Fall 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 3 // Futures // 3FUT1

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Future of Extension Worldwide


William M. Rivera
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
University of Maryland-College Park

The study and practice of Extension worldwide is at a turning point, one that represents the end of a major phase in the history of Extension's relatively recent beginning as a formalized institution.

Three major developments confront Extension internationally: the first is disturbing, the second unsettling, and the third encouraging. These developments are: (1) attacks on Extension as an institution, (2) controversy about models of Extension, and (3) learning lessons about effective Extension. Each of these will affect Extension's future worldwide.

Institutional Attack

Public sector Extension has been, and still is, under attack from a wide spectrum of politicians and economists over its cost and financing.

Public sector Extension worldwide has been criticized for not doing enough, not doing it well, and for not being relevant. Extension is criticized for insufficient impact, ineffectiveness, inefficiency, and, sometimes, for not pursuing programs that foster equity. Different systems have responded differently to these attacks. The United States Cooperative Extension System regrouped, reviewed what was needed, and advanced a powerful new set of National Initiatives designed to revitalize the relevance of the system. The Netherlands and some other systems decided to privatize. Some systems started moving toward cost-recovery approaches, as in Mexico. Still other responses encouraged alternative diffusion practices.

System "Model" Controversy

The fact of differing system models in different countries attests to the variety and complexity of Extension. "Extension" means different things in different places. Accordingly, system "model" preference is a major source of controversy raising both political and technical issues.

Is the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service an adaptable model for developing countries, as some argue?1 Beal in a recent issue of INTERPAKS Interchange claims that attempts to transfer the U.S. land-grant university Extension System model have often resulted in only limited success or in failures.

Is the World Bank's Training and Visit Extension Management Model (T&V) the right choice? Based on classical management principles, it says: (1) Extension agents should carry out Extension functions exclusively, (2) Extension should be closely linked with research, (3) training should be regular and continuous, (4) work should be time-bound, and (5) a field and farmer orientation should be maintained. Agricultural economist Leonard2 says the World Bank's system is the best approach in Africa, especially given management demands there. While Leonard thinks T&V is overly rigid and not without its problems, he says it has "at least enjoyed success in an area in which failure is most common."

The Farming Systems Research and Extension (FSR/E) approach raises other questions. Should Extension be a free-standing institution providing information to farmers about the entire agricultural development process? Or, should it be a component of farming systems research projects3 and essentially serve to transfer only adaptive technology?

Taiwan's Farming Information Dissemination System has been called "an organizational alternative to land-grant universities."4 Taiwan is currently hastening to create a national institute for Extension education and training to help meet the challenge of keeping Extensionists updated in new technology.

In short, the future of Extension worldwide will involve continuing debate about the strengths and weaknesses of different models.

Learning Lessons

The third, more positive, development falls into the lessons learned category. The worldwide Extension literature is bulging with project descriptions and research. Indeed, there's a great accumulation of lessons learned.

The World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture, the USAID, and other internationally directed organizations are continually integrating the lessons learned from their projects. USAID's analysis of project design and implementation5 provides important guidelines for project development.

The Future

What are the implications of these developments for the Cooperative Extension Service in the United States?

First, domestic experience is both valuable and limited. For instance, the land-grant university and Cooperative Extension System exemplify important ideas and practice, such as, close linkages between the education and agricultural sectors and the technical, political, and democratic value of farmer participation in Extension. But transferring U.S. ideas of overlapping political authority and participatory democracy is difficult, in some cases perhaps impossible, at least for the moment. Problems exist with exporting parts of programs that build on democracy; this is the case with earlier efforts to transplant the land-grant university system to developing countries.

Second, while it's important to know our own system's strengths and weaknesses, we also need to know more about other extension systems and their strengths and weaknesses. We need to develop a better understanding of models of international work, to study the lessons from international experience, and to be familiar with what works, what doesn't, and under what conditions. At the same time, we need to build a global perspective, not an attitude of transferring information "from the knowledgeable to the grateful,"6 but of a cooperative venture comparable to our domestic concept of cooperation.

Third, there's no one best system/model. Varied systems exist and each is suited for different purposes. We can no longer sally forth with the Cooperative Extension "model" under our arm, and automatically expect to succeed in other countries. While it's important to understand individual systems, generic principles and guidelines exist that are more important than any one system/model.7 These principles - notably, situation specificity, economic sustainability, system flexibility, and systemwide participation - provide the basis for carrying out Extension functions effectively and successfully.

Fourth, in principle, Extension is flexible, but procedures are needed to ensure that its organization evolves along with changes in its target audiences and technologies. Extension services in developing countries, often limited by lack of qualified professional staff and agents, initially provide a kind of "postal-service" delivery of pre-packaged information. To increase their professionalization, internationally trained U.S. land-grant faculty and Cooperative Extension specialists should consider further involvement in the study and practice of developing responsive Extension institutions.

Fifth, the costs and financing of public Extension are paramount concerns. A number of concerns include the feasibility of public Extension reductions on both recurrent and capital accounts, changes in the tax effort, the introduction of charges for government services, and private sector alternatives.8

Sixth, economic sustainability is a main consideration in program/project development. Overseas projects must be built on solid financial footing, with adequate capital and recurrent costs built into these organizations. To know whether our expertise will be valid and viable, we must watch accounts and the sustainability of our efforts.

Finally, it's time to stop ignoring our own organizational experience. We know that Extension Systems must be flexible and change as policies, technologies, and the needs of farmers change. We've learned at several turning points in Cooperative Extension's history to respond to new policy and public demands. We've gained good experience that's the essence of what all our work is about: development and change.

A Turning Point

It's a turning point for Extension worldwide. It's "the end of the beginning," because the great majority of public Extension Systems in developing countries, which began shortly before or after the 1950s, have now arrived either at a stage of consolidation or dissolution. Their future is in doubt in many cases.

For the United States, the present represents an opportunity to prepare for taking the next step.

And the next step, to be stable and forceful, must involve preparation to respond creatively to the attacks on Extension, negotiate intelligently the controversies surrounding Extension, and continue to absorb the lessons to be learned from international and comparative experience. Only in this way can we assure our own future, for the future of the U.S. Cooperative Extension System may be increasingly linked to the future of Extension worldwide.


1. J. B. Claar, D. T. Dahl and L. H. Watts, The Cooperative Extension Service: An Adaptable Model for Developing Countries (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, College of Agriculture, INTERPAKS Series No. 1, 1980).

2. D. K. Leonard, "Putting the Farmer in Control: Building Agricultural Institutions," in Strategies for African Development, R. Berg and J. Whitaker, eds.(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

3. The five basic activities of on-farm research in FSR/E are: (1) target and research area selection, (2) problem identification and development of a research base, (3) planning on-farm research, (4) on-farm research and analysis, and (5) extension of results.

4. H. F. Lionberger and H. C. Chang, "Development and Delivery of Scientific Farm Information: The Taiwan System as an Organizational Alternative to Land-Grant Universities-U.S. Style," in Extension Education and Rural Development; Volume 1- International Experience in Communication and Innovation, B. R. Crouch and S. Chamala, eds. (New York: Wiley, 1981).

5. K. Schmidt and M. Kettering, Project Design and Implementation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development, 1986).

6. A. H. Bunting, "Extension and Technical Change in Agriculture," in Investing in Rural Extension: Strategies and Goals, G. E. Jones, ed. (New York: Elsevier, 1986), pp. 37-38.

7. W. M. Rivera and J. A. Hayward, Agricultural Extension: The Next Step (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, to be published).

8. J. Howell, ed., Recurrent Costs and Agricultural Development (London: Overseas Development Institute, 1985).