Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // International // 3INTL1

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Impacts of Extension Privatization

Is it finally time for attention to be turned from the focus on privatization toward the value and importance that have come to be associated with the small-farm enterprise? Certainly, it's not too soon to examine the implications of Extension privatization in the international arena for the future of farming and agricultural development worldwide.

William M. Rivera
Associate Professor, Adult and Extension Education Programs
Coordinator, Center for International Extension Development
University of Maryland, College Park

Extension privatization has been taking place on a global basis since the mid-1980s as a result of severe attacks on public sector Extension Systems.1 Studies of privatized systems in countries demonstrate the negative effects of such systems, particularly on small farming.

The Netherlands and New Zealand

The Netherlands completed in 1990 its first steps toward "Going Dutch."2 Beginning in 1993, farmers will have to pay an increasing share of the Extension services until a share of 50% of the total costs is reached in 2003. This decision to privatize has brought with it important changes. Farmers' representatives now exert more influence on the Extension Service. Provincial Offices for Agricultural Affairs have been created. This effectively separates Extension advice on farm management from the provision of information on government policy by provincial offices. Two Information and Knowledge Centers (IKCs) have also been established as a new type of organization for the transfer of knowledge and specialists have been integrated into Extension teams within those centers.3

As a result of The Netherlands Extension privati-zation, Huang notes the high level of cooperation among Dutch Extension information organizations in both the public and private sectors no longer exists. The more commercial attitude of the system has created tensions between Extension workers and their clients in what has become a less open and even fragmented knowledge and information system. Farmers who used to share in-formation during study-group meetings are more reluctant to do so.4 Although The Netherlands government goal has been attained, farmers and information services seem to be more isolated from one another as a result.

New Zealand's system was totally commercialized in 1987. Its Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) now operates in a results-oriented, user-pay environment. Its previous structure of 10 technically oriented divisions, such as the Meat Division, the Animal Health Division, and the Economics Division, was reorganized into four businesses. These businesses were distinguished on the basis of accountability, clients served, services provided, and responsibility for outcomes. The four businesses are MAFTechnology, MAFQuality Management, MAFFish- eries, and MAFCorporate Services.

It appears, however, that more recently, the New Zealand agricultural advisory service is being influenced by changes in the political and economic environment. A backlash from small- and medium-scale farmers who can't afford the contractual arrangements demanded by the four Extension businesses appears to be creating second thoughts among government officials. It has become clear that the bias of the privatized system is toward larger, wealthier farm enterprises, and that small-scale farmers have little access to what once was considered a "public good"- agricultural information and its transfer.

Who Should be Served?

The concept of information as a public good raises several issues: the role of government, the question of information as private property, and the purpose and audience to be served by public sector agricultural Extension Services. When information is weighted only in terms of immediate costs and benefits, then information and knowledge cease to be goods to be provided by the public sector.5

Also, an important question is whether and to what extent privatized Extension Services and commercial agricultural development activities will give priority to concerns for environmental sustainability. Fostering a profit-first-and- foremost orientation to agricultural development is likely to prove injurious to a clean environment and further contribute to pollution and the ailments that inevitably result.

The trend toward privatization also highlights the movement toward crop production for commercial export purposes and the growing significance of commodity boards and private companies in determining the development of agriculture. This trend is being accompanied by what would appear to be a self-fulfilling prophesy -small-scale and even medium-scale farms are becoming obsolete. This is despite counter arguments and indicators that small farms are significant contributors to export trade-in the range of five to six billion U.S. dollars annually.6

What's the role of research and Extension? In the more developed countries, like the United States, the answer at present seems evident. Only 2.3% of the population are currently engaged in on-farm agriculture and large-scale farming is the trend. Nonetheless, a legal case was brought to trial in California alleging that research and Extension Services wrongly serve mainly the needs of large-scale farm enterprises rather than the needs of small farmers. Although unsuccessful, this case pointed out the equity issue. From a practical rather than a legal standpoint, it might be argued that in states dependent on large-scale farm production, it's natural or at least understandable that research/Extension Services be geared mainly toward large-farm interests. For many southern states, with large numbers of small farms, this is less likely to be a good argument, although even in those states, small farming is rapidly waning.

These contrasting perspectives about agriculture reflect larger issues-specifically whether one adopts what might call the "agribusiness" approach to agriculture,7 the "agri-culture" approach8 emphasizing rural community and small farming as prime concerns over mass production, or the "sustainable agriculture" approach that points to deterioration in the environment and the need for developing a profitable agriculture in a clean environment.

The exchange and transfer of agricultural information, know- how, and technological hardware between farmers and program managers is an important ingredient in any agricultural development plan and practice. But what is transferred, and how it's transferred, are political as well as technical questions.


Extension Systems in The Netherlands and New Zealand demonstrate the consequences of privatization. These include: the tendency to reduce linkages and exchange of information between organizations and farmers, the trend toward enhancing large-scale farming to the detriment of small-scale farming, diminishing the concept of agricultural information as a public good, while promoting knowledge as a salable commodity, and a trend toward agricultural development services that cater primarily to large- scale farming.

The pressures of world trade, exponentially expanding populations, and the balance of special interest groups is accelerating agriculture toward "bigger is better." The reminders that "small is bountiful" appear to be lost in the rush toward concerns for growth. Meanwhile, developed countries face major environmental problems related in part to massive agricultural development, and developing countries find they can ill-afford to face the political and socioeconomic consequences of eliminating the livelihoods of their small farm households, as many of these are based on subsistence farming.

Is it finally time for attention to be turned from the focus on privatization toward the value and importance that have come to be associated with the small-farm enterprise? Certainly, it's not too soon to examine the implications of Extension privatization in the international arena for the future of farming and agricultural development worldwide.


1. W. M. Rivera and D. J. Gustafson, Agricultural Extension: Worldwide Institutional Evolution and Forces for Change (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier Science Publishers, 1991).

2. J. Proost and N. Roling, " 'Going Dutch' in Extension," Interpaks Interchange (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 1991).

3. J. T. M. Bos, M. D. C. Proost, and D. Kuiper, "Reorganizing the Dutch Agricultural Extension Service: The IKC in Focus," in D. Kuiper and N. G. Roling, eds., Proceedings of the European Seminar on Knowledge Management and Information Technology (Wagenien, The Netherlands: Agricultural University, Department of Extension Service, 1991).

4. R. Q. Huang, "The Level of Cooperation Among Agricultural Extension Organizations in the Greenhouse Vegetable Sector in the Westland Area in The Netherlands" (Paper presented at the 8th World Congress for Rural Sociology, Penn State University,

University Park, August 1992). 5. U.S., Office of Technology Assessment, Technology, Public Policy and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986).

6. E. P. T. Thompson, Jr., Small Is Bountiful (Washington, D.C.: American Farmland Trust, 1986).

7. O. Freeman, "Reaping the Benefits: Cash Crops in the Development Process," Health & Development, I (March/April 1989), 21-23.

8. W. Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977).