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Challenges for rural areas

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key word: methodology and development, training
source: LEADER Magazine n°12
date of publication: 10/96

Partnership, participation and capacity building: rural development based on local bottom-up strategies

by Joseph Mannion (*)

(*)Joseph MannionThe success of the area-based and participatory approach of development, as proposed by LEADER, implies at the local level the creation of a real partnership, a large participation of citizens and people's capacity building. Some lessons can be drawn from the LEADER experience which provides several elements that are useful for the establishment of future local development programmes and initiatives.

Strategies for local development that have an area-based/spatial element and a "bottom-up" method of implementation are now perceived as essential in complementing and reinforcing the traditional range of macro-economic and structural development policies. According to the 1996 OECD report on "Ireland: Local Partnerships and Social Innovation" , "As well as improving the efficiency of public policy-making, area-based approaches also permit policies to be more socially inclusive and help ensure the social stability and cohesion without which economic growth and structural adjustment will be obstructed." (1)

Through its policies, programmes and initiatives, the European Commission has implemented with the different Member States measures of a regional and bottom-up dimension. That is particularly the case of the Community's LEADER Initiative which proposes an integrated development of rural society based on local participation. Given the territorial and multisectoral dimension of rural development, the LEADER groups are generally comprised of actors representing the public, private and voluntary sectors.

The purpose here is not to judge the appropriateness of particular institutional structures used to coordinate LEADER's implementation at the local level but rather to analyze the challenge of the bottom-up approach of development in the broader context of rural development policies.

The desired end result of the bottom-up approach is to ensure the sustainable development of rural areas with respect to population, economy and development structures. The success of the bottom-up approach and the LEADER Initiative depends on the existence at the local level of certain key elements:

  • a representative partnership and the largest participation of citizens possible;
  • the capability to assess the totality of the local area's resources, set priorities and implement and manage multisectoral programmes that generate added value locally.

At the core of the process is reinforcement of the capacity (knowledge, skills and attitude) of rural inhabitants to establish and sustain their area's development.

Capacity building: a key factor in local development

Subsidiary is a key principle which underlies the operation of Community Initiatives such as LEADER. Widespread participation of local citizens in a culture of real partnership with national, regional and local government agencies and services and the private sector is fundamental to this principle. Two factors are to be taken into account to ensure representative local participation and make operational the bottom-up approach to development:

  • the extent to which local people have the capacity and skills to contribute to the development of their own area;
  • the opportunities they are given to express it through meaningful involvement in the development process.

This is why building people's local development capacity is important. It can even be said that the degree of success of this capacity building will be decisive for the success of the bottom-up approach to development as a whole.

What is it?

Local development capacity building means strengthening the knowledge, skills and attitudes of people so that they can establish and sustain their area's development. People create and adapt local institutions. It is people who create and shape the policies and measures which support their area's development. Changing institutional structures or policy measures without equipping people to manage and implement them is inadequate. Similarly, equipping management and field personnel (e.g. project staff) in the absence of support structures and conditions is inadequate.

Who is it for?

Capacity building is necessary for all those involved in establishing and sustaining development in a rural area. It includes: the individuals and groups in the target area, and the key persons working within the institutional environment, be they front line service providers or managers and the decision-makers who support them (in the context of local action groups and other bodies responsible for implementing the LEADER programme, this is of particular importance). Also concerned are national, regional and local government agency representatives who have to see their role as 'partners' not 'power-brokers' at the partnership table. This implies new attitudes and a new type of capacity building. Their previous experience mainly relates to managing and implementing top-down and sectorally focused development initiatives. A considerable amount of re-learning is necessary if they are to successfully implement the bottom-up partnership approach.

Conventional capacity building has been mainly about skills training for project holders and the staff of development agencies. But the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to implement the bottom-up model of local development differ considerably from that of being in control of service delivery on a territorial basis..

Capacity building for the progressive sector is easy. Conventional methods of stimulating interest and response are sufficient. Capacity building for the less progressive and the 'rural disillusioned' (e.g. rural youth) requires a different response from local development support agencies. This is particularly the case in rural areas where the pre-existing level of local organisation is low. It also applies to economically marginalised rural areas where the residual population may be apathetic and defeatist in attitude.

Particular emphasis needs to be placed on developing the capacity of these people to realistically appraise how their area may be able to provide the quality of life to which they aspire and how they can be meaningfully involved in shaping its development. The educational and training institutions at all levels (primary, secondary, tertiary and adult) have a major responsibility in ensuring that rural people have the capacities and the skills necessary to contribute and be rewarded for the development of their own community.

Everyone's business

Providing the newly capacitated with opportunities to be involved in the area-based development process must be a priority for the partnership groups and companies. With the area-based partnership there is the danger of local development ending up in the hands of the few. A small group of able people who have the skills and experience to carry forward local development may continue to do so with little or no reference to the members of the community which they purport to represent. The challenge for LEADER groups and partnership companies is how to avoid institutionalising a system of 'devolved patronage'.

The other trap in which the advocates of the bottom-up approach sometimes fall is to seek 'instant success'. As a result a lot of emphasis is placed on the number of jobs and businesses created and other economic indicators. Consequently, more often than not only the most successful local actors benefit from financial support.

Like development as a whole, building people's local development capacity is a slow process. Elected officials, European, national, regional, local decision-makers, "development activists", etc. must be aware of this and support a long-term approach despite frequent pressure to show immediate and visible results but that are usually short-lived.

The lessons of LEADER

The bottom-up and partnership approach advocated by LEADER is a novel, if not bold, experiment in making EU and Member State rural development policy more sensitive to local conditions. Drawing on the experience of LEADER and other area-based/partnership models of local development, it is possible to identify the main issues and challenges related to realizing the full potential of the approach, within the larger rural development policy framework.

Potential of the area-based approach

The contribution of the bottom-up/partnership and area-based approach to the equitable development of rural areas of the EU is beyond question. The experience from LEADER I in Member States, other area-based partnerships and early results from LEADER II, indicate that the greater the depth of involvement, ownership and control by local communities the higher the level of innovativeness in the projects implemented to tackle the development problems of the area in question.

Representation and partnership

The local action groups approved in the framework of LEADER more often than not reflect the way in which the national, regional and local authorities in each of the Union's Member States view rural development. However, the outstanding feature of the LEADER groups which have been most innovative and successful in multisectoral area development is the extent to which they have succeeded in getting meaningful involvement of a range of representatives covering the main sectors of economic and social activity in the rural area. Broadly these include: the local community (political and community leaders); statutory/sectoral agencies; and the business sector.

The single greatest strength of the bottom-up approach is its potential to bring a new dynamism to local development. Where it has been successful, this has been achieved through harnessing community spirit, idealism and pragmatism towards what is necessary and possible to achieve locally, in partnership with national and local government agencies and the private/business sector.

Realising the potential

Some of the more critical challenges, which will ultimately determine whether or not the bottom-up/partnership model of local (rural) development will be sustainable within the wider framework of rural development policy, are the extent to which:

  • partnerships are perceived as having democratic legitimacy and accountability both by their local constituencies and by central authorities (EU, national, regional and local levels).
  • there is synergy and complementarity between area-based/partnership rural development policy measures and sectoral policies - getting the right balance;
  • there is recognition of the critical importance of capacity building (information, advice and training for multisectoral area-based development) and implementing specific measures to ensure that it occurs. Each of these challenges requires the specific attention of the LEADER groups.

Democratic legitimacy and accountability

The 1996 OECD Report on local partnerships in Ireland while recognising that the partnerships are 'extraordinarily innovative' concludes that they have been better at creating new actions than at building stable institutions. The particular problem hinges around the fragile democratic legitimacy of the area-based partnerships and their accountability to local constituencies and to central authorities.

At the heart of improving accountability is the matter of clarifying and coordinating what the connections should be between local partnerships, local and regional government and national agencies. How the coordination and connections can best be achieved will depend on the traditions and realities in relation to the administrative structures of national, regional and local government in Member States. However, two issues need attention in relation to the bottom-up/partnership approach. There must be a coordinating agency/mechanism in order to prevent duplication of activities and to improve legitimacy and accountability. Incremental reform in government agencies and their functions may be necessary to improve the level of responsiveness to bottom-up initiatives.

Linkages and inter-relationships

The predominant flow of public funds (EU and national) potentially available for rural areas follows a sectoral rather than an area-based route. This highlights the importance of linkages, inter-relationships and getting the balance right.

Recognising the significance of sectoral funding in the context of its potential support for enterprise and employment in rural areas and the comparative limited role that area-based approaches, such as LEADER, can play in directly doing likewise is critical. Area-based partnerships have the potential to be the 'central cog' that links/connects local needs and priorities with the sectoral cogs (sectoral programmes, funding and related agencies) which can supply the energy necessary for balanced and sustainable rural development.

Without this linkage LEADER groups and partnership companies can only make a limited contribution to achieving the goal of multi-sectoral development and a stable rural population. If LEADER groups overemphasise the goal of trying to carve a niche for themselves in the project/enterprise funding stakes and neglect their central roles in creating the capacity for enterprise, employment and development and linking this capacity to the sectoral supports which are now available, they will have failed in their primary mission.

Among the factors that have been shown to influence the success of an area-based partnership are:

  • the effectiveness of partnership structures in representing and bringing together all relevant groups and sectors in their catchment areas and enabling them to identify and bring forward development possibilities;
  • the ability of area-based partnerships to link individual and community development proposals with sources of support and funding;
  • the willingness of the agency partners and private sector representatives to share power, experience and responsibility as equals with community representatives;
  • the extent to which the programmes and the agencies and officials who implement them have the flexibility to take into account regional or local requirements and initiatives. One way of encouraging this attitude is to earmark a percentage of the funding allocated to sectoral agencies specifically for local development.

By taking into account these various lessons, the bottom-up approach as implemented in the LEADER Community Initiative deserves being strengthened and should become one of the mainsprings of European rural policy, because development strategies based on this approach help ensure cohesion and coherence between rural development policies. There are obvious risks attached to empowering local communities, particularly for those who have to share power, but this may well be the price that has to be paid to have a more socially inclusive Europe, to benefit from more balanced economic growth and to enable rural communities to make their's "a better place in which to live".

(*) Joseph Mannion is Professor of Rural Development and the current Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at University College Dublin (UCD). He was responsible for introducing a Master's degree programme in Rural Development at UCD. Having extensive experience in local and rural development in Ireland, Joseph Mannion provides training and consultancy services for local development groups and LEADER companies in the Republic of Ireland. He is also a member of the "Rural Development Policy Advisory Group" established by the Irish State Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

(1) "Ireland: Local Partnerships and Social Innovation". 1996. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2 rue André-Pascal, F-75775 Paris. Available in English and French.

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