Paul E. McNamara, associate professor and director at AgReach, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Development of the agricultural sector is a key and impactful strategy to attain sustainable economic development and poverty reduction in the world’s middle and lower-income countries.
Evidence from rigorous research exists that demonstrates the strong link between agricultural growth and poverty reduction. For example, the University of California at Berkeley economists, de Janvry and Sadoulet (2010 World Bank Research Observer) report “…we have seen that agricultural growth – along with the growth of unskilled labour-intensive activities in the rural nonfarm economy – can be particularly effective for poverty reduction via autonomous income growth. Growth originating in agriculture can be three times more effective in reducing poverty than growth originating in the rest of the economy….”.
In relation to national level economics, agricultural growth contributes far more to poverty reduction than its percentage of GDP would suggest (Bresciani & Valdes (2007). The 2008 World Development Report showed the impact of agricultural growth on poverty increased as incomes decreased, affirming that the lowest deciles, or the poorest peoples, were most positively impacted by agricultural development (Ligon & Sadoulet, 2008). As such, prevailing evidence suggests: “agricultural sector growth is pro-poor” (Cervantes-Godoy & Dewbre, 2010).
The Argument for Strengthened Extension Services
Agricultural extension is a central component of effective agricultural sectors. Extension, according to Ian Christoplos (FAO, 2010) is “defined broadly to include:
- all systems that facilitate access of farmers, their organisations and other market actors to knowledge, information and technologies;
- facilitate their interaction with partners in research, education, agri-business, and other relevant institutions; and
- assist them to develop their own technical, organisational and management skills and practices.”
Extension refers to multiple providers of services within a country, including the public sector, farmer-based organisations (such as cooperatives and associations), NGOs (both local and international), and others, such as private consultants, input dealers, etc. National governments often lead within a country, with the role extending beyond service provision to coordination, policy development and implementation, and funding of other extension actors. Across the world, the structure and delivery of extension varies from countries where extension is highly centralised and controlled by the national government (Ethiopia and Rwanda are examples) to countries with much higher levels of pluralism with significant roles for local government and NGOs (e.g. Kenya and Ghana).
The Promise of Agricultural Extension
A well-functioning agricultural extension system provides a country with significant economic and social benefits, primarily through agricultural productivity growth, higher rural incomes, and greater national food security. An IFPRI report (Alston et al., 2000) found that investments in extension showed a median rate of return of 62.9 percent. Many other examples of both quantitative cost-benefit evidence on extension as well as qualitative evidence exist demonstrating the potential of extension to deliver services that help reduce rural poverty and increase agricultural productivity. A recent study (Dercon et al., 2009) report that in Ethiopia “receiving at least one extension visit reduces headcount poverty by 9.8 percentage points and increases consumption growth by 7.1 percentage points”.
Challenges for Agricultural Extension
Despite the evidence of agricultural extension’s contributions to agricultural development, many low-income countries are severely challenged to developing and deliver a well-functioning agricultural extension system. Poorly performing agricultural extension systems then slow rates of agricultural GDP growth, technological change within the agricultural sector, rural poverty alleviation, and expedite degradation of countries’ natural resource bases.
Reasons for the challenges vary by country, but recent assessments of extension systems in a number of countries – conducted by the USAID-funded Modernising Extension and Advisory Services Project – illustrate common factors:
- A lack of political commitment for extension within key ministries and government actors;
- Poor funding and management of extension operations within the Ministry of Agriculture lead to insufficient staffing, do not allow extension staff access to the resources necessary to get in the field at a large scale, or to receive in-service training on extension methodologies as well as technical agricultural subjects;
- Low levels of coordination across pluralistic extension providers, from the Ministry of Agriculture to NGOs and private sector firms;
- Inadequate support to farmer-led extension governance platforms resulting in a lack of accountability to farmers from extension service providers;
- Sources of information and technologies (such as research agencies and international centers) struggle to connect with and support extension, through the utilization of formal extension platforms and involving extension staff directly in their dissemination activities;
- Harnessing the potential of information technologies (such as the internet, text messaging, radio, print media and newspapers, and video) also challenges many extension service providers.
To sum up, a number of challenges face countries that intend to strengthen their agricultural extension services, from the policy and political level, through the meso-level of extension programme management and linkages across agencies and providers, to the front-line extension worker and local extension committees.
Approaches to Strengthening Agricultural Extension
The AgReach programme has worked in extension strengthening across the globe and a number of key steps and actions from our experience stand out. First, reviewing and refining the national approach to agricultural extension at the policy level helps communicate a coherent direction across the Ministry of Agriculture and other government agencies. Policy efforts that incorporate insights and inputs from key stakeholders (such as farmers, cooperatives and farmer-based organisations, NGOs, universities, commercial agricultural businesses and others) are particularly necessary. The process to review the policy should also be utilised to strengthen political commitment so that the policy can be implemented with sufficient resources and political support.
At the middle level of extension, the capacity to coordinate across numerous extension service providers and programmes remains critical. Reinvigorating extension service planning and governance platforms (extension committees with farmer and other stakeholder representatives along with the Ministry of Agriculture) helps identify programming priorities and link them into budgeting and programming decisions at the local and national levels. Tools to support extension service accountability and transparency (like the scorecard approach) enhance this meso-level.
Along with policy, extension governance, and coordination steps, investing in programming resources for the front-line of extension is a priority for strengthening. Budgeting for operational expenses (transport, costs of extension demonstrations, and others) requires support. Providing a robust in-service training programme, both at the level of extension subject matter specialists to support and train front-line workers, as well as training in extension methodologies and prioritised technical subjects, will yield benefits directly received by farmers. Reviewing programming approaches to make sure all farmers receive services, especially women and youth farmers, helps extend the impact of the extension system across the rural economy for greatest impact. Furthermore, as farmers and their families do better, the entire country benefits through reduced poverty and increased food security, as well as through economic spillovers across the agricultural sector and into the entire economy. Investing in strengthening extension services yields benefits for farmers and the entire country.
Investments that improve agricultural extension should therefore be considered as central to development financing strategies, and a catalyst to overall development and poverty reduction at a global scale.
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