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Gershon Feder

Gershon Feder reflects on how information and communication technology shows promise
Gershon Feder reflects on how information and communication technology shows promise

The challenges facing agricultural extension - and a new opportunity

Gershon Feder is the Rural Development Research Manager of the Development Research Group at the World Bank.

The world has nearly 1 million agricultural extension personnel. More than 90 per cent of them are in developing countries. Development agencies have poured US$10 billion into public extension programmes over the past five decades. Yet a study published in 2001 by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation found that extension services across the developing world are "failing" and "moribund", in "disarray or barely functioning at all".

Why? And what can be done about it?

Extension systems suffer many administrative and design deficiencies and challenges. They typically aim to reach huge numbers of farm families scattered over large, complex landscapes. Forced to ration their attention, agents often focus on larger, better-endowed and more innovative farmers who can provide payment in kind and are likely to exhibit more progress. Other farmers are disinclined or unable to follow the example of these contact farmers, so little farmer-to-farmer extension ensues.

Extension does not happen in a vacuum. Its effectiveness depends on the broader policy environment that governs credit, input supplies, prices and markets - crucial factors beyond the control of extension systems. Similarly, extension systems rely on knowledge supplied by an agricultural research establishment that often gives little weight to their opinions and priorities. That extension and public research organisations often compete for budgets - with extensionists disadvantaged by their lower status - is not conducive to two-way feedback or effective extension.

Low accountability

Accountability in extension work is often a black hole. Attributing impact is difficult because many other factors affect agriculture in complex ways. This undermines extension staff's incentive to reach out to farmers or even to update their own skills and knowledge. Staff not held accountable for the quality of their extension work may shirk on quantity as well. They may be assigned activities that are unrelated to knowledge transfer but easy to measure, such as collecting statistics, administering loan paperwork, distributing government-provided inputs or performing regulatory duties. Higher-level extension managers are monitored mainly in terms of budget spent, staffing levels and other bureaucratic indicators. Accountability to farmers - the only people who can easily observe the quality and effectiveness of extension services - is typically nonexistent.

The difficulty of attributing impact weakens political support, leading to small budgets and fiscal unsustainability. Extension investments do not offer politicians and senior officials the kind of political payoffs that can be earned from other public outlays that have visible impacts, such as the double cropping made possible by an irrigation investment or the reduction in transport cost following construction of a bridge or road.

Ironically, the same difficulty of assessing impact may explain why international development agencies continue to support extension activities, which are bureaucratically straightforward and therefore attractive from their point of view. While the completed projects are hard to prove successful, they are equally hard to brand as failures.

Cross purposes

The result is tension between domestic policymakers reluctant to invest heavily in extension and development agencies that enthusiastically promote such investments. External funding minimizes the need for immediate tradeoffs between extension and more politically rewarding undertakings, but it simply postpones the day of reckoning. Once external funding ends, the lack of domestic political support resurfaces, and extension budgets drop again.

To address the weaknesses inherent in the public extension systems, several novel extension modalities have emerged in the past three decades. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Ambitious and highly structured training-and-visit programmes promoted by the World Bank during 1975-95 proved financially unsustainable once the bank ceased funding them. Farmer field schools are similarly expensive and difficult to sustain on a large scale. Fiscally sustainable fee-for-service and privatised extension pose undesirable social outcomes. Less commercial farmers - the poor, women and farmers with small or marginal plots - value the information less, purchase fewer extension services and so fall further behind their more prosperous neighbours.

The decentralisation trend of the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America and then Africa was intended to improve accountability by moving services closer to the people who use them. However, it also created greater potential for political interference, even the hijacking of extension staff for political campaigning. Decentralisation also weakens economies of scale in updating staff skills and attenuates research-extension links. Problems of financial sustainability are merely transferred to the local level.

Cost-effective innovation

The latest innovation in extension services is information and communication technology. ICT improves cost effectiveness by reaching large numbers at a relatively low cost, thereby alleviating the problem of weak political commitment and the resulting fiscal unsustainability. Its centralised nature makes adapting and revising the curriculum easier, reduces dependence on the skills of field workers, and facilitates better links between researchers and farmers.

Of course, many challenges remain. ICT does nothing to lessen dependence on the broader policy environment, facilitate attribution of impact or improve accountability. The need for face-to-face interactions is reduced but certainly not eliminated, and the importance of feedback mechanisms remains as strong as ever. ICT suffers the additional constraint of farmers' limited access to modern media.

Addressing these remaining challenges - or at least some of them - requires researchers, extensionists and donors to review together the experiences of extension innovators who have applied ICT. Is the cost of infrastructure sustainable? Can the innovators demonstrate improved impact? What do farmers say? And finally, how can the application of more imagination bring a better return on extension investments than has been achieved in the past?

Date published: March 2005


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