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Special LEADER Symposium

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

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800 LEADERs give their views

by Heino Von Meyer

After summing up the six workshops of the symposium
at the final plenary session on 11 November 1997,
Heino von Meyer ended his presentation with a text
which was equivalent to a declaration.

 

Given the diversity of rural Europe, it is impossible to sum up and capture all the richness of the debates that took place during this symposium whose subtitle was "800 leaders give their views". I believe that it is possible, however, to list six essential elements that should be taken into account in the new rural development Initiative. The LEADER programme must:

  • be continued and strengthened,

  • cover all of rural Europe,

  • focus on quality,

  • favour the multisectoral approach,

  • benefit from simple and flexible procedures,

  • concentrate in particular on networking and capacity building.

These elements, which over the years have given the LEADER approach its added value, should also be incorporated in the mainstream of European rural policy. This seems particularly important at a time when the Union is preparing for its enlargement. Taking the LEADER approach as example, rural development and cohesion policies in general should be seen as ways to strengthen local democracy and European integration.

 

1 - The LEADER Initiative must be continued and strengthened

Coming from the participants in this symposium, this is hardly a surprise! On a more serious level, it is not a question of continuing LEADER because that suits the LEADER groups but of continuing this Initiative quite simply because it is a success.

Why should a European programme that benefits from a very positive image be ended when other European measures, the Common Agricultural Policy or certain interventions of the Structural Funds for example, are often rightly or wrongly criticised or even unpopular? Why should a European programme that has implanted the European idea at the local level, made people feel more and more European be ended? Let us not forget that LEADER I concerned 11 million rural people and that today LEADER II concerns 40 million.

Continuity is a crucial factor. Without it, Europe would lose its credibility and the confidence of its citizens. There would be widespread discouragement of local actors, many having just embarked on European procedures. LEADER aims to bring about a change in mentalities. That takes time, not only five or six years.

With LEADER, the European Union has set into motion a long-term process, and if it were ended, the consequences would be disastrous.

A lot of national programmes and European networks would not recover from this. Stopping the LEADER Initiative would in a way amount to destroying a newly built infrastructure, a new motorway or a new bridge built with the contribution of the Structural Funds.

Ensuring a smooth transition between LEADER II and the new Community Initiative for the period 2000-2006 is also crucial. This new Initiative must be designed according to the fundamental principles of LEADER, that is to say a local, bottom-up approach that is integrated, multisectoral, area-based, participatory, involving partnership and geared towards innovation.

However, it is not enough to simply continue LEADER. LEADER is a success that must be strengthened. LEADER must work better. More financing must be allocated to local rural development projects, new fields of intervention must be opened. Why should a Community Initiative for rural development only receive one third of the 5% of the budget of the Structural Funds currently envisaged for the three new Initiatives?

 

2 - The LEADER Initiative must cover all of rural Europe

The new rural development policy will cover the entire Union. And LEADER will have to follow this direction. This point, which was the focus of the symposium, was debated at length in the workshops. I do not think I am wrong in saying that the participants at the symposium approve the approach advocated by the Cork Conference in November 1996 and which is not in contradiction with the essential need of strengthening cohesion between the regions of Europe. The Cork declaration clearly stated that rural development policy "must apply to all rural areas in the Union, respecting the concentration principle through the differentiation of co-financing for those areas which are more in need." LEADER, with its modest financial resources, is unable to balance regional differences through the redistribution of funds. LEADER is not a compensation programme but aims to stimulate the efficient, innovative use of rural potential. If rural development initiatives from the areas covered by the current Objective 5b programmes are no longer able to participate in LEADER, the European Network for Rural Development risks collapsing. Exchange of information and experience, the transfer of knowledge and capacity building would be hampered, not facilitated.

Let us be very clear: extending LEADER to all the Union's rural areas does not mean "sprinkling" money over the entire rural territory of the Union. We are not against a concentration of funds. Like in the past, co-financing rates should continue to be modulated as a function of need, keeping in mind that there are still many other ways to achieve concentration where desired.

 

3 - The LEADER Initiative must focus on quality

The new Community Initiative for rural development should more than ever before focus on incorporating the highest quality standards: quality of the business plan (e.g. in terms of integration and innovation), quality of the partnership, etc.

Quality must also be ensured with regard to the environment. Priority could, for example, be given to groups or projects in areas of high nature value, such as those designated for the Natura 2000 network under the EU Habitat Directive.

Obviously, standards cannot always be EU-wide quality standards: the local context, the starting conditions of the different groups must be taken into account. We have to keep the door open for newcomers. We should avoid creating a "LEADER oligarchy". I personally would propose that a European award be created for "The LEADER of the Year". The jury for such a competition should be composed mainly of representatives of the LAGs themselves. Such a process would launch a debate about what defines the excellence of LEADER groups and activities, a first step towards a self-evaluation of the LEADER network.

 

4 - The LEADER Initiative must promote the multi-sectoral approach

The multi-sectoral approach is fundamental to the LEADER Initiative. Integration across sectors is indispensable for rural development to become truly sustainable. It goes without saying that the new Community Initiative should concern and reconcile the economic, social and environmental dimensions of all rural activities. This is absolutely essential, but I am afraid that the new rural policy - in particular outside Objective 1 areas - might be governed by budget rules that hamper integration, rather than by rural development considerations. It is budgets that should follow policy priorities, not the other way around.

 

5 - The LEADER Initiative must have simple and flexible procedures

Simplification and greater flexibility are key concerns for most local action groups today. Improvements are required even now under LEADER II. The lessons learned from LEADER I and II need to feed into LEADER III. The global allowance mechanism was initially introduced as a means to allow for greater flexibility. This has not always been the case. The global allowances for local groups must be made operational, and multi-annual budgeting should be facilitated. We need to establish "one-stop shops", so that the support of local groups flows from a single source. Similarly, there should be one administrative counterpart for the groups, one set of rules and procedures for LAGs.

 

6 - The LEADER Initiative must put emphasis on networking and capacity building

It is the network that makes the LEADER programme truly European. It is central to creating an identity of Rural Europe in its diversity. Networks help overcome localism, they ensure and strengthen openness and solidarity. The LEADER Network - not only the virtual web-site on the Internet - gives rural Europe global visibility. It has a "snowball" effect by creating links that can become the bases for a constantly improved exchange of information.

Under a new Community Initiative, the possibilities for the transfer of knowledge and experience, for support in capacity building to actors and administrations should be improved. More attention should be devoted to establishing and accompanying cooperation actions between LAGs. This requires also that the necessary funds be allocated at the European level.

The creation of a pool of expertise and a task force for technical and organisational assistance appear to be of great importance, especially if we are to take into account the need of the countries concerned by the enlargement of the European Union. Evaluation and monitoring are also of crucial importance for the new Initiative: traditional methods of external evaluation from the top are not necessarily the most suitable for the LEADER approach. Through the network, mechanisms of self-evaluation could be established. The network of LEADER groups should have a strong self-interest to guarantee the quality. Thought should even be given to the possibility of more active involvement by the existing groups in the screening and selection process for new groups.

Opening the laboratory

Commissioner Fischler rightly considers LEADER to be a laboratory for rural development innovations. The future Community Initiative will have to continue exploring new ways and encourage innovations. But I think that it is also time to leave the laboratory. Success elements of the LEADER experience should become integral parts of the mainstream of rural and Structural Funds policy. LEADER should help us to become more courageous in promoting rural development in Europe. Also in the mainstream we need more local animation and participation, local analysis and modern planning, an integrated and multi-sectoral approach, global allowances to groups, emphasis on soft infrastructures, more networking of experiences. In short, we have to advance from the laboratory to the supermarket, or would it not be more appropriate for LEADER: from the laboratory to the delicatessen shop! I hope I marked the right milestones for our next steps towards an enlarged, prospering Rural Europe.


        Director of Pro Rural Europe, an agency specialised in development and the rural environment, Heino von Meyer is expert at the LEADER European Observatory

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


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