What Happens to Extension Institutions during Disease Outbreaks and How to Prevent Institutional Capacity Erosion
Natural disasters and disease outbreaks deeply impede the progress developing countries make in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Situations such as these affect the food and agricultural sector in a large way, directly affecting millions of rural households. Shocks to the agricultural and food systems impact countries through several pathways including diversion of institutional and human resources toward emergency operations.
Agricultural Innovation System (AIS) is a collection of institutions enabling agricultural and food system transformation in a country. Any attempt to engage in emergency interventions by institutions and bounce back with higher levels of resilience requires strong organizational and human capacity as a prerequisite. What role do these institutions play in emergencies such as COVID-19 and how can they bounce back after such a crisis is over? What can be done to help these institutions build resilience capacity for such recovery? In this blog, we focus on extension and advisory services (EAS), a key component of AIS, to address these questions.
When a shock such as COVID-19 occurs, the institutional architecture (staffing, capacities, systems, policies) of countries can be affected seriously, and it may be difficult to bring them back to normalcy if conscious efforts are not taken. This is especially the case in countries where institutional capacities in AIS are already weak. In the absence of well-functioning institutions, the recovery from the disaster takes longer and affects development outcomes.
There are significant adverse short-term and long-term effects of such disasters on human capacity.
For example, shocks such as disease outbreaks take a toll on the extension system by directly affecting personnel and their functions in the short-term. Such disruptions during the growing season may cut off information flows to farmers, resulting in reduced productivity of crop, livestock, and fish production systems. In the short run, the role of extension workers is altered as focus shifts away from providing training on new technological innovations to gathering and disseminating information on the disease outbreak and its impact on the ground. Collectively, these short run changes can affect the productivity of agricultural systems and result in lower food and nutrition security.
In the case of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the disease had major implications for both quality and quantity of extension delivery. In the public extension system in Malawi, which was already weak due to structural adjustment and stabilization policies of the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s further weakened the extension services and the system all but collapsed.
Recent Ebola experience in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo has shown that while extension personnel can be effectively deployed to address the emerging health crisis at the grassroots level, such diversion can be detrimental to the agriculture sector in both the short and long run. When Avian Influenza affected parts of Africa, the extension system had to respond by learning new approaches to educating farmers, moving from traditional technology transfer mode to understanding the knowledge and practices of farmers. During the Nigerian Bird Flu, extension personnel were involved in helping the poultry workers reduce the spread of the disease. This is an example of productive deployment of extension workers in the time of disease outbreak.
As people can be displaced and physical infrastructure destroyed due to internal conflicts, extension personnel may be removed from their normal work on a temporary basis. Often (as is seen in South Sudan and Iraq), extension personnel are pulled into analyzing the conflict and get involved in rehabilitation of the former combatants into the larger society.
While the short-run shocks can have profound impact on the functioning of the extension institutions, both human and natural disasters and disease epidemics have long-term effects on human and institutional capacity. In the long run, extension institutions can disintegrate completely if they are not built back quickly after the disaster. The longer and more catastrophic the disaster, the less the capacity to redeploy. New capacities take years to develop, resulting in a large lag in the development process in general and in attaining the goals of food security and nutrition. The short run impacts on the extension system disruptions during disease outbreaks could lead to permanent institutional collapse. This drastically affects the already fragile institutions in the public, private and NGO sectors, which in the absence of careful recovery planning for institutional rebuilding can continue to be a long run liability for the national extension systems.
What can be done to prevent such institutional erosion in extension systems? First, policy guidance for the governments on recovery of institutions needs to be well defined. Second, institutional development issues related to building extension institutions need specific strategies and associated investments. Third, ensuring that financial resources are available to rebuild systems as part of the national budgets, or through funding from development partners. Fourth, conducting periodic capacity assessments to ensure that the system bounces back even better than before. For example, leadership development is key as leaders move away, retire and do not come back after the crisis. A new generation of leaders must be nurtured and developed. Fifth, the capacity of overall AIS needs to be built as part of the recovery, in which extension systems will form a key part. Finally, as we are likely to face increasing crises affecting rural households, extension systems need to work closely with the health system to communicate key messages in the area.