where both extension workers and farmers were actively involved in the entire process. Still, the practice was no substitute for a viable extension service.
Countries like the United States of America, Canada, Australia and Denmark, which have very advanced agriculture, have always enjoyed strong extension services, first public, and now public and/or private. Their extension services may look very different from those of developing countries, but so are their farms (mostly commercial), farming operations (mostly mechanized) and the number of farmers (mostly a low percentage of countrys population). None of these very developed countries has ever considered the discipline of extension as inferior to other agricultural disciplines at the time of resource allocation.
Major donors like the World Bank have observed an almost constant decline in resource allocation to agriculture sector during the past decade, but lately the trend has visibly reversed. There are many reasons for this, but the major one is the resolve of rich countries to fight hunger and poverty in less-developed countries, as these two menaces have led to a variety of serious problems with far-reaching effects. The eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, promotion of gender equity and the empowerment of women, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability, are among the declared United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which are closely related to the extension function. In addition, global emphasis continues on the need for sustainable rural and agricultural development. These facts have not only renewed interest in the potential power of extension, but have also triggered a worldwide movement for reforming and modernizing the traditional extension systems to enable them to play the anticipated role successfully. The new extension services have to be knowledgeable, well-equipped in terms of resources, armed with a broad technical mandate beyond technology transfer, and truly efficient irrespective of its modality, i.e. whether singular or pluralistic, public or private, or a mixture of the two. Any investment made in reforming and modernizing extension is bound to return to the country in both the short and long term. On the other hand, the absence of an effective extension service in any developing country at this crucial stage of global development will in all probability leave its farmers significantly uneducated, its agriculture sector underdeveloped and its rural life impoverished.
Coordination among research, extension, education and farmers
The Extension, Education and Communication Service and the Research and Technology Development Service of FAO have jointly conducted country case studies on Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems for Rural Development (AKIS/RD) from 2001 to 2004. The countries covered include Cameroon, Chile, Cuba, Egypt, Lithuania, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda. The studies were analysed leading to the generation of the following guidelines on the promotion of coordination among the institutions of agricultural research, agricultural and rural extension, and farmers.
Institutional structure for supporting innovation
Conditions for expressing demand for innovation
Partnerships and networks
Financing systems for innovation
FAO. 2005. Enhancing coordination among AKIS/RD actors: An analytical and comparative review of country studies on agricultural knowledge and information systems for rural development (AKIS/RD), by W.M. Rivera, M.K. Qamar and H.K. Mwandemere. Rome.
Although the function of extension has been informally performed for centuries in developing countries, agricultural extension (due to application of the function to agriculture) was formally introduced during 1950s by visiting American professors and technical experts in agricultural and rural sciences, and national government officials and university faculty who received education or training in the United States of America. They were inspired by the American Cooperative Extension Service and associated Land Grant College system, which carried out agricultural research, extension and education activities in an impressively coordinated manner. The agricultural extension organizations created in developing countries were entirely meant for receiving improved technologies from agricultural research institutes to deliver them to the farmers. The delivery methods included oral advice to individual farmers or to groups of farmers on their farms or at homes, supplemented by demonstrations of applying recommended technologies in farmers fields and their good results. The awareness and transfer of technology, and possible adoption by farmers was further facilitated by other communication channels such as printed material, radio and, later, television and video. In most countries, the extension agents were also involved in the distribution of agricultural inputs, notably chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides.
Like many other important functions in daily life such as education and health, the extension function is also important for the welfare of farmers, no matter who performs it as long as it is done satisfactorily. The players in the extension function, besides government extension departments could be private extension service companies, private extension advisors, NGOs, universities, farmers associations, research institutes, and possibly others as we have seen in recent years. Extension organization, on the other hand, means how the agency or department which is responsible for extension function organizes itself for performing this task. This is what differentiates the term extension function from extension organization. However, when any public agricultural extension organization is criticized for its poor performance, it is commonly taken for granted that this criticism is aimed at the extension function, which is not correct at all. Logically, the extension function should not be blamed for the poor performance of the extension organization. If the public extension services are not delivering satisfactorily, they should be reformed or strengthened or abolished altogether, and alternate delivery mechanisms be sought, but under no circumstances should the increasing need and importance of the extension function especially with enhanced global emphasis on eliminating hunger and poverty be underestimated or compromised. If the extension function also becomes a victim during disbanding of an unsatisfactory extension organization by any government as a result of financial constraints and occasionally because of some donors pressures, the genuine question is how the millions of farmers of that particular country are going to be educated in the areas of personal, professional and village development. The policy-makers of that country should always keep this question in mind when making decisions on investment in extension.
From the very beginning, when extension was formally introduced in developing countries, agricultural extension services were placed under the Ministry of Agriculture. Thus the performance of the extension function became the sole responsibility of the government. In many cases, as the time passed, various departments within the Ministry of Agriculture or within other ministries involved in agricultural and rural development activities were tempted to create their own extension services, using whatever staff they had in the field, however few. Thus services such as livestock extension, plant protection extension, marketing extension and horticulture extension emerged, which worked parallel to the main agricultural extension service. This trend put a very large number of government extension workers in the field, with loyalty to different technical departments, but suffering from a lack of sufficient operational funds and transport facilities, poor career opportunities, low salaries, and, above all, lack of coordination among various extension units. This arrangement demanded much time from farmers and sometimes even created confusion as a result of duplication or conflicts of technical advice. However, since such extension advice was provided to farmers free of cost, there was little accountability for the extension workers.
Another relevant development was the creation of semi-governmental autonomous authorities in many developing countries for certain agricultural commodities. For example, Jamaica created a number of such bodies called Coffee Board, Sugar Board, Tea Board, etc. Since the purpose of creating such bodies was to ensure adequate and proper production and export of these precious cash crops for earning foreign exchange, these powerful and rich organizations created their own mini-extension services by attracting good extension workers and subject-matter specialists from the government extension service, offering contracts with higher salaries, benefits and vehicles as compared to those available in the government service. No doubt, this practice provided the commodity production and export organizations with the highest quality extension experts, but at the same time it deprived the public extension services of these talented and experienced staff. Also, as these extension experts focussed mainly on commercial farmers, the small farmers were deprived of sound extension advice.
While government agencies were engaged in the race for increasing the numbers of their respective field workers, the salesmen of private companies dealing in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides also started delivering extension advice to farmers. Their main purpose was to promote the sales of their products, and there was rarely proper consultation or coordination with the government departments, if there was any at all. Since the 1960s, many of these commercial firms have run and maintained their own mini-extension services.
In recent years, the increasing economic pressures on the governments combined with criticism of the gradually declining performance of public extension services have led to the emergence of private and civil society actors, who are interested in delivering extension services to farmers either cost-free or in return for a fee. However, this development of pluralistic patterns of extension delivery is in a relatively experimental phase, and several positive and negative aspects of the modality have come to light in a number of countries. A process of making useful adjustments in light of the lessons learned so far has already started and is bound to continue for many years to come. In some developed countries, the public extension services have been fully or partially privatized.
Worldwide emphasis on sustainable development, including in rural improvement and agricultural advancement, as well as developments such as globalization, market liberalization, decentralization, privatization and democratization, are creating new learning requirements for both subsistence and commercial farmers in developing countries. These requirements, especially when seen within the context of the revolution in information technology, are challenging decades-old mandates and operations within traditional extension systems.
The time is indeed ripe for policy-makers in developing countries to challenge and revisit the discipline of extension within a global context, so as to let the extension function be performed with excellence in line with the global challenges to their economies and especially to their agriculture sector. Cosmetic changes to the existing national extension systems will be of little benefit, as will be the repeated training of staff in stereotyped agricultural subjects. Just as well beat a dead horse.