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Not by farming alone

Agriculture and rural life have long been synonymous but the association is deceptive and may be false. Not everyone who lives in a rural area is directly involved in agriculture, and not all agriculture is conducted in rural areas: significant and growing numbers of people in rural areas depend for their livelihoods on off-farm activities, while peri-urban crop and livestock production is widespread. Despite this overlapping and blurring of distinctions between locations and activities, the emphasis of extension services continues to be on agriculture in the rural environment. This is a wasted opportunity to both boost food production in peri-urban situations and to address the information and knowledge needs of those whose best prospects for livelihood improvement lie outside the natural resources sector in the generation of off-farm income.

Street foods are an important informal industry in rural and urban areas
Street foods are an important informal industry in rural and urban areas

Bill Rivera of the University of Maryland is one of a growing number of academics and extension practitioners who argue that agricultural knowledge and information systems (AKIS) should be broadened to become rural knowledge and information systems (RKIS). "Agricultural services, though sometimes ineffective in some countries, are nonetheless established and functioning in most cases, and increasingly pluralistic alliances for extension are being developed," he writes in a recent paper*. He proposes that extension communication for non-agricultural rural development is needed not only to promote employment generation but also to address issues such as health, nutrition and the environment.

The road to non-farm income

Rivera quotes a study of rural livelihoods in Armenia by D.J. Bezemer and Z. Lerman in 2003, which argues that while poverty alleviation programmes should target households' access to resources for food production, such programmes should also provide support to a range of organisations that can have positive effects on the income-generating capacity of their members: local NGOs, credit unions, producer organisations, water use associations, churches and other similar groups.

Evidence of the importance of non-farm income in development is demonstrated by IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) data showing that rural household income is often independent of agriculture, and labour-intensive non-farm growth appears to have been central to East and South-east Asian development. IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) figures (Discussion paper 92) show that non-agricultural sources of income are 30 per cent in developing Asia, 40 per cent in rural households in Africa and 40 per cent in Latin America.

But, while the strategies for advancing non-farm rural development are several and various, Rivera writes, all require support from knowledge and information systems for rural development (RKIS/RD). RKIS/RD centres would require professional extension and communications staff able to work with specialists in the appropriate areas, as well as specialised agencies and organisations, and to interact with communities via ICTs. Advances in technology certainly make it possible for rural development communication services to reach out to people ever more readily, and to meet multi-sectoral needs in a cost-effective manner. Computers with internet access are often quoted as the ICT with greatest potential, but in most cases radio on its own or in association with computer access is 'the one to watch'. Whatever the medium, however, there should be interactive and actionable feedback mechanisms incorporated.

What about the cost?

Good communication is far from cost-free and numerous attempts to develop 'budget' communication have ended in wasted funds. One aspect is start-up, and the other is maintaining quality; both require able, trained staff, who are properly equipped and managed. "Few governments have yet proven willing and able to provide adequate funding for critical agricultural extension services," writes Rivera, and non-agricultural communication programs may present an even less compelling claim on public resources. For this reason, RKIS/RD systems will need to incorporate as soon as possible user financing or co-financing for services. As mobile telephones and call/fax/internet centres have shown, where there is a demand, or a benefit can be demonstrated, users are quick to take up new communication systems and bear associated costs.

"Inventing the future of the rural sector demands new thinking about the role of communication in rural development," writes Rivera. As the 9th UN Roundtable on Communications for Development in Rome in August acknowledged (not for the first time), development is not possible without communication; however it requires policy makers and senior officials in key ministries of developing countries to recognise this often stated but persistently disregarded truth. And donors too should be prepared to 'kick-start' innovative communications initiatives, but in close collaboration with and the support of policy makers and senior officials. "The challenge to promote communications support for rural development", concludes Rivera, "constitutes a call to governments, the private sector, and international organisations to formulate actionable plans that promote RKIS/RD approaches to communication for rural development." And then to implement them.

*Communication for rural development: Challenge to diffuse development information on non-agricultural rural needs', by William Rivera

Date published: November 2004


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