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Five Key Areas for Mobilising the

Potential of Rural Advisory Services

There is renewed attention to the important

role of rural advisory services (extension)
in rural development processes. This brief
summarises the publication ‘Mobilising the
potential of rural and agricultural extension’
that was prepared for the Global Conference
on Agricultural Research for Development
(GCARD) in Montpellier, March 2010*. Rural
advisory services are key to putting small-
holder demands at the centre of rural
development, ensuring food security, and
dealing with risks and uncertainty. The brief
focuses on five opportunities to mobilise the GFRAS Brief #1
potential of rural advisory services. Revised July 2016

The five areas to mobilise the potential of rural advisory services are
1.  focusing on best-fit approaches
2.  embracing pluralism
3.  increasing accountability to rural clients 
4.  human resource development 
5. sustainability

Rural advisory services, also called extension, are all the

ables must be con-
different activities that provide the information and serv-
sidered when de-
ices needed and demanded by farmers and other actors in
signing policies,
rural settings to assist them in developing their own techni-
approaches, pro-
cal, organisational, and management skills and practices so
grammes, and in-
as to improve their livelihoods and well-being.
stitutions. Most im-
portantly, there is a
1. Best-fit approaches to need to remember the lessons of past
rural advisory services unsustainable attempts to introduce
rigid models and recognise that flexible
Rural advisory services (RAS) are in- approaches have been more appropri-
creasingly recognised by many rural de- ate. Rapid and unpredictable changes in
velopment actors as an essential vehicle markets and climates, and the diverse
to ensure that research, development of ways that these changes impact differ-
farmer organisations, improved inputs, ent target groups, mean that RAS can-
and other elements of rural develop- not provide blanket advice.
ment support actually meet farmers and
other rural actors’ needs and demands. Thus the concept of ‘best-fit’ approach-
es has been promoted by some RAS
While policy makers and planners are stakeholders. Best-fit approaches em-
increasingly looking for ‘quick-fix’ ap- brace pluralism of approaches and pro-
proaches that can be easily imple- viders rather than a blanket approach
mented and scaled up, one cannot use or one provider. Best-fit solutions to
a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to finding RAS design are based on local condi-
and implementing sustainable RAS pro- tions including governance structures,
grammes or models. Programmes must capacity, organisation and manage-
take into account the diversity found ment, and types of methods used to
in rural areas, where governance, lev- provide RAS. Such approaches should
els of capacity, farming systems, and fit into the overall agricultural innova-
many other factors differ. These vari- tion system.

The focus on best-fit approaches is an development issues and crises. Policy

opportunity to shape services that are makers and programme planners must
relevant and demand-driven. It is an op- be willing to invest the time and effort
portunity to make RAS flexible enough into moulding approaches to fit unique
to deal with current and future rural situations.

2. P
 luralism in advisory Civil society organisations have a
service provision key role to play as well. Producer organ-
isations play a particular role. They are
There are many different types of adviso- key to driving agricultural transforma-
ry service providers and approaches. This tion processes and are playing a central
is appropriate, as the diversity of rural role on both the demand and the sup-
life and needs should be matched by di- ply side of RAS. They are well-placed
versity in services, approaches, and pro- to identify, synthesise, and articulate
viders. Various service providers tend to needs and solutions for farmers. On the
reach different types of clientele. Three other hand, due to the closeness to the
basic categories of providers include the clientele and their flexibility in service
public, civil society, and private sectors. delivery, producer organisations have
While public RAS provision has often unique strengths in acting as rural advi-
played a major role in development, pri- sory services providers themselves. But
vate and civil society (non-governmental producer organisations often face se-
organisations (NGOs) and farmer organi- vere challenges regarding governance,
sations) RAS are also key players. performance on both demand and sup-

Public rural advisory services need to

play a coordinating, technical backstop-
ping, and quality assurance role within
pluralistic systems. They should ensure
that national development objectives
such as poverty reduction are met and
provide services of a ‘public goods’ na-
ture. They have the advantage in offer-
ing impartial advice and dealing with
issues related to sustainable natural re-
source management.

ply side, and regarding their economic, by non-state providers. Private adviso-
environmental, and social sustainability. ry services may actually be better at
reaching poor farmers than the public
Private advisory services often assist sector if incentives such as subsidies
a limited clientele, primarily related are improved.
to high-value products and relative-
ly well-off producers. Input suppliers Pluralism in advisory services pro-
are increasingly providing information vides the opportunity to capitalise on
regarding new varieties and planting the comparative advantages of differ-
methods to all kinds of producers. ent types of organisations – including
While private providers are not likely public sector, farmers’ organisations
to reach hundreds of millions of poor and NGOs, and the private sector. The
farmers, particularly women, they play trick, however, is in coordination of
an important role in linking producers such providers, making sure that vul-
to market and increasing incomes. nerable sectors of the farming popu-
lation are not forgotten, and avoiding
Institutional pluralism through different excess duplication of efforts. Public
service providers must be matched by financial support, technical backstop-
pluralism in financial flows if RAS are ping, and coordination are thus need-
to be broadly accessible. Private invest- ed. Governments must focus on meet-
ment will not address the needs of all ing the needs of disadvantaged groups
rural producers. Hence, targeted pub- ensuring quality assurance of advisory
lic investments in RAS will remain cru- services.
cial, even when services are carried out

3. Increased account- ble level of aggregation. The ways that

ability to rural clients RAS are financed can be a means of
holding them accountable for the quan-
There are increasing calls for ‘demand- tity and quality of services they pro-
driven’ and ‘farmer-led’ rural adviso- vide. When the client pays (perhaps
ry services. A shift to bottom-up plan- with public financial assistance), this
ning, monitoring, and evaluation is often forces service providers to adopt great-
achieved through farmer organisations. A er client orientation to ensure their eco-
challenge here is the limited capacity of nomic survival. However, local govern-
farmer organisations and their higher-level ments and other stakeholders need
federations to plan and monitor RAS. capacity to plan, manage, and monitor
such programmes. Increasing account-
Additionally, there is a need to address ability to rural people must go hand-in-
gender, age, and ethnic differences hand with investment in the capacity of
when focusing on bottom-up planning service providers and local authorities
and demand driven and farmer-led ap- and assurance of quality to make these
proaches. Policy makers and planners systems work.
must ask hard questions about whose
demands are being served. Women Accountability to rural people also means
have an important role in agri-food knowing whether a programme, meth-
systems. Different ethnic groups have od, or organisational innovation actual-
unique links and obstacles to reach dif- ly worked or not. Much is still unknown
ferent markets. Agriculture is perceived about the effectiveness of RAS pro-
negatively by many youth and seen as grammes and approaches. Methods for
unrewarding. Climate change is hav- clear, rigourous, and participatory eval-
ing severe impacts on people living in uation of programming for RAS make
‘hot spots’. Voice must be provided for a gap that must be filled. Research is
all stakeholder groups in national fora also needed to provide a better under-
where rural and agricultural issues are standing of the complex relations and
discussed. multiple accountabilities that exist be-
tween advisory services, their clients
Farmer organisations are not the only and other stakeholder institutions, such
way to make RAS more accountable. as local government, private investors,
Decentralisation, if well planned, can researchers, and farmer organisations.
increase accountability to rural people This offers the opportunity to make RAS
through subsidiarity – placing responsi- more relevant and effective for rural
bility for activities at the lowest possi- people and their goals.

4. H
 uman resource from lecturing to empowering clientele
development to deal with uncertainties and variabil-
ity such as climate change and market
Human resources are a fundamental trends. This requires a better balance
bottleneck to effective RAS given the between technical and functional skills
new challenges facing rural develop- such as critical thinking, problem solv-
ment. Due to a lack of interest in ag- ing, organisational development, and
riculture and accompanying funding facilitation.
stagnation and brain drain, agricultur-
al education came to a point of near- There is also a need to upgrade skills
collapse in some areas. There are sev- among universities and other training
eral different levels of need for human institutions who are preparing graduates
resource development for RAS: farmer within the agriculture sector. While there
level, extension agent level, and high- are some efforts being made to invest in
er education/training institution level. agricultural education, especially on ter-
Government officials also need en- tiary level, there is a need for revisiting
hanced capacities due to decentralisa- curricula on all levels. It also means that
tion efforts (see previous section). an education should go beyond train-
ing, but include practical experience and
Agricultural education and empower- continuous learning. In addition, the dis-
ment for farmers is an important com- cipline should be fostered through pro-
ponent in efforts to enhance their ca- fessionalisation and professional society
pacity to demand and utilise advice. membership. In short, GFRAS calls for
Farmers and other rural actors need taking the necessary steps to promote
technical and management skills, as well extension as a valuable profession, and
as the ability to operate in groups, use extension staff professionals.
ICTs effectively, and seek markets.
For human resource development, state
Extension agents (be they public, civil budget allocation is needed. Plans for
society or private) need capacity devel- RAS must reflect this human resource
opment as well. Effective advice is no crisis and include concerted and sustain-
longer a matter of simply providing mes- able investment strategies to address it.
sages about set technological packages If the plans are followed through, it is
to rural people. Indeed, there is a shift an opportunity to equip advisors and
from technical advice to advice that also other rural development actors with the
contains organisational, cultural, and so- appropriate skills to deal with the ever-
cial elements. Extensionists must shift changing and complex arena in which
they operate.

5. S
 ustainability: Beyond tematic, institutional approaches to re-
projects to institutions form and strengthening pluralistic RAS
Sustainable rural advisory services
need government commitment and ef- The changing technological landscape,
fective forms of financing. RAS pro- including the spread of internet and mo-
jects have shown that the injection of bile phones, has shown the potential for
project resources can mobilise service enhancing access to information about
provision for a short period of time, but markets, weather, and technological op-
that the sustainability of these projects tions, and improve communication and
has generally been poor. Additional linkages among stakeholders. This has
temporary resources may be needed often been heralded as yet another ‘sil-
for particular campaigns or for dealing ver bullet’ for sustainability in that they
with temporary problems (such as re- are expected to avoid the problems of
sponding to a drought). All too often, bloated bureaucracies and high recur-
however, these high profile ‘quick im- rent costs.
pact’ investments have distracted at-
tention from the need to strengthen The opportunity here is to ensure that
the institutions that will carry out fu- these newer methods are integrated
ture programmes. Pressures to ad- within the work of existing institutions
dress the food security crisis and re- and organisations. Methods must be
spond to climate change have meant adapted to existing capacities and the
that RAS are still often supported as context where they will be used. As
a temporary component of broader mentioned above, project support must
projects addressing various themes. If be balanced with systematic, institution-
this syndrome is to be avoided, project al approaches to reform and strength-
support must be balanced with sys- ening pluralistic systems.

While we have learned valuable lessons from past efforts, there is still much to be
done. In spite of limited knowledge on the varying effectiveness of various approaches
in terms of addressing different needs, demands, and capacity constraints, it is clear
that RAS form an essential institution within rural development. We can mobilise the
potential of RAS by focusing on these five areas: best-fit approaches, pluralism, ac-
countability to rural client, human resource development, and sustainability in order for
RAS to contribute effectively to rural development and poverty alleviation.

For further reading

GFRAS. 2015. Producer organisations Sulaiman, R. and Davis, K. 2012. The “new
in rural advisory services: Evidence and extensionist”: roles, strategies, and capacities
experiences. Position Paper. Lindau: Global to strengthen extension and advisory services.
Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS). GFRAS Position Paper. Lindau: Global Forum
Birner, R. et al. 2009. From Best Practice to for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS).
Best Fit: A Framework for Designing and Christoplos, I. 2010. Mobilizing the potential
Analyzing Agricultural Advisory Services of rural and agricultural extension. Food
Worldwide. Washington, DC: International and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of
Food Policy Research Institute. the United Nations and Global Forum for
( Rural Advisory Services. Rome: FAO.

Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS)
c/o Agridea
Jordils 1
1001 Lausanne, Switzerland
Telephone: +41 (0)52 354 97 64
Fax: +41 (0)52 354 97 97,

page 1 and 8: © Agridea International

page 3: © 2006 Freweni Gebre Mariam

Page 4: © 1997 Philippe Berry / IFPRI
Originally written in October 2010, updated in July 2016