USIP’s Andrew Robertson explains how agricultural extension systems—a common feature in rural areas including those afflicted by conflict—might be utilized in the service of preventing and managing conflict and promoting positive change.


Andrew Robertson is a senior program officer in the Center of Innovation for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Robertson was previously a director at the Corporate Executive Board, a consultant for FSI, Inc. and a research engineer for the Nissan Motor Company. He holds a PhD in the history of science from Harvard University and an ME in computer and electrical engineering from Dartmouth College.

At USIP, Robertson has been helping to advance a partnership between USIP and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) that is working to identify ways in which scientific and technological methods might be adopted by peacebuilders. That partnership is currently involved in four research projects, one of them being an examination of how agricultural extension systems—a common feature in rural areas including those afflicted by conflict or transitional instability—might be utilized in the service of preventing and managing conflict in non-violent ways.

Robertson authored a USIP Special Report last month, “Enabling Agricultural Extension for Peacebuilding,” an analysis that reflects his own research as well as the proceedings of a roundtable workshop held last year at USIP. This month the Institute also co-published with NAE his summary of this workshop, “Adapting Agricultural Extension to Peacebuilding.” In these publications, Robertson lays out what may well represent a new and promising approach to peacebuilding: using the credibility and respect held by agricultural extension systems and their personnel to facilitate positive change among rural people living in conflict zones.

How do conflict and violence affect food production and distribution, as well as rural populations?

There is no doubt that violent conflict affects food production. Various studies estimate that for nations at war, food production drops on average 10 percent to 15 percent. Of course, there is a lot of variation—large agricultural economies are sometimes almost untouched by conflict, and small ones are potentially halved. Conflict and violence influence food security in ways that reflect the specific nature of the conflict.

Broadly speaking, food security depends on a chain of agricultural and economic activities from food production, processing and storage to distribution, marketing, retail and, finally, consumption. Either through direct violence or the threat of violence, disruption of this activity chain reduces agricultural activity and thus production. The conflict itself can determine the nature of the disruption. For example, insecurity along highways can prevent both transportation of harvest to processing facilities and distribution to markets. Because extension agents mainly work with farmers, we have been focusing on those conflict issues that are related to land and access in communities that produce food. Disagreements between pastoral and agricultural peoples, for instance, can often lead to conflict. Likewise, the return of demobilized soldiers or internally displaced people to their communities of origin can touch off renewed violence and conflict.

What role do agricultural extension agents play in such rural areas?

Extension agents provide training and information to farmers. They teach farmers how to improve the productivity and quality of their harvests. By helping farmers adopt better inputs, use more productive farming techniques and target more profitable markets, agents help improve agricultural productivity, raise household income and enhance the quality of life in the communities they serve. Although extension is often described as a form of adult education, agents actually provide a broader range of services to their farming clients, such as technology transfer, advisory services, education and facilitation of farmers’ groups to help overcome common agriculture problems. Of particular importance in recent years has been extension agents acting in the role of facilitator. For example, agents have created self-help groups that bring farmers together to accelerate the adoption of improved production practices for such crops as beans, rice or even flowers. Such groups may even work to improve access to financing or distribution to larger regional or national markets. This role of organizing farmers to address shared problems provides an opportunity for using extension agents to embed peacebuilding capacity deep in rural communities.

What are their typical duties and what are they trained to do?

Although there are many different ways to organize extension and the activities of agents, agents generally work with farmers to identify and solve their problems. To gain credibility with their clients, agents have to have a deep understanding of farming and the problems faced by farmers, such as crop rotation, pesticide use and responses to crop diseases like wheat rust and rice blast. Given the range of knowhow required to advise farmers, however, they must also know when to turn to experts to solve a farmer’s problem. Thus, agents have to be diagnosticians, farming experts and information brokers simultaneously. Agents have to be technically sound as well as reliable, honest and respected. They need strong people skills and a commitment to the community. Although the ability to access technical knowledge may be the basis of the relationship between farmer and agent, how an agent manages that relationship determines his or her ability to have long-term impact.

What is the potential opportunity for building peace in rural areas of the developing world afflicted by conflict?

From the Institute’s work creating networks of peacebuilders in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we know that the impact of such networks in managing conflict is tightly linked to two factors. The first is the reach of the network, and the second is the ability of the network to understand and respond to how conflict manifests itself in a particular context. In most conflict zones, extension systems are large networks with broad reach. For example, in Pakistan there are an estimated 22,500 extension agents providing agricultural and veterinary advice. Successfully adapting extension would radically improve our ability to manage conflict in rural areas. To accomplish that will require creating capacity to diagnose and respond flexibly to conflict as it materializes in different communities.

How might extension agents play a role in averting or resolving conflicts, or in other steps that help build peace and reduce violence?

Extension agents provide information to their clients by either teaching what they know or putting farmers in touch with other specialists who can solve their problems. Agents in a conflict or post-conflict environment could be expected to provide access to experts in the different problems that confront such farming communities. The USIP-NAE Roundtable’s work has focused on four specific peacebuilding problems that have natural ties to the work of agricultural extension agents. They are 1) disputes over land and water; 2) conflict over access between pastoralists and agriculturalists; 3) returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) to rural communities; and 4) reintegrating demobilized soldiers into farming communities. The agents would not be expected to step into a dispute and try to resolve it. Instead, they would diagnose the problem and then work with the appropriate experts to develop a solution.

Is this being done anywhere, and with what results?

Some extensions systems have provided services that address chronic problems produced by or contributing to conflict. For example, in South Sudan, land disputes between farming and pastoral peoples are endemic. Extension agents have partnered there with land registry specialists to better manage such land disputes. Also, in Kenya, extension agents are responsible for assisting communities in reintegrating the IDPs created during the postelection crisis of 2007 and 2008. In these places, extension systems have made changes in what they do to address specific problems created by conflict. However, they have not built an extension system that is flexible and responsive enough to the changing problems that emerge from a society exiting a conflict. Although IDPs may be the immediate problem, a year later that society may face a different problem. How to provide extension agents with the capabilities to instigate peacebuilding in a changing conflict environment is the crux of our challenge.

What would need to be done to create these capabilities and this peacebuilding mission broadly in developing-world conflict zones?

Extension agents have to be able to detect the new needs of farmers as they develop and know what to do in response. Agents already have broad responsibilities and cannot be expected to become expert in every dimension of peacebuilding. Instead, we believe that agents need to be trained to conduct brief conflict assessments so they know what type of peacebuilding expert to contact. Three key steps will need to be taken: the creation of training that allows extension agents to diagnose types of conflict; the adaptation of technology to keep agents updated on the range of peacebuilding expertise available to them; and the decentralization of extension systems that enable the delivery of customized services to local communities. There is a real opportunity here: Agricultural extension services can be used to embed peacebuilders in rural conflicts and to build capacity to ease some of the causes of such conflict.

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