Extension services are like email…

New Picture (5)

“Sent”…

To: Farmers

CC: RAS agents

Subject: Knowledge and Good Agricultural Practices

I write an email to Peter Casier (GFAR), and click “send”. I don’t care how email works to deliver the message to Peter, or how I will receive the reply from Peter. Why? Because emailing is a well-operationalized system.

In the same way I hope that someday, those who produce knowledge in the agricultural and food sector will not be so concerned how it will be delivered to the end-user, to the beneficiary. And this will be thanks to a well-operationalized system called Extension services.

In the region of Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC), we prefer to use the term ‘Rural Advisory Services’ (RAS) for Extension Services. The term RAS came into wide use in Technical Assistance projects and programs after the CAC countries obtained their independence, after the collapse of Soviet Union. The Soviet Union system used the ‘Centralized Planned Economy’, and the agricultural sector was a part of this highly hierarchized mechanism. The intersectoral and intrasectoral flows of information and resources, as well as supply and demand, were regulated by a central management organ.

Of course, within such a system, extension services were not explicitly defined as a particular link in the agricultural and food system. The system could therefore not look like an email mechanism, and not even like regular post services. And this is because agricultural services were planned at the country level.

CAC countries, after obtaining independence, took the course to becoming market economies. They had to start from scratch, since the collapse of the Soviet Union had brought down the entire economic infrastructure with it. This had broken economic linkages between countries, sectors and sub-sectors.

In these newly independent countries, agriculture was considered a key sector of national economies, ensuring food security in the CAC region. However, the interactions between actors throughout the agricultural value chain are based on supply and demand and market relations. As such, it was difficult to find a place for RAS as a link in the revived agricultural and food system, as it had existed in the past. Moreover, nowadays only a minority of agricultural producers can pay for services provided by extension agents.

As a consequence, when development agencies and donors in CAC implement RAS enhancement programs and projects, or others including the extension components, they cannot meet the high demand for RAS at national level. The programs remain sustainable only if funding and coordination are maintained. Once RAS programs lose financial support and coordination, they are no longer efficient. In some cases, they are integrated into other projects and programs.

 Completing the triangle

The role of Extension services for rural development cannot be underestimated. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of United Nations (FAO), the extension system is one of the key components of the Agricultural Knowledge and Information System (AKIS). In other words, Research, Education and Extension compose the “Knowledge triangle”.

Nowadays in the CAC region, we have a well-established agricultural research system, known as the National Agricultural Research System (NARS) and the Agricultural Education System. We can observe the strengthening linkages between agricultural research and education systems, as national research institutions move step-by-step under the umbrella of leading national agricultural universities.

In comparison, however, extension services systems may seem under- or undeveloped. Critics often say the region entirely lacks an extension system at the national level. In my opinion, though the system might not be well established, services are nevertheless being provided in one way or another, even if fragmented. In municipalities (rayons), some consultations are provided to farmers; Some advisory services are coordinated by the respective units of the ministries of agriculture. Non-governmental organizations operating in the agrarian sector also provide certain services to farmers. Private companies working with farmers also hold thematic consultation activities with their clients to promote their goods. There are a lot of projects (with participation of donors) with components for implementation of land management practices.

Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (CACAARI), in close collaboration with the Northwest Agriculture & Forest University (NAFU) in China and supported by FAO’s Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition in Europe and Central Asia (FSN Forum in ECA), conducted an online discussion entitled “The role of Agricultural Innovation Systems in Central Asia and Caucasus countries and China towards more sustainable food security and nutrition“, in which 48 experts from 18 countries participated. One of the key lines of these discussion was the role of the extension system, and the participants discussed broadly the role and the problems associated with rural advisory services. Importantly, the participants defined two key issues of the extension system: (1) low/inadequate level of investment and attention from the government sector and (2) lack of an institute (body) to coordinate the extension services. In other words, according to the participants, if investments in extension services were increased and the national extension services were institutionalized, it would be easier to address all other extension issues.

Community of practice and their institutions apply a lot of effort to address RAS issues. Many RAS related projects and programs are implemented in the region. We are part of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), which provides advocacy and leadership on pluralistic and demand-driven rural advisory services for sustainable development. GFRAS plays an important role in strengthening local capacities to be fully functional and recognised as important actors in the agricultural innovation system in our region. We disseminate best RAS practices, establish regional and national fora on rural advisory services, and embark on many other endeavors. Unfortunately, the main challenges with regard to achieving robust RAS/Extension systems remain at national level.

Guaranteeing delivery

Perhaps we should first of all ask the question: ‘Why do we need Extension services? What is the role and what is the contribution of extension systems in sustainable agriculture, rural development, food security and nutrition?’ Most of us might know the answers. Next, we have to think thoroughly: ‘What should be done to make Extension services efficient, sustainable, effective?’

The recent Online Consultation on Network and Partnerships in the area of Food Security organized by the Eurasian Center for Food Security (ECFS) sought to ask the right questions. The results highlighted the urgency to give more attention to discussion and development of measures and recommendations on setting up a special agency (department) in the ministries aimed at strengthening the coordination of extension services. Such an initiative can be first implemented in at least one country of the region. This agency should have real capacity to support and develop extension services, to raise resources and funds.

This urgency was also stressed during the GCARD3 Regional Consultation session at the International Forum on Eurasian Food Security and Nutrition Network and Eurasian Soil Partnership held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 29 November – 2 March, 2016. Establishing a well-functioning Extension System in CAC countries will increase the efficiency of and Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS), which currently do not operate at full capacity in the region. But, once RAS systems are institutionalized and operationalized, other actors of AIS, such as scientists, farmers, policy-makers, etc., will no longer be puzzled about how to promote access and dissemination of knowledge.  They will be able to fully concentrate on their own work and be more efficient. In this scenario, “Everyone in AIS plays its own role. Scientists carry out research. Extensionists provide rural advisory services” as Professor Rysbek Nurgaziev, Rector of the Kyrgyz National Agrarian University observed during the Forum.

And, maybe at that time a scientist, working in a well-established system with other actors of agricultural innovation, will be generating knowledge that can easily find its way to end-users, to farmers: a delivery system as reliable as email…

 

Blogpost and photo by Botir Dosov (ICARDA), who is also a #GCARD3 Social Reporter – dosov.b(at)gmail.com


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