Competing models of innovation informing agricultural extension, such as transfer of technology, participatory extension and technology development, and innovation systems have been proposed over the last decades. These approaches are often presented as antagonistic or even mutually exclusive. This article shows how practitioners in a rural innovation system draw on different aspects of all three models, while creating a distinct local practice and discourse. We revisit and deepen the critique of Vietnam’s “model” approach to upland rural development, voiced a decade ago in this journal. Our analysis of interviews with grassroots extension workers and extension managers reveals how they have received government, donor, and academic discourses on participation, user-orientation, and private sector involvement in innovation. Extension workers as well as managers integrate the reform discourses into the still-dominant transfer of technology model. We show how extensionists draw selectively on these diverse discourses to foster interaction with outsiders and clients, and bolster their livelihood strategies. We conclude that the conceptual framework suggested by the innovation systems (IS) approach is broadly appropriate for analyzing the Vietnamese case, but that the IS approach in the contemporary Vietnamese context requires adaptation for taking into account the blurred line between private and state sectors, and recognizing the hegemonic position of state-based networks. Improving extensionists’ ability to mediate between the conflicting principles of farmers’ self-organization and government control is identified as a key challenge for increasing innovative capacity in rural upland Vietnam.
Agriculture and Human Values, 2013, Vol 30, Issue 4, p. 555-568