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Critical commentary on the extension discussion paper

Comments on “Towards a new policy on extension for agriculture, forestry and fisheries: Summary and options discussion document”

This is a useful document for purposes of stimulating discussion. I have one major concern, which is the rather casual way in which it lumps together and then dismisses various alternative extension approaches:

“Experiential learning, farmer to farmer extension, farmer field schools and participatory research-extension processes have become common approaches to promote enhanced production and conservation methods. This has been linked to attempts to make extension and research more demand driven where local producers and the organisations which represent them increasingly set the extension and research agenda. 
“However these new extension approaches (like many before them) are often reliant on donor support programmes. They typically succeed within time and area-bound projects which have access to the resources and intensive management capabilities required. But they frequently fail once these projects have ended, when state extension services are forced to fall back on the lower levels of resourcing and management that are available in state extension systems. This raises questions about the sustainability of project-based approaches to extension innovation.” (page 9)

This relates to another concern, which is that the key policy questions posed by the document in relation agricultural extension, appear to be limited to resource allocation and institutional issues, with very little explicit attention to the ‘how’ of extension.

To my mind these two inter-related deficits of the discussion paper are unfortunate because on the face of it the discussion paper should be helping us frame the important questions, not efficiently dispense with them.

I would argue that these alternative extension approaches deserve far more discussion, so that their differences from each other as well as from T&V are clearer. I would also argue that the summary description of these as ‘project-based’ is misleading, and that the dismissal of some of the alternative approaches is especially odd given what appears elsewhere in the document, e.g. regarding trends in other countries, not to mention the obvious non-functionality of the current system.

For example: 

on page 9, the document says, “Many countries have sought to defragment their extension services. The logical result, especially as extension shifts from technology transfer to development facilitation, may be an integrated rural development advisory service.”  

on page 10, we learn that in Brazil, “Rejecting conventional technology transfer approaches, current policy promotes participatory methods in which the extension agent plays the role of rural development facilitator”, and it is implied that this is a welcome shift.

on page 11, in respect of India, the document states, “India’s approach to extension is in transition from standardised centrally determined technological solutions to farming systems and demand led approaches which enable a better understanding of the needs and livelihood priorities of resource poor farmers.”

on page 11-12 the experience in Kenya is summarised, but not mentioned is the fact that there is strong evidence that the adoption of Farmer Field Schools has been tremendously successful there in improving small-scale farmers’ productivity and incomes. 
What one senses is that, on the one hand, the authors are aware that elsewhere in the world there is a positive trend away from conventional T&V in favour of farmer-focused, demand-led, experiential approaches, and yet the thrust of the brief discussion on page 9 is that these approaches are not feasible, and that’s all there is to it.

What I suspect is the case is that the authors are correctly noting that the introduction of alternative extension projects is often project-based and donor-funded, and that this is not sustainable. Of course most people would agree with that, but then, the issue is only that countries tend to rely on project-based donor support to try things that they should be trying anyway, and this includes South Africa. But this doesn’t preclude testing these approaches, and embracing them if they prove to offer useful and sustainable solutions to our extension challenges. What is obviously not sustainable is what we are doing now.

Of course the point is not to have a perfect discussion document, the point is that we need to discuss what is important to discuss, and that must include real alternatives to the status quo, whatever form these may take. 

Michael Aliber, DAFF

17 October 2012 

Click the image for a view of: Farmer Field Schools have had positive impacts in East Africa. Pic: International Institute for Rural Reconstruction
Farmer Field Schools have had positive impacts in East Africa. Pic: International Institute for Rural Reconstruction

Posted: 10/18/2012 (2:04:27 AM)


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