Friday, March 12, 2010

Best Practices and Success Stories

A story:

The community was suffering. They were geographically isolated and their culture limited their mobility through the region. While they were skilled farmers, the couldn’t compete with the larger import groups that were pricing them out of the market.

News of this community in trouble got out and an agricultural educator came to the community. The spring tomatoes were scraggly and poorly-looking. The fruit was small and each plant only gave a few tomatoes. There might have even been some parasites. The early season market was a great opportunity to outsell the larger producers, but the unpredictable spring weather was wreaking havoc on the farmer’s attempts to start their plants early.

The agricultural educator devised a plan and a whole new system for growing was suggested. Rather than trying to heat greenhouses with wood, a bit of clear plastic and some black boards became solar green houses. New compost and mulching techniques were taught. Plants better suited to local conditions were identified and cultivated. Low-tech and cost-effective irrigation systems were employed.

As a result, these farmers began producing the best quality early spring and late fall crops in the region. They sent their produce to market, and based on their success, formed a new co-op for selling at auction. They began to out-compete the larger warehouses and were able to develop a successful system of co-sharing profits and reinvesting in their community farm production. The community was strengthened and whole families benefited from this new source of revenue.

A question:

Where did this story take place?

No, it isn't a Peace Corps story. It's not even a USAID or iNGO story.

This story is the story of a UW Cooperative Extension program with the Amish and Mennonite communities in central Wisconsin.

To me, this story captures the essence of the parallels of the international work I was doing, and the state-wide work the UW Cooperative Extension is doing right here at home. The same successes we come to expect in rural, traditional and often isolated communities in the international world is what the UW Cooperative Extension is modeling and perfecting right here at home.

And once again, I discover I have found my home again in Wisconsin.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

How my job is (and is not) like Peace Corps.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about my new job so far has been the intense sense of déjà vu that I have at least three times every day. How is it possible that I can be home in my own town, my own community, speaking my own language, and yet what I see in front of me is a vision of what I was supposed to understand when I was 10,000 miles and two hemispheres away.

I suppose I had some idea of what the University Extension program was all about. It’s fairly easy to see some immediate parallels: find some educated people, stick them in remote communities, provide a series of trainings and give them access to resources. Major differences are also obvious: we were true foreigners in that community, most of us were pretty young and clueless, and our term was for two years, three at most. Still, in theory there’s a lot to be matched in the theory.

Yet, there were other parallels. Extension was raised as a model of what some of the agricultural outreach services were intended to do in remote Madagascar and Vietnam. The “Champion Communities” model also strove to do something similar with putting a educated (usually young) Malagasy person in each community to serve as a coordinator for community collaboration and improvement. Unfortunately, they lacked the impressive pay and academic support the Extension system offers. They were forced to make choices between doing things to take care of themselves and seeking to find resources from other places.

And so I come home to the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension program. A program that puts graduate-degreed (or imposes the requirement to become so) professionals in multiple sectors in each county, pays them a living wage with the type of benefits and provides the type of supports that allows one to focus on work, and then floods them with access to the type of resources that might overwhelm some, but would cause any self-respecting geek to drool.

I’m not saying the UW Extension system is perfect, but you can see what the Peace Corps and all of these other community-based expert programs strive to do through it. Just as when you are dropped at site as a PCV, UWEX orientation (at least in the family living program, which parallels the health education program fairly neatly) maps out your timeline from first day, first week, first month, first three months, first year. Your supervisor takes you courtesy visits to the important people. You read the black book or letter left from your predecessor (if you had one). They tell you to do a needs assessment, but you spend the first three months trying to figure out what to do. And they tell you not to even attempt a Plan of Work before six months. You get trained in cross-cultural sensitivity.

But then Extension does it better. Granted, they can plan on having their agents around for longer than two years. They offer professional development in every effort to try to keep agents around longer. In the ideal (and sometimes in fact), county agents become a central resource to their community, providing information to politicians, and documenting program impact through research and academic evaluation. Peace Corps was great. But now I’m seeing how it can really work, when real academic, political and yes, some financial, resources can be mustered. Sure, the extension system could be better. And Peace Corps is a fantastic program for reasons that the Extension can never dream of. But I do see in the day-to-day functioning of the Extension program, thus far, a system that developing countries should envy.