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Fighting social exclusion in rural areas

[ Summary ]


Chapter 1:
Social exclusion, a multidimensional phenomenon


1.5 Social exclusion in rural areas:
a challenge for sustainable development


What forms do poverty and social exclusion take in the countryside? How are they different from the forms that are seen in the city?

a) An old phenomenon with new contours

First of all it is worth recalling that social exclusion in rural areas is not something new. The changes that have marked the rural world for more than a century (rural exodus, mechanisation then industrialisation of agriculture) have in fact caused radical social transformations, forcing four farmers out of five, and often more, to leave the land, in sometimes dramatic conditions.

Often when they lost their work, farming families, in addition to having to cope with a whole series of debts, also lost their identity and their social links, not to mention an ancestral family estate. However, in the post World War II boom period in the industrialised countries, this process of exclusion took on less tragic forms than the situation created in urban areas by large- scale redundancies. In this respect, the rural exodus acted as an outlet for destitute farmers who had no problem finding unskilled work, particularly in the then fast expanding secondary sector.

But farmers are still having to leave their land today in much tougher conditions. Unskilled people are feeling the full brunt of unemployment, and the industrial labour pools set up in rural areas are being affected by corporate restructuring and relocation. Also, the possibilities farmers in difficulty had in the past of supplementing their farm income by working other stable or seasonal jobs (pluriactivity) are dwindling. What is more, the problem of overproduction that the agricultural sector has encountered in crisis proportions, a sector that has considerably downsized its workforce, has increased and accelerated the impoverishment of farmers.

In addition, young people who left the country to find work in the city are returning after being made redundant or after a prolonged period of unemployment in the hope of finding security and more humane living conditions. “Economic refugees” are also flowing out of cities and looking to the country for a place to live or survive that rural areas are not always capable of providing. This results in rural unemployment affecting all the segments of the population.

b) The specifically rural factors of social exclusion

A characteristic of these major trends is the fact that in addition to the factors of exclusion common to urban and rural areas are factors specific to the countryside, such as the weight of tradition and the scattering of communities and activities.

The weight of tradition

The persistence of traditions inherited from ancestral rural societies and the cultural gap with forms of integration in modern society are factors of exclusion in rural areas. For example, the fact that employment was traditionally supplied in the framework of protected family environments has meant that rural people are often ill prepared to enter anonymous labour markets. More generally speaking, rural youth whose “traditional/rural” identity is permanently confronted with the “modern/urban” identity feel out of place. Because the rural context often does not facilitate risk- taking and innovation, young people interested in launching new economic initiatives have difficulty finding support.

This gap between tradition and modernity particularly affects women. In the past, their integration in the rural world almost always depended on activities that were complementary to the farm. The know-how they had to have for this is today in little demand, particularly in certain non-industrial production sectors. Today women are having difficulty finding work, especially in areas where agri-tourism or other new business activities run by women have not yet emerged to take up the slack.

The scattering of communities and activities

The low population density that is characteristic of many rural areas and that the rural exodus has done nothing but amplify poses all kinds of problems, starting with difficult access to basic services. Providing children with a primary education, for example, is becoming more difficult with the closure of village schools, especially when the families have to ensure the transport. And when a series of other services disappear (shops, childcare, post office, petrol station, train station, etc.), the sense of isolation is greater and the threat of social exclusion increases.

For people already suffering from specific difficulties, this problem is that much more acute. The lack of mass transport, for example, is even harder to cope with in the case of disabled or elderly people. There are fewer social services for the disabled, for the integration of minorities, or for the homeless, women or abused children. And job placement agencies capable of organising training based on job descriptions are increasingly rare.

More generally, the scattering of communities combined with the gradual disappearance of places of social interaction (pubs and other places where people can meet) lead to isolation.

Often even building family ties becomes difficult. Thus, because of the demographic imbalance between the sexes and women’s disinterest in agriculture, many farmers are finding it difficult to find a wife. A lot of heirless farmers or small business owners also suffer from isolation and a lack of prospects.

The low population density also has consequences in terms of political choices. Because rural areas do not carry much electoral weight, macro-economic and macro-political decisions are increasing the trend towards concentration, be that for community services or occupational training. The current job training and hiring policies, for example, aim to encourage specialisation. However, this is not very compatible with the fact that people have to hold various jobs (pluriactivity) in rural areas to cope with unsteady employment (very seasonal work in agriculture, tourism or other sectors).

Other specific factors

In rural areas, social exclusion also stems from problems of a legislative, cultural, or political nature. In the case of housing, for example, laws and regulations encouraging the use of land for farming often forbid the building of homes. For new families or people moving from the city this is a handicap.

c) From social exclusion to territorial exclusion

In rural areas, the notion of exclusion can apply not only to individuals and families but also sometimes to whole areas or certain “pockets” or certain villages within a given area. These places have problems gaining access to economic, cultural or other opportunities.

Thus, some areas are considered “naturally” isolated in the best of cases, and politicians see them as environments to be protected. However, any area can support social activities, provided that local development is the road chosen. This implies the adoption of measures to keep areas alive, with appropriate policies to provide services, organise cultural activities and offer training that keeps pace with the evolving job scene.

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