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The 19th ESEE in Perugia…

October 7, 2009

The 19th ESEE was:

  • Productive: Over 70 papers, (a pdf with all the papers can be downloaded from the official site)
  • Well attended and diverse: with  more than 100 participants from almost 40  countries
  • Hosted in an excellent way by the Faculty of Agriculture of Perugia -DSEEA- and by the Istituto Nazionale di Economia Agraria -INEA- in Assisi, Perugia, Italy,
  • Located in a beautiful rural area with exceptional cultural heritage.

For those who like brevity, below is an attempt to capture the  ‘gist’ of the rich mix of 3 days and all the many extension experts. It  is based on this summary of WG2 by Artur Cristovão , the  results of the other two groups were woven in  -while keeping it  as short as possible.

“Extending…”

In many economically developed countries, as well as in many developing countries, two opposing trands can be observed. On one side, the industrialization of the food systems makes the farmers passive receivers of orders coming from the processing firms or by the organized chains of retailers. In such cases, advisors transmit “innovation packages and knowledge” which have been elaborated elsewhere. It is the “top down approach”, the “agricultural treadmill” which has been described in many situations, with negative impacts on the environment, on the society, and on the global economy in the long run. In other cases, the society is moving from an industrial model with vertical hierarchical structures towards a networked society with increasingly horizontal organizational structures. Implications for agriculture, rural areas, extension and extension education are far-reaching. There is growing importance of: sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems, markets (new demands, direct marketing, collective action, chain management, vertical integration, …), better rural-urban relationships and dynamics, more attention to environment and natural resources, better entrepreneurship education, more personal and social skills (social capital building, empowerment, networking, …), health and safety.

The aim or ‘end‘ to which extension should contribute is shifting along this continuum: production increase, compentency development, empowerment, networking, advocacy, innovation, sustainability. Audiences for extension in this second scenario are no longer defined target groups but may be wide and fluid collections of individuals.  The role of the agent moves from technology transfer to learning facilitator, innovation broker, holistic resource manager, knowledge manager.  The profession is changing and it seems that the identity of agronomists and extension agents in general tends to be weaker. The context of extension work, global, national or more specific, tends to be more and more competitive, uncertain and risky.
The ‘networked society’ is complex and (seemingly?) lacks central governance. The present institutional arrangements for extension do not match the new dispersed form of learning. Who defines and manages the extension agenda? The papers illustrated situations of flexible and inclusive systems, open for participation and negotiation, as well as others more closed or centralized, in which agenda setting is basically a top-down exercise. “We” need to realize that networking is needed, there are allies among policy makers, private parties, ngo’s and international organizations. We need a marriage between extension and agricultural innovation systems, which is very theoretical still and this is where the money will be going.

Methods, media and tools are rapidly expanding. ICT and e-learning are still in full development and only beginning to be integrated in our methods, including the use of mobile devices. Internet web2.0 brings social media, which again is an entirely new generation with its own dynamics. The new tools mean an ever increasing number of sources of information for farmers and rural populations. It also drives the trend towards peer learning. Media fragmentation and divides running through audiences, including the digital divide, make it harder to bring a message across.

Content quality was also an important question of debate. With increasing number of information sources there are diverse value systems shaping and evaluating extension content, and that there are belief, acceptance and relevance issues involved. Content negotiation and education (helping to interpret, combine and recombine information and build knowledge) are critical aspects.

These points pose implications for extension agents’ training; moving from a strict technological profile; addressing epistemological and ontological questions; promoting an holistic view. Universities have a critical role and should also provide lifelong learning opportunities to new and older extension workers.a new attention to ethical questions (for which development are they striving for? What is the appropriate content? Is neutrality possible or desirable?); acquisition of new skills, including those related to personal and social development (reflexivity and critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurial thinking), and the capacity to cross boundaries and to see the world (including farmers and farming) in a different way.

How to prove extension matters? Many papers have provided quantitative assessement of the role of advisors, but the above trends open a need for M&E methods that are more qualitative and narrative.

Theories supporting the field of extension: there is difficulty to claim a scientific territory. Social learning theories from different fields, complexity theory, and pluralism are some of the underlying theories. Extension science is a collection of many other disciplines and is an evolving scholarly assessment of impacts of systems, approaches, and methods.

Finally, but very important, the issue of extension funding was also debated: Who should pay for what content? What is of public and private interest? For instance, should direct marketing of agricultural and agri-food products be addressed by public extension services? The positions were diverse, suggesting that this is a matter for research and debate in future seminars.

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