9d3da05ddfDr. Kristin Davis is the Executive Secretary for the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) whose mandate is to strengthen extension and advisory services around the globe. GFRAS emphasizes the importance of extension services to rural development and poverty reduction, by getting the evidence and stories that show the importance of the services and by helping people in the field develop their capacities to do their jobs and run their organisations better.

Davis, who has a PhD in international agricultural extension, was seconded to GFRAS in 2010 from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) where she worked on research and capacity strengthening on agricultural extension and other development issues with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. Her current role involves providing the voice for advisory services within global policy dialogues and promoting improved investment in Rural Advisory Services (RAS).

Davis speaks about the 3rd GFRAS annual meeting to be held in Manila, the Philippines from 25-28 September 2012. Excerpts:

What is special about GFRAS?
GFRAS is special because it is the only organisation in the world providing a voice for advisory services at the global level. In addition, GFRAS produces and synthesizes evidence on good practices and policies in advisory services. Critically, it provides a space for RAS actors to come together and share experiences and knowledge, something that never before existed for RAS stakeholders.

A key topic underlying the 2012 GFRAS meeting is the provision of rural advisory services (RAS), tell us about RAS?
RAS are the organisations and individuals that work with farmers and other actors in rural areas. RAS provide rural people with the necessary skills and knowledge to improve their livelihoods and wellbeing. Traditionally, RAS disseminate information about technologies, markets, inputs and financial matters; they also help farmers to develop their agricultural, management, and marketing skills. Modern RAS also promote interaction among farmers and other rural actors, the private sector, research institutes, education centres, and government. At the same time, they help actors to improve their market access, deal with changing patterns of risk, and protect the environment. RAS are also called extension or agricultural advisory services.

Global agriculture is at cross roads with the challenges such as climate change, poor investment, economic crisis, where is the role for RAS?
Rural people face many challenges, including sustainable food security poverty reduction, and dealing with risks and uncertainty. RAS plays an important role in equipping rural people to deal with challenges. RAS provide information and technologies for protecting natural resources, productive farming processes, product development, marketing skills, nutritional needs, and household health. By ensuring that farmers have information, skills, markets, technologies, and other services, RAS can improve the quality, diversity, volume, and accessibility of food to tackle hunger and malnutrition.
There is a further role for RAS role by providing information and training on family financial planning, and identifying and developing local handicrafts and products to market and sell, that will also help to alleviate poverty. RAS also plays a key role in sharing information to further environmental sustainability – including limiting deforestation, fostering biodiversity, and protecting water.

What of research and development in agriculture, how has this benefitted RAS?
RAS plays a critical connecting role within food and agricultural innovation systems. RAS help local communities to meet their needs and link them to scientific research and input and output markets. For example, RAS helps them to respond to expected climatic changes, environmental degradation, and market volatility. The role of RAS goes far beyond technical and production functions, and includes the whole social and cultural milieu. RAS is, simply put, action with others.
RAS connect science to users in a healthy relationship that not only provides reliable, honest, and timely information to farmers, processors, marketers, and community members, and also gives solid feedback to scientists and researchers about users' own innovations, insights, problems encountered, and opportunities uncovered. Research and development have provided key information and technologies to share with farmers. But this works in reverse too; farmers' information and technologies have informed research and development too. And RAS is a key connecting link between these communities.

What investment have global governments made in the provision of RAS?
RAS investments have been made by donors, various governments, farmers' organizations, (international) NGOs, and the private sector. The type and level of investments varied considerably over the past few decades, especially as extension approaches rose and fell in popularity.

Many governments have over the years reduced their investment in extension and advisory services, leaving the services without operational resources and forced to continue providing blanket recommendations promoted through ever-repeated demonstration trials. The newly developing RAS constituency, based on strengthening farmer organizations, the private sector, and NGO-supported advisory services, has evoked strong attention to extension in the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the related Framework for African Agricultural Productivity. Outside Africa, increased attention to extension is expressed through the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS). CAADP and the corresponding compact agreements at the country level advocate sharpening the focus and efficiency of service provision by basing it on farmers' actual demands, avoiding blanket recommendations, working with existing farmer groups, aiming for matching funds from value chain actors, and using new tools such as ICTs. The sustainability of service provision has become an important part of advisory service strategies. CAADP compact agreements also commit national governments to invest more in extension and not to rely on donor funding. In Uganda, for example, the percentage of the national budget allocated to extension (the National Agricultural Advisory Services—NAADS) gradually increased from 0.3 percent in 2003 to 2.6 percent in 2011, while significantly increasing as a percentage of the agricultural budget.

by B.Bafana