I had an interesting discussion with my professor some time ago about problems and issues in agricultural extension philosophy. I observed that the American version of rural extension is premised more on educational studies, concerned as it is on building up the skill base of rural folks. In Europe, the focus is more on innovation; therefore extension theory is based more on communication.
These are important differences. Disciplines and disciplinarity affect the windows through which we see the world. Disciplines give us the primary tools by which we learn to understand and impact the world. But they also give us important limitations: for a man whose only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. That’s disciplinarity: it leaves us with massive blind spots.
Besides, as Leeuwis (2004) says, extension is a product of its times. There has been enough advances in theory, technology and practices for us to attempt to develop a reconfigured understanding of agricultural extension in post land reform Zimbabwe.
A digital base?
The world is becoming “digital, digitalised and digitally-mediated at an astonishing pace” (Graham: 1), resulting in changing connectivities at the world’s margin. It is a widely accepted fact that digital ICTs and the internet are becoming the most pervasive influence on the planet. Almost all economic activities are now mediated digitally, and agricultural support services are no different. The use of digital internet resources like websites and digital interfaces like WhatsApp to support smallholder farmers and other actors within the agricultural system is now within the realms of possibility.
As we know, change is inevitable. Sustainable and equitable development is premised on change and innovation within human and technological systems. As Spielman et al (2009: 400) assert:
The basis for any type of development is the ability of individuals, organisations and societies to improve on what they are currently doing, that is, to improve their individual and collective capabilities.
We know that traditionally, one of the main challenges that reduced smallholder farmers’ innovative capabilities was their inability to integrate into navigable or “rich” networks, thereby gaining access to technical and commercial information, markets and financing. Small farmers usually do not possess the human and social resources to integrate into these networks.
ICTs have the capacity to change people’s “positionalities” by allowing users to interconnect, irrespective of their geographical location (Graham, 2019). ICTs can bring marginalised people to be in touch with benefits at the “cores” of society, and people at the core to be in touch with problems at the margins of society.
However, as Leeuwis & deb Ban (2004) note, innovations are not neutral: they result in winners and losers. ICTs do not automatically shrink distances or bring a digital space into being: people have different types of control over the modes and methods of connectivity (Graham, 2019).
Furthermore, ICTs benefit those who already have the social capital: the literate, those who can afford smartphones and those who live in networked areas. This is widely recognised, with UN (2014) stating that the realisation of the potentials of ICTs depends not on technology alone, but on the interface between technology and other factors, particularly human capabilities needed to take advantage of them. And of course, history has shown that societal benefits rarely “trickle down” to the socially marginalised, unless an active intervention process happens.
Decline of the modernistic edifice: Time for new theoretical base?
In effect, extension as we know it today is a “modernistic” intervention. This is captured in Roling (1988) who defines extension as:
A professional communication intervention deployed by an institution to induce change in voluntary behaviours with a presumed public or collective utility (Roling, 1988: 49).
The explicit understanding of extension as an “intervention” is important because it situates the concept within a broader “development” theoretical perspective. It is, in fact, social engineering: a big part of modernisation and a specific understanding of “development”.
Agriculture Extension: another understanding
Agricultural extension must be based on a more holistic understanding of development. We know now that “innovation” is important, but innovation alone is not enough to cause rural development. More than 50 years of the existence of extension departments show the limitations of this approach. More is required if we are to “leave no-one behind”. There has to be broader participation. More “listening” before “telling”. And people’s skills and competences have to be upgraded as part of an equitable, holistic rural development process.
So, the philosophical basis of agricultural extension should be anchored on this triad: innovation, participation and learning.
We will continue this discussion in another instalment.
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