The Performance of Public Agricultural Extension

In practice, public agricultural extension services often have proven disappointing. Funding and management deficiencies have led to the frequently observed syndrome of extension agents spending more time in the office than on farms, and linkages between extension and research ser vices generally have been weak. In the words of William Rivera, 'In many low-income developing countries, agricultural and rural extension is in disarray, a fact that bodes ill for countries that must now accommodate the new paradigm that is increasingly being shaped by global trends toward market-driven and highly competitive agribusiness enterprises'.65

However, this has not always been the case. In the late 1970s the present author visited a village in The Republic of Korea where rice farmers had recently begun to cultivate tobacco, under plastic sheds. Sitting with them under the plastic, I asked where they had learned to grow tobacco. 'From the government extension agent', was the reply. I asked how often he came by. 'Oh, he comes every day', they said. Looking at their watches, they added 'He will be here in a half hour'.

In contrast, in 1972 a Mexican Government colleague and I calculated that the average Mexican farmer saw an extension agent once every forty years.

A different kind of issue was observed in Honduras: a marked bias in the provision of public extension services in favor of large-scale farmers. In 1990 Gilberto Galvez et al.66 carried out a large-scale survey of economic and social characteristics of Honduran farms. In the area of agricultural extension, the survey asked whether services were provided in a timely fashion or not, for timeliness is of the essence when an infestation is affecting a crop. It also asked whether those services were of good, fair or poor quality. The results were tabulated in two groups, i.e. one for the extension service provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the other for the service of the National Agrarian Institute (INA) for the agrarian reform sector. Of the smallest farms receiving extension from the MNR (defined for this purpose as those with less than 10ha), 39% said the extension service was timely and of good quality. Of the largest farms (50 ha

66. Gilberto Gálvez, Miguel Colindres, Tulio Mariano González and Juan Carlos Castaldi, Honduras: Caracterización de los Productores de Granos Básicos, Secretaría de Recursos Naturales, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, November 1990.

or more) who were clients of MNR, 72.7% responded that way. The bias in favor of large farms was even greater for clients of INA's extension service. Of the smallest farms,67 only 20.2% said the extension service was timely and of good quality, whereas 81.7% of the largest farms responded that way.

Since public extension services in Honduras have been free, as in virtually all developing countries, this bias in favor of larger farms represents a regressive subsidy in public expenditure. Anecdotal evidence suggests the bias occurs in other countries as well.

One of the most serious systemic problems with public agricultural extension services is the lack of adequate incentives for the agent to serve the client well. The client or customer is the farmer, and most extension services have not had a strong orientation of 'serving the customer'. This has translated into lack of timeliness of the services, lack of responsiveness to the farmer's own problems, which may be different from those envisaged by researchers, and in the worst cases a total lack of attention to the majority of the farmers.

This absence of a customer orientation is largely attributable to the incentive system under which extension agents operate. They are not paid by their clients as a function of the adequacy of services rendered. Their income comes from a large bureaucracy which has a limited ability to monitor the quality of the services they have provided. Appointments may be at least partly political and indifferent field performance often is not punished; indeed, an agent who does not meet clients' needs may continue to receive promotions. Clearly, this critique is not true of all extension systems, nor of all agents in the weaker systems, but it is relevant to many situations. It points to the need to restructure the incentives aspect of extension systems, as well as strengthening the links between extension and research and making other reforms.

The opposite side of the accountability coin is expecting the beneficiaries of extension to be responsible for some of the support, even if it is only a proportion of total costs. This is important for three reasons. First, it gives the beneficiaries ownership and drawing rights on the services. Secondly, it takes some of the financial pressure off of the central government and therefore responds to the issue of financial sustainability. Lastly, if ownership and responsibility rest with clients, the basis for more demand-driven, responsive service is established. An example of this has been the National Farmers' Association of Zimbabwe.68

The most widely adopted approach to agricultural extension in recent decades has been the

The most important policy initiative that is needed in extension is to shift the primary focus of power and responsibility for extension to the clients. To borrow Robert Chambers' phrase, we need to 'put the farmers first'. . . . There is abundant evidence that the 'normal' incentive system facing government employees, even under the most enlightened circumstances, puts a premium on not making a mistake and on length of service but not necessarily on service to clients, particularly small farmers. This is not acceptable and does not have to be taken as inevitable. Sims and Leonard found that the most important determinant of extension success is the strength of farmer organization (C. Antholt, 1998, pp. 360-361; referring to Holly Sims and David Leonard, 'The Political Economy of the Development and Transfer of Agricultural Technologies', in Making the Link: Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer in Developing Countries, D. Kaimowitz (Ed), Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA, 1990).

67. In dealing with reform sector co-operatives, farm size was defined by dividing the total area of the cooperative by the number of members.

68. K. Amanor and J. Farrington, 'NGOs and Agricultural Technology Development', in Agricultural Extension: Worldwide Institutional Evolution and Forces for Change, William Rivera and Dan Gustafson (Eds), Elsevier, New York, 1991.

Training and Visit (T & V) system, first introduced by Daniel Benor in Turkey in 1967. This system has been credited with many of the successes of extension in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and it also has been held responsible for some of the failures. In reviewing the system, it should be borne in mind that:

The aim of the T & V approach was to reform the management of extension systems and turn a cadre of poorly supervised, poorly motivated and poorly trained field agents into effective technology transfer agents through fortnightly training of agents, who then made regular visits to farmers, conveying clear extension messages.69

Indeed, a review of World Bank extension projects found that in practice the T & V system exhibited strengths in the management area, although they were not always fully realized:

many of the organizational principles included in the T & V model are internalized in the majority of 'good' extension services and are unquestionably sound: programming of activities; the technology focus; continuous staff training; program supervision; close research-extension links; and farmer feedback to allow adaption of technology to farmer circumstances. Unfortunately, many of these principles were not adequately developed in the projects.70

In spite of the potential advantages of the system, the consensus of expert opinion emphasizes its shortcomings and thus leans against putting into practice more widely, at least without substantial modifications. Antholt summarized its limitations as follows:

• The model was rigid and was often not appropriate, given the variation in cultural, historical and institutional factors among and within countries.

• Problems of recurrent cost funding, lack of appropriate technology and deficiencies of staff quality threatened long-term sustain-ability of extension programs.

• The T & V concept of using a contact farmer as the primary recipient of extension visits (for subsequent transfer of technology to other farmers) was not very effective and was often replaced with farmer groups.

• A top-down approach to delivering extension messages was often based on standard packages of recommendations that ignored the heterogeneity among farmers.71

Picciotto and Anderson highlighted an overlapping but somewhat different set of deficiencies in T & V, on the basis of a World Bank evaluation:

• Ninety percent of the projects faced budgetary constraints, in part because almost half did not evince strong borrower or implementing agency ownership.

• More than half of the projects suffered from inadequate extension messages resulting from research weaknesses or poor linkages between extension and research.

• Twenty-five percent of the projects were hindered by the low education level of frontline staff.

• The training programs of more than half of the projects did not give the frontline staff sufficient practical knowledge.

• Almost 40 percent of the projects suffered from inadequate adaptation to local conditions.

T & V's hierarchically organized and strictly programmed method of agricultural extension presumes the availability of a sustained flow of research innovations coupled with the ability of implementing agencies to secure, retain and motivate good technical staff. Where both of these elements were available, T & V may well

have accelerated the spread of new agricultural technologies on a rewarding scale. Where the initial conditions were not suitable - for instance, because farming conditions were highly differentiated, the research pipeline was empty, and either a disciplined organization or adequate skills, or both, were lacking - T & V proved poorly adapted to the challenge.72

In T & V's defense, it can be said that many of these deficiencies can characterize any public extension service. However, to the extent that is so, then the very concept of a public extension service is open to question, in spite of the above-mentioned arguments that extension is a public good. Certainly, the top-down approach of T & V has proven to be a central weakness, especially in regard to meeting the needs of small farmers located in heterogeneous agro-economic conditions.

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