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Special LEADER Symposium

Towards a new Initiative for rural development:
800 leaders give their views

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272 contributions:
a strong statement for the future of
rural development in Europe

The European synthesis of the 272
contributions received before the
symposium by the LEADER European
Observatory transmit a clear message
to the Commission and to the European
Union in general.


In the course of preparation for the Symposium, Commissioner Fischler invited LEADER beneficiaries (local action groups and other collective bodies) together with the regional and national administrations responsible for implementation of the LEADER programme to contribute to the deliberations on a future Community Initiative for rural development by responding to these three questions:

  • based on your actual experience, what are the most significant benefits of LEADER both in terms of your particular area of intervention and in terms of the policies supporting rural development?

  • what were the principal difficulties encountered both in implementation at local level and with institutional and administrative aspects of the programme?

  • what lessons have you drawn from the experience and what are your proposals for the future?

By the end of October 1997, the LEADER European Observatory had received 272 responses, representing 244 local action groups (LAGs) or other collective bodies - approximately 30% of the beneficiaries under LEADER II. Twenty four contributions from public administrations directly involved in the Initiative and from national or regional associations of LEADER groups were also included.

The LEADER European Observatory made a European synthesis of these contributions, which was presented and distributed at the symposium (avaiable in English and in French).

In general, although the responses varied slightly from country to country according to the context and the nature of the problems encountered, there were no significant contradictions between the countries or between the responses. The overall consonance was surprising and allowed the compilation, from the responses of 15 different Member States, of a comprehensive synthesis reflecting the richness of ideas and making a strong statement about the future of rural development in Europe.


LEADER, a pioneering, decentralised programme for rural development

Virtually unanimous agreement was found both among the contributions and among the Member States in judging the essential attributes of LEADER to include:

  • the decentralised, integrated, "bottom-up" approach;

  • mobilisation of local populations;

  • networking of local actors at a territorial level;

  • the opportunity to realise latent ideas, an opportunity which had not been available prior to LEADER ("LEADER has achieved what many local actors wished for but did not have the means to achieve - tackling problems by using an integrated approach, bringing together various types of actors, problems, needs, resources and expectations", says the Italian LAG Maiella Verde).

It is nevertheless possible to detect clear country-specific characteristics:

  • throughout Spain there is emphasis on the change in mentality which LEADER brought about;

  • in France most contributions made reference to the fact that LEADER facilitated the bringing together of local actors from a given territory. ("By sharing their experiences, their methodologies and their field of activity, participants see their differences in non-competitive terms and discover complementarities," considers the French LAG Espace CŽvennes);

  • in Sweden the interaction with other rural territories, the transfer of experiences, and to a lesser extent, the new forms of democracy which local partnerships cultivated, were cited by the majority of groups ("LEADER is an exercise in co-operation, in partnership and in democracy. However, democracy is not guaranteed unless it is energetically supported and put into practice daily," insists the Swedish LAG Stad och Land Hand i Hand).

The 272 contributions confirm that through the integrated, "bottom-up" approach which it introduced, LEADER has not only proved to be an effective means of ensuring the social and economic revitalisation of rural areas but it has also offered solutions to some of the fundamental problems which beset the entire European construct.

The LEADER method permits:

  • the creation of links, increased citizen participation and the fostering of participatory democracy through the establishment of local action groups;

  • the achievement of a balance between autonomy of action and the unavoidable management constraints without allowing the latter to stifle local initiatives;

  • the adaptation of the functions of the various tiers (local, regional, national and European);

  • the marrying of diversity (of culture, of activities, etc.) with solidarity (common outlook, vibrant networks for the exchange of experiences);

  • the overturning of traditional methods of development, by demonstrating among other innovations, the vital role of intangible investment;

  • a long-term approach to tackling unemployment through the adoption of a territorial approach and the emphasis on partnerships.



Through the radical changes it has brought about in the relationship between the public and private sectors and between the local level and higher levels, LEADER finds itself operating in an institutional, administrative, financial and legislative context which is ill-prepared for such an approach. At local level there are difficulties associated with the characteristics of rural areas (the intractable mentality and insufficient readiness among development actors, the sometimes negative role of local institutions, the lack of resources among beneficiaries, many structural deficiencies - low population density, absence of young people, lack of basic structures).

Some difficulties were associated with the characteristics of the LEADER Programme itself: insufficient resources, lack of technical expertise within LAGs, difficulties with the legal jurisdiction of LAGs, difficulties in understanding the concept of innovation. Some were associated with the institutional positioning of the LEADER Programme: problems of co-ordination with other "competing" programmes; in several countries, problems in integrating the intangible interventions managed by LAGs and the tangible interventions managed by local or regional institutions, lack of confidence between actors.

If the LEADER approach has succeeded in winning over the many institutional partners and has been duplicated in other development policies and programmes, it has also been exposed, in certain countries, to skepticism and has encountered institutional difficulties and inflexible administrators who have diminished its impact.

The contributions identify difficulties due to the contradiction between the decentralised and multisectoral approach introduced by LEADER and the pre-existing approaches, most of them "top-down" and sectoral:"It requires great patience and diplomacy to incorporate administrations which are structured along sectoral lines into integrated, multisectoral projects", says the LAG Vogelsberg (Germany).

A gap can be seen between the way in which the national and/or regional authorities operate and the local dynamic, a gap sometimes widened by the administrative division of territories which does not correspond to the limits of the LEADER areas. Several noted the discrepancy between national and European legislation and procedures.

Bureaucracy has been the main difficulty of LEADER II. People in all countries deplore the rigid hierarchy of authority, too much complexity (attributed at European level to the coexistence of the three Structural Funds), a lack of flexibility and clarity.

Often, government agencies have difficulty accepting the LEADER approach. There are great differences in interpretation of the rules and methods between the regions because the intermediate officials are poorly informed of the procedures.

In the case of financial rules, the beneficiaries regretted the lack of advances, criteria for the eligibility of expenditure that are too restrictive, difficulties in having voluntary work recognised as matching funds.

All these difficulties have resulted in a considerable amount of delay and a loss of efficiency in the implementation of the Initiative. Many of the coordinators believe that they spend too much time managing administrative procedures and relations with the higher levels to the detriment of work on the ground.


Generalising, simplifying, deepening

Most of the proposals reiterated the principles of LEADER (bottom-up approach, creation of local partnerships, global grant managed locally, integrated development, intangible investment, transfer of experience) and urged the extension of these principles to other levels. Cohesion and complementarity between the proposals were observed and this ensures that the synthesis of proposals forwarded to European level will elucidate the hopes and expectations regarding a future Community Initiative for rural development.

For all contributions it is essential that the LEADER approach be affirmed, ratified and refined.

  • Affirmation: most contributions asserted that LEADER must continue, whether in the form of a LEADER III or an Initiative adopting a similar integrated "bottom-up" approach. There was a broad consensus in support of principles such as local partnership, autonomy of LAGs and the global financing of a territorial action plan. "If the programme ends in 1999, a well launched dynamic will be ended and the local populations will feel betrayed," insists the LAG OulujŠrvi (Finland).

  • Ratification: in order to bear abundant fruit the "bottom-up" approach must be also be adopted by higher levels of authority. Some of the contributions from regional administrations suggest that the current Objective 1, 5b and 6 areas and the future Objective 2 areas constitute a local development axis which will adopt the spirit and approach of LEADER in order to assure real coherence and complementarity between LEADER and the other programmes.

A significant number of the contributions sought to:

  • minimise the number of intermediate tiers particularly in the sphere of management. With this in mind many LEADER groups would like to see a reinforcement of the role of the European Commission;

  • review the procedures on the basis of three key principles - simplification, flexibility and transparency ("Participation of intermediary organisations in the management phase must be reduced as much as possible, but the negotiation and evaluation phases of the programme must result in a firm commitment to co-financing by the national administration," suggests the Association of Spanish LEADER Groups);

  • redefine some European legal principles which conflict with the needs of integrated rural development, especially in Objective 1 regions;

  • strengthen the role of the Commission in the implementation of the Initiative.

Refinement: drawing on the lessons from LEADER I and LEADER II many improvements were suggested:

  • to revise the schedule so as to allow more time for preparation of programmes;

  • to avoid a time-lag between LEADER II and the new Initiative;

  • to extend the duration of the programme;

  • to differentiate the resource allocation according to the level of advancement of the areas and to allow the areas selected to implement model programmes which are adequately funded;

  • to reinforce the role of intangible investment, by providing more and better training both for local actors and those charged with supervision of local development activities by fostering co-operation between the territories and the development networks. "LEADER has a greater role to play by directly influencing the future strategies. It is both a facilitator and a stimulator," says the LAG Antur Teifi (Wales, United Kingdom).

source: LEADER Magazine nr.16 - Winter, 1997/98

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