By Dr. Emil Q. Javier
‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ – Robert Kennedy
One of the six advocacies of the Agriculture and Fisheries Alliance (AFA), a five-member coalition of farmers and fisherfolk; rural women; commercial poultry and livestock producers; food processors and exporters, and academics and scientists, led by convenor Ernesto Ordonez, is the strengthening of the rural extension service. We are persuaded that agriculture modernization will not go far without a strong, well-funded agricultural extension service.
Unfortunately, rural extension was weakened by the well-intentioned Local Government Code of 1991 which devolved agricultural extension to the local government units (LGUs). True, devolution allowed for more democratic participation and brought the arms of government which deliver the services closer to the people. However, we devolved the rural extension too far as it turned out most of the municipal agriculture offices (MAOs) were not up to the task because they were undermanned and underfunded.
Be that as it may, we however object to the move by certain well-meaning quarters to re-centralize rural extension all the way back to the national level. This is retrogress not progress.
Partially elevating the locus of governance of rural extension to the province will require an amendment of the Local Government Code which under normal circumstances will take a while. In the meantime, in order to give us more time to study how to make the concept work and determine how much it will cost, the AFA alliance working closely with the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI-DA) led by Director Luz Taposok and Deputy Director Alfredo Aton proposed that the organizational re-design be pilot-tested in five provinces.
The pilot test was approved early this year by the Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Manny Piñol who proceeded to identify the three Samar provinces and Agusan del Sur as priority consistent with President Duterte’s and the Department’s pronouncements to make a difference in the lives of the rural poor specially in the least developed provinces by investing heavily in agriculture and fisheries.
The fifth and last pilot province is Ilocos Norte. The choice was not based on need but a tactical one — because the basic elements of a successful collaborative province-led extension model are essentially in place. The organization re-design requires, most importantly among others, a committed Provincial Governor who takes agriculture seriously. And among all the Provincial Governors, Imee Marcos is the one we most frequently welcome in UP Los Baños always looking for innovations and new technologies her kababayans from Ilocos Norte could benefit from.
Very important as well are open-minded, hardworking agriculture/fisheries officers (in the persons of Ms. Norma Lagmay, Provincial Agriculturist of Ilocos Norte and Mr. Lucrecio Alviar Jr., DA Regional Field Office I Director). Two senior members of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP), Dr. Santiago Obien and Dr. Rex Navarro, who had been closely working with these DA officers, are certain they will deliver.
And last but not least is the presence of a performing state university (Mariano Marcos State University) which can provide training and extension support to the provincial program.
We anticipate that the experience in Ilocos Norte should serve as a template and inspiration how this governance reform could be made to work.
Mobilization of the local agriculture and fisheries councils (stakeholders)
The first step is the imperative to align the priorities and program of the province with those of the constituent municipalities (and willing cities) and with the industry road maps of the national government. And the way to do it is to convene the Provincial Agriculture and Fisheries Councils (PAFCs), the integrative, consultative and monitoring structure for inter-agency and inter-sectoral collaboration mandated by the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) of 1997. The Agriculture and Fisheries Councils (AFCs) are the apex mechanism for consultation and dialogue between and among government agencies, local government units, private entities, including non-government organizations and people’s organizations. Unfortunately, all too often the AFCs are taken for granted. To make the PAFCs work, no less than the Provincial Governor should regularly convene the farmers/fisherfolk representatives, the agribusiness and industry associations, and administrators of relevant local and national agencies to confer legitimacy, foster ownership and accountability among stakeholders but most importantly, to provide coherence and direction to the provincial programs.
Critical mass Of expertise and bodies
Poverty in the country is largely a rural phenomenon. Unfortunately the rural poor reside precisely in the 3rd to 6th class municipalities who can least afford to hire rural extension workers, much less pay them decent wages and provide them adequate operating funds to move around. Hence, the desirability of bringing governance of extension efforts at the provincial level to attain the critical mass of expertise and bodies needed to succeed (much like the Prefectures in Japan, Counties in China, Districts in India and Provinces in Vietnam).
Also for this reason, a key component of the province-led rural extension model is the establishment of dedicated rural extension and training units in selected regional state universities and colleges (SUCs) to provide technical and training back-up to the provincial programs. The bigger, older SUCs like Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU), Benguet State University (BSU), Central Luzon State University (CLSU), Visayas State University (VSU), Central Mindanao University (CMU) and University of Southern Mindanao (USM) have such dedicated but modest Rural Development Centers. But most SUCs do not have regular extension professionals. Extension is an ad hoc additional assignment often without additional compensation for whatever time faculty can spare from their heavy teaching loads.
Thus, the collaborative provincial extension service model provides for dedicated rural development/extension centers in strategically located SUCs to provide back-up extension and subject matter specialists for the provincial programs.
And to ensure that the SUC rural development centers address the needs of the provincial programs, their plantilla and budgets should be endorsed to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) by the Secretary of Agriculture through the DA Regional Directors.
Closer articulation of the DA regional offices and the ati with grassroots extension
The devolution of agricultural extension had a second unintended negative effect, this time on the part of the DA Bureaus and the Regional Offices. With devolution, the Bureaus (except ATI, Agricultural Training Institute), lost their line functions and ceased to be directly involved in rural extension at the grass roots. The Regional Offices on their part concentrated on the DA banner programs — rice, corn, livestock, high value crops and to some extent fisheries — and essentially left the other commodities to the LGUs. This was unfortunate because with the bulk of the DA funds downloaded to the regions, the Regional offices could have done more to promote multiple cropping/farming and diversification to create more employment and generate more income per hectare for farmers.
With the merger of the old Bureau of Agricultural Extension (BAEx), Philippine Training Centers for Rural Development (PTC-RD) and Philippine Agriculture Training Council (PATC into ATI in 1987, there was no overall coordinating agency for extension since ATI’s function is essentially limited to training. (The reconstitution of ATI into BAEx is another organization issue that needs to be addressed.)
The engagement of the DA Regional Directors and representatives of ATI in the regions in the planning, financing, implementation and monitoring of the Provincial Agriculture and Fisheries programs should provide the platform for a closer articulation of the Department priorities and programs with those of the provinces.
Moreover, the budgetary support from the Regional Offices and ATI coursed through the province will strengthen the hand of the Provincial Agriculture Officers in supervising the municipal extension programs.
Co-financing of extension Costs between the LGUs and the National government
Most important to the LGUs particularly the rural extension workers themselves is the sharing of costs between the LGUs and the national government (DA). In Japan, China, India, US and other jurisdictions, support for rural extension is a shared function between the central (federal) and the local governments. The co-financing formula between local governments and the national government is yet to be worked out. It goes without saying that the poorer municipalities deserve higher levels of support compared with the better endowed bigger towns and cities.
The subsidy from the national government should come as: 1) additional compensation to top up the miserable salary levels the small towns give to their extension workers, 2) supplements for operating expenses, and 3) provisions for transport. The last one is often cited by rural workers as most wanting. They need motorcycles for land transport and light motorboats for fisheries to reach their clients in the hinterland.
This fiscal aspect could be staggering and remains to be addressed as to the level of subsidy the national government can “afford.”
However, with the enlightened support and understanding of DA Secretary Manny Piñol this organizational reform and others yet to come should succeed.
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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