The limited effectiveness and fiscal unsustainability of professional-led public sector extension systems in developing countries have aroused considerable interest in Farmer-led Extension (FLE) approaches in the recent decades. A key challenge facing these initiatives is a lack of sustainability of the farmer groups developed through project or programme assistance. This not only makes FLE initiatives costly, but also creates dependency among farmers. Despite this, the knowledge of what can make externally-initiated FLE groups sustainable is scant and largely anecdotal. In this paper we provide an empirically-drawn and theoretically-informed framework to fill this knowledge gap. The framework is based on a comparative case study of six non-sustained and four sustained FLE groups initiated through an innovative extension reform project in Bangladesh and a comparison of the results with the theories of collective action. We have identified four sets of inter-related factors called ‘capitals’ affecting group sustainability: ‘financial capital’ accumulated through group-based microcredit activities, an effective governance mechanism called ‘institutional capital’ devised by the members themselves, good quality group leaders and facilitators called ‘human capital’, and past relations of exchange, reciprocity, trust and respect called ‘social capital’ among members and between members and professional facilitators. While microcredit can benefit sustainability, it suits women rather than men farmers. Good quality leaders and facilitators are not only technically competent, but also fair, innovative, tenacious, self-sacrificing, trustworthy, honest, and sincere. All forms of social capital are not useful for group sustainability and social capital can make a positive impact only when the other types of capital—human and institutional—are present within a group. To improve group sustainability, FLE programmes should take a holistic approach and address the four kinds of capitals proposed in this paper. Key strategies may include: combining extension (information or advisory functions) with economic activities but avoiding a one-size-fits-all solution, recruiting group leaders and facilitators by going beyond technical considerations (e.g. taking into account the personality traits identified in this study), adopting a bottom-up approach in devising group rules and regulations, and taking into account both the positive and negative aspects of social capital. The originality of our research lies in the explanatory framework that we provide in this paper. Our study also contributes to the intellectual debates on social capital by exhibiting the dual roles that social capital plays and its complex interrelationships with other forms of capital.
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