Rural development policy from an EU perspective

7. Future issues for rural development

In the long-term, rural development in its broad concept will continue to gain in influence for policy implementation. The mid-term review cautiously addresses this need and also points to the Second Report on Economic and Social Cohesion (EC 2001a) to respect issues of territorial cohesion increasingly and analyse the spatial impacts of rural development in more depth. Some core issues relating to rural development are discussed in the following.

Rural development starts from the perception to increase awareness of rural problems, develop region specific strategies and enhance local participation. Many observers, like Lowe et al. (1999) see a wide scope for effective local participation in the economic development and planning of rural areas and regions. This focus on the local population stems from the bottom-up approaches developed since the 1980s. The new paradigm did not any more see rural (and peripheral) areas as just externally-driven locations but paid increased attention to the potential of local actors for endogenous development. The development of rural pilot schemes in Austria, France and Spain at the start of the 1980s particularly centred on accentuating the internal forces of those areas. The development of EU rural policy, and in particular the LEADER initiative, took the same approach and thus has seen participation as central element to the rural development process. However, later on in the 1990s with increasing experience of different regional cases the assessment made of these programmes underlined the need for widening the group of actors. The domination of traditional institutional structures had the effect that processes of participation did evolve slower than anticipated and action remained limited to core representatives of local (rural) society (e.g. Dax and Hebertshuber 2000). Only since short time researchers and practitioners entered into the discussion of how to achieve inclusion of larger parts of population. Recent EU guidelines give scope to not just allow for such considerations but even require them as an integral part of programme formulation and evaluation (e.g. inclusion of young people, women etc. as relevant groups for programme formulation and evaluation in LEADER+).

The shift in discussion can also be seen in contents, as the focus is not any more on the straight forward realisation of programmes and initiatives but increasingly on addressing conflicting positions of different stakeholders, the influence of local and non-local actors, and the appropriate provisions to further strategic decisions and develop institutional changes. This institutional framework is seen as a systems network and the social capital is becoming ever more important for effective rural policies. The rising complexity for the regional work is addressed in many recent practical and theoretical studies (e.g. in the Austrian context, Bratl 1996, Scheer 1998).

Lessons which could be drawn from this approach address the different benefits that different people will gain from participation according to their starting point. It is suggested that for instance “for young people, taking part in sports, arts, social clubs or issue groups can be a way of developing a sense of responsibility and gaining recognition of talent” (Chanan 1999, p. 37). The integration of diverse groups in this process is a long-term objective and a multi-level strategy is needed which would allow for increasingly widening involvement. Participation could therefore be conceived as a pyramid in which all residents of the area have at least one potential entry-point. From “lower” to “higher” levels one could see the following 5 steps (Chanan 1999, p. 38):

  • Being a member or user of a community group or voluntary organisation
  • Taking a developmental role in a group or organisation
  • Helping a group/organisation to cooperate with others
  • Helping groups and organisation form a network
  • Representing a network or forum in an official scheme

It appears important to emphasis that those forms of participation which reflect objectives of excluded people are particularly difficult to achieve but increasingly important for the social and regional cohesion. When addressing the issue of limited options, experienced by many people in rural areas, one sees clearly that agriculture and related measures are just one economic activity available in rural areas. There is urgent need to enhance integrated strategies which take account of the problem pattern and which make also use of the variety of strengths of rural areas.

With the tendency towards global standardisation of cultural paradigms the specificity of regional features does not lose its attractiveness. On the contrary, amenities characterised by scarcity and uniqueness gain increased interest. Rural amenity is highly appreciated by people living outside rural areas, and whatever gains in importance for its provision involves local people as well.

Rural development will have to build on the integration of different sectoral policies and, in particular, on the integration of the local population in the development process. The driving forces underlying the differentiation of rural spaces are far from being harmonious and it seems doubtful whether the repeatedly evoked aim of integration can easily be achieved. Differences in spatial development are strongly influenced by contesting regulatory systems in the regions but also increasingly by powers and authorities from outside. The debate on social exclusion extends to the rural scene and addresses the sifgnificance and distinctiveness of rural problems (Shucksmith 2000). If development processes are to lead to empowerment and inclusion, a more imaginative regional development strategy and use of rural resources is required.

By initiating such activities we have “to give more attention to the combination of local and non-local processes which impact together upon rural areas” (Marsden 1998, p.109), and to assess the emergence of new uses in rural space. The shift from a locally restricted economic base, mostly associated with agriculture, tourism, and the local use of resources, to a much wider activity pattern, in particular addressing the specificity and strengths of the rural regions, has some potential and offers challenges to rural and urban society( Dax 1999b).

Regional identification of rural amenities and an imaginative handling of their supply will be required to increase the positive examples of dynamic rural areas. As many regions have suffered so long from deprivation of their own autonomous capacities for action it is not sufficient to transfer regional development concepts from one region to another. Viable rural initiatives would have to explore new pathways for regions which aim at building capacities for action. This complex task cannot simply be achieved by reiterating the magic formula of ‘integrated development’ but by starting to address the whole scale of interrelations and capturing the dynamics of this process.


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