Speaking at the International Food Policy Research Institute, I had the opportunity to stress the importance of having multiple actors engaged in agricultural extension. Too long underfunded and unimaginative, agricultural extension is experiencing a new renaissance. An excerpt of my remarks:
Agricultural extension is an essential element in the elaboration of local action to improve productivity, rural living standards, and food and nutritional security. All with the aim of reinforcing the belief that local communities can contribute greatly to drive the engines of their own growth. There is a pressing need for more effort in integrating actors at the lowest level, and implementing plans that allow them to be full participants in working within the vast scope covered by the worldwide effort to fight rural poverty and eradicate hunger.
Although considerable progress has been made in a plethora of fields by innumerable individuals, communities, and organizations, there are still major challenges in which agricultural extension programs can be instrumental to progress. These include, but are not limited to: integrating farmers into the wider market; increasing resource use efficiency; entrepreneurship training; adaptation including to climate changes that impact local growing areas and potentially threaten fertile land; and human and animal health; and gender equality.
These are serious issues, and still extremely relevant in spite of all the progress that has been achieved to date. Agricultural extension programs, however, have evolved, shifting from mere technology transfers towards programs based on advisory interaction and local-level empowerment. Whereas in its incipient steps agricultural extension was often defined by mere top-down approaches rooted in paternalistic attitudes. We have, collectively, moved forward from that into much more inclusive and participatory forms of agricultural extension. Models such as “training and visit”, appropriate in some cases, have now been surpassed by more progressive models of interaction.
There are three main providers of agricultural extension services; the public sector, the private non-profit sector, and the private for-profit sector. Obviously, there also exist circumstances in which distinct service providers can enter into a partnership to deliver more effective help. The private sector brings a pluralism of service providers, more than ready to interact with local communities on a demand-driven approach, rather than the supply-driven top-down programmes of the second half of the twentieth century. In a context of shrinking budgets and reduced staff numbers for traditional public-sponsored extension programs, the flexibility and innovation of the private sector can aid at a crucial time.