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Fighting social exclusion in rural areas

[ Summary ]


Chapter 2:
Diagnosis and strategies to fight
social exclusion in rural areas


2.1 Analysing the needs: diagnosing
social exclusion in a rural area


In rural areas, social exclusion often assumes much more complex forms than might first be expected. The few clearly identified social groups (the unemployed, disabled, elderly and isolated, nomads, etc.) and the problems (of access to employment, education, services, etc.) that usually come to mind are in fact just the tip of the iceberg. A closer look will probably reveal that other unexpected social categories are affected and that the invisible aspects of exclusion often play a much more decisive role than the visible aspects.

In order to identify and thoroughly understand all the aspects of social exclusion in a given rural area, an in-depth analysis is necessary. The reason is that the immediately visible part of exclusion or the part for which information is available can only serve as a starting point. Therefore, it is important to proceed step by step, beginning with the most simple element and moving on to the more complex. More quantitative, standardised information first has to be analysed before turning to more qualitative, hard- to-standardise and therefore less accessible information.

This procedure can be divided into five steps:

  • initial identification of the individuals or social groups concerned;
  • comparison of the information on the victims and on the areas of exclusion;
  • identification of the least visible aspects of exclusion;
  • analysis of the road that led to social exclusion;
  • examination of the context.

These steps are of course only an indication of how to proceed. For each case, this outline will have to be adapted, added to or revised depending on the context of the area. The procedure is also not linear, meaning it does not follow a straight line. Backtracking is necessary between the steps. That is why it is more appropriate to talk about five “entry points” rather than “steps” in the social exclusion analysis.


2.1.1 Initial identification of the individuals and social groups concerned

Which individuals or social groups in the area are actual or potential victims of social exclusion? The first social groups that come to mind are of course the “risk” groups, meaning groups with a “social handicap” that can lead to exclusion. Illiterate and unskilled people are more likely to be unemployed than other groups. People who are geographically isolated and without any means of transport have a greater chance of not having access to services. Business owners in remote areas may find it hard to obtain useful information about their potential customers. A systematic review of these persons will be a first step in unravelling the problem.

The sources of information that can be used to identify those people prone to social exclusion are many and complementary:

  • government agencies have various kinds of information about certain categories of the population (beneficiaries of income support, unemployed people, the disabled, etc.);

  • Some organisations or associations working with people in difficulty have databases and qualitative information based on their direct contact with the excluded and their work on the ground.

Databases exist in some areas or structures on elderly people with small farms or businesses but no heir (e.g. in France, the “RELANCE” association was created by the chambers of commerce and industry and the LEADER group of Espace Cévennes in Languedoc- Roussillon with the purpose of helping young people take over business activities in this part of the Massif Central and therefore become members of the working population).

The direct observation that goes with working in a local development network, for example, is another important source of information.


2.1.2 Comparing the information about the victims and the areas of exclusion

Identifying the social groups affected by social exclusion logically highlights the areas where the exclusion occurs. The most visible areas of exclusion are the job market, housing, education, means of production and credit. The absence of social or family links is another factor of exclusion, more difficult to perceive. Once these areas of exclusion have been catalogued, they can be compared with the groups that are victims of exclusion to obtain a double entry table.

However, because the reality is always more complex and the areas of exclusion more numerous than what a table can contain, it is useful to list a certain number of indicators in order to systematise the identification of situations of exclusion. These indicators can be listed under one of the following categories: actual or potential victims of social exclusion, areas of exclusion, or area where the excluded live.

The indicators can be used not only when identifying situations of exclusion but also when monitoring trends (improvement, worsening, status quo) over a period of one year or more.

At the national or regional level, indicators like these are often used to monitor trends or assess the impact of interventions. Good knowledge of the trends in an area can help to adjust the state intervention to the local situation and to tailor aid to each individual case. In addition to monitoring trends over time, the indicators can be used to make comparisons between areas or between labour pools in the same areas. This way, interventions can be adjusted and, for example, concentrated in certain “pockets” of exclusion, instead of indiscriminately covering a whole area.

The series of indicators proposed are only an indication of what is possible. Each area must be able to develop its own series according to the context. In an area where there is severe social polarisation, for example, the comparison between low income and middle income groups may be of little relevance when determining the gap between the wealthiest and poorest segments of the population. Comparisons of access are also sometimes necessary, especially in rural areas far from any cities.


Example of a comparison between victims and factors of exclusion

Social groups victims of exclusion
Factors of exclusion by sex/women by age
Young people
Elderly people
by qualification
Work with know-how that is not renewed by distance or isolation
elderly people, single-parent families by handicap physically disabled by economic discrimination economic refugees of cities by ethnic discrimination Nomads, victims of conflicts
Employment X X X
Access to basic services (health, transport)

Access to institutional support

Access to credit and mechanisms to support risk-taking X X X

Access to means of production

Access to adequate housing
Absence of mechanisms to take account of cultural differences (language, identity)

Social and family links

Access to training, information and retraining



Example of indicators of social exclusion [17]


    1. Difference between middle and low income
    2. Categories with few resources (less than 50% of the average income)
    3. Percentage of low income people (less than 40% of the median income)
    4. Recipients of income support or unemployment benefits (working population)
    5. Beneficiaries of long-term welfare support (all ages combined)
    6. Localisation (geographical spread) of low income people
    7. Localisation (geographical spread) of families with unemployed members


    8. Children living in homes affected by unemployment
    9. Children living in low-income homes (less than 50% of the median income)
    10. Children not integrated in the basic educational cycle
    11. Children definitively excluded from school

Young people

    12. Young unemployed people (16-24 years old)
    13. Recipients of income support or low-wage earners (16-24 years old)
    14. Young school drop-outs, without work and not in any training programme (16-18 years old)
    15. Young people not part of a youth organisation, a cultural centre, a sports club or a group activity (15-24 years old)
    16. Young people affected by drugs (15-24 years old)
    17. Young people without any minimum qualification (19 years old)
    18. Young people without access to financial aid or credit (18-24 years old)

Active adults

    19. Adults in search of salaried work
    20. Homes with adults unemployed for more than two years
    21. Low-paid wage earners (poorly paid manual labour)
    22. Workers without a steady job (self-employed, cyclical or intermittent work)
    23. Adults without access to training or retraining
    24. Single-parent families
    25. Overindebted adults

Elderly people

    26. Pensioners without other sources of income
    27. Elderly people living alone
    28. Percentage of basic products in expenditure
    29. Beneficiaries of assistance in the home (%)
    30. Persons without a vehicle, telephone or assistance


    31. Absence of community, cultural, sports activities.
    32. Polarisation of labour (percentage of families with at least one adult unemployed)
    33. High transport costs
    34. Absence of shops, bars or meeting places
    35. Lack of home, business, crop insurance
    36. Feeling of dissatisfaction with the area or village (%)
    37 Social intervention initiatives (public or private)
    38 Difficult access to housing

Source: ”The New Policy Institute”, Howarth Catherine et al., Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1999. The indicators more specifically related to rural areas were added by the LEADER European Observatory. They appear in italics in the table.


2.1.3 Identifying the least visible aspects of exclusion

Although essential for the identification of situations of exclusion, the series of indicators is not enough to paint the entire complex picture.

Thus, the exclusion indicators measure the negative consequences of the phenomenon but do not shed light on the skills, know-how and ideas of the people who are victims of exclusion. However, these indicators are essential levers when attempting to reverse the trend by triggering a process of active integration.

Furthermore, the indicators reveal the most objective aspects of exclusion and the easiest to identify. With tools like these, the more personal, more subjective dimensions of exclusion are impossible to grasp. And yet the profound essence of social exclusion has to do above all with relationships. By observing the reality of the social and identity links, it is possible to determine the degree of isolation and see how fragile the points of reference and feeling of belonging are. This is also a way of identifying the networks that can be called upon to find a solution.

Noticing that young unemployed people were not receiving individual help, the Stirling LEADER group (Scotland, United Kingdom) decided to put emphasis on reestablishing networks of relationships (family, school, friends, colleagues, church, clubs, etc.). The idea was to help the young unemployed find needed support from the people around them, especially when setting up a business and taking risks. Steps were also taken to make sure that this help continued at least during the initial start-up phase.

By focusing on the social dimension (the links between people), it is possible to detect situations of distress, be they due to long- term unemployment or loneliness (problems of single farmers, difficulties specific to single-parent families, isolation of elderly people living alone, etc.). Individual and social depreciation is a much more serious source of exclusion than not having access to certain services, because it undermines people’s human dignity, makes their life less meaningful and diminishes their ability to react.

In the case of ethnic minorities or nomad groups (eg. “travellers” in the Irish countryside), it is particularly important to take into account the social and identity links. Indeed very often it is the prejudices of their community with its traditional habits that paralyse the young people and prevent them from building a different future.

The Irish LEADER groups which work with travellers are confronted with such problems as teenage marriages, alcoholism among young people and unfinished studies. The South Mayo group chose to work on the artistic capacities of the young nomad women. The works of art that the LAG encouraged them to make enabled these women to regain self-esteem and to establish contact with other social groups at exhibitions and workshop visits.

This in-depth knowledge of the situations of social exclusion can be put to use to detect the least visible aspects. It is much more important than what can be learned from the gathering of existing information or from the use of formalised indicators. But it implies direct contact with the persons concerned and is difficult to obtain without working with them on a daily basis. Two essential conclusions can de drawn from this for the fight against exclusion:

  • The job of identifying situations of exclusion and then analysing them is difficult to separate from the action, for it is during this action to fight exclusion that a real picture of the situation emerges, whereupon the objectives and methods of the action can be more clearly defined. In other words, the fight against social exclusion is not compatible with a pre-established procedure where different people and institutions have different responsibilities and elaborate the action plan at different points in time.

  • An in-depth knowledge of the situations of social exclusion is only possible at the local level, because it is only here that the situations can be analysed in an objective manner and at the same time understood in a more subjective way. By working on these two aspects in parallel, it will be possible to grasp the essence of the problem and to mobilise the capacities and expressions of solidarity needed to reverse the trend.


2.1.4 Analysing the roads leading to exclusion

Social exclusion is not a static phenomenon. Periods of work can be followed by periods of hardship and vice versa. Therefore inclusion becomes sporadic, especially if the individual or family income depends on cyclical or temporary jobs.

The “WISE Group” [18] for the return to work of the long-term unemployed in the United Kingdom considers long-term inclusion to be the most difficult to achieve in the fight against social exclusion. Finding work is not enough. This accomplishment has to be consolidated by training, social links and forms of communication. The group also believes it essential that the support structures identify the growth markets and adapt training programmes to the new needs of the markets.

A diagnosis of social exclusion covering a very limited period of time can therefore be misleading. The diagnosis may focus on the case of one family or individual whose situation is catastrophic but whose channels of information and links of solidarity or whose resilience are such that the family or individual has less difficulty dealing with the problem than others whose situation appears less dramatic.

That is why the real indicators of social exclusion are the roads leading to exclusion rather than the actual situations of exclusion. In other words, social exclusion is more a process than a de facto state. Therefore a mere picture of the situation at a given time is not enough to diagnose the social exclusion. This diagnosis also implies going back over the road leading to exclusion and highlighting the triggering factors. Repeated complications and “vicious circles” in particular are at the heart of the problems of social exclusion.

The United Kingdom has seen the proportion of homes where all the adults are unemployed increase from 6% in 1975 to 18% in 1999. In the meantime, the proportion of homes where all the adults work has risen from 56% to 63%. Therefore, we are witnessing a situation of polarisation where exclusion spawns exclusion, marginalising entire families.

It is also important to take into account and assess the risk factors, because they can play a determining role and contradict appearances.

The “economic refugees” who have sought to escape their situation of exclusion in the city by moving to the country can look like they have regained a certain balance. However, the possibility of exclusion remains, for there are still risk factors like isolation, absence of local support, or a lack of preparation for life in the country. That is why they are extremely vulnerable and why the slightest unfavourable event such as loss of income, loss of capital, or illness can at any time upset the process of integration.

More than the descriptive analysis of the roads leading to exclusion which highlights the major trends, it is the search for risk factors that provides the best picture of real and potential situations of exclusion.


2.1.5 Taking account of the context

The triggering of exclusion and the vicious circles that are created do not occur by accident. A series of elements defining the context make gradual marginalisation possible and amplify the process. Some of these elements are of an economic nature, others are more of a social or cultural nature. Rather than examining these elements in detail at the European or national level, we will attempt to show here how they are expressed at the local level in rural areas.

a) The economic context

The first element that comes to mind is of course the weight of unemployment. Unemployment occurs when the supply of jobs does not meet the demand for jobs. This can be both a problem of quantity (the number of job vacancies is less than the number of job applicants) and a problem of quality (lack of salaried jobs for people of a certain age, women, unskilled young people, etc.). This latter form is the most direct cause of long-term unemployment and the main factor of social exclusion. Let us now see what this translates into in rural areas.

With the drastic cuts in farm labour, the family is gradually losing the reassuring role that it had in the past when it provided work and an income to all its members on the family farm. What is more, some traditional jobs or functions are today rejected, mostly by women and young people, when they do not disappear under the effect of modern technologies. Immediate vocational retraining is not available, given the tremendous competition that reigns on the markets.

The women of the Jerte valley (Extremadura, Spain) were traditionally responsible for manually sorting cherries, the main local crop, but today they refuse to do this tedious routine work. Because of competition, industrial sorting techniques now have to be introduced. Given their isolation and the tremendous competition that reigns in their sector, it is not easy to retrain these women, and the efforts to do so by the local LEADER group are not enough to keep the most skilled young women in the area.

The economic environment downstream from production (situation of the market and prices) also plays a major role in the social exclusion process. Farmers and small craftsmen are particularly affected. Competition, falling prices and the disappearance of certain outlets are having a chain reaction and steadily eroding their income.

In Algarve (Portugal), the small-scale producers of arbutus berry brandy for the past twenty years saw their market shrink and the value of their product plunge in the face of competition from certain imported alcohol. To improve profits, they cut their production costs by eliminating certain technical operations, but this affected the quality. As a result, sales fell even further and the knock-on process of income erosion began. Until the LEADER group’s intervention, these producers remained isolated, not benefiting from any technical support to find alternative solutions to improve the quality and to recapture certain markets.

Sometimes the economic environment upstream from production (supply of services or facilities) also plays a determining role in the process of exclusion. Often, small farmers with economic difficulties fall prey to retailers of farm equipment who, knowing that they cannot obtain credit, manage to impose unacceptable conditions on them, especially if they are ill prepared to bargain. In this case, the knock-on process of decline begins.

b) The social and cultural context

The social and cultural context also plays a decisive role. The links of solidarity and mutual aid in particular are essential in avoiding any process of decline. In traditional societies, these links often acted as “shock absorbers” against social exclusion. Mutual aid between families or savings, for example, prevented isolation and made it easier to get through difficult periods and help young people get started.

In modern societies, these links have more often than not disappeared, replaced by a more systematic search for competitiveness. Nonetheless, other forms of solidarity are appearing.

Therefore, examining the situation of social exclusion in an area also means taking account of these changes and asking questions like: What forms of solidarity and mutual aid were there in the past? What remains of them today? Have other forms of solidarity and other social links brought relief? Answers also need to be found to questions about changes in mentalities and information channels: What happens when an individual or family needs help? To what extent do families and individuals live in isolation? What means does the local society have to identify and react to situations of exclusion? Are there forms of rejection or latent conflicts that might make these situations worse?

Behind the question of mentalities is the question of values: What is the situation with the local society’s values of solidarity? Through what channels are these values expressed? Are these values threatened?

The way in which the relationship between generations has evolved also are to be taken into account. The way in which farms are passed on to the younger generation should be studied, for example, because there are cases where young people become overburdened with debt to buy the farm from their parents or from the persons with whom they share the inheritance. This is precisely the kind of problem that Community measures in favour of early retirement and young farmers are trying to avoid.

c) The democratic context and citizen expression

Whereas in the past the problem of poverty was exclusively a problem of income distribution, today the phenomenon of exclusion in the city and in the countryside also has to do with problems of of participation in social life. In other words, the question of the status of citizens and the exercising of power must also be raised. Here, we are talking about the actual practice of democracy but also about the way in which individual and collective capacities are called upon and taken into account.

The current changes in society have had a profound effect on the social status and resource distribution mechanisms. Three mechanisms are currently playing a role in the way in which citizens are assigned resources or a status: the market (labour- derived income) which tends to amplify inequalities, the state and social protection systems which tend to reduce them by granting various benefits and allowances, and solidarity networks. However, in the case of these networks of solidarity, a transfer of responsibilities is under way. The non-governmental, family or community networks are playing an increasingly important role in the transfer of resources but also in the assignment of status, in the rebuilding of social links and in the regaining of a sense of belonging.

The phenomena of social inclusion and social exclusion need to be analysed according to the characteristics of these mechanisms. Poverty may no longer be treated as a simple problem of income, and given the complexity of the mechanisms involved in social exclusion, individual treatment is no longer possible. Social or collective compensations need to be found for the shortcomings of the systems generating social exclusion[19].

In rural areas where social links are generally strong, the processes of exclusion created and the diminished role of the Welfare state can be offset by various types of community support, networking and local forms of solidarity.

Analysts and conceptualisers of social policies agree on the importance of the “community” or “local” approach and on the fact that local social links can provide tailored solutions to the problem of social exclusion. By contrast, in cases where social and identity-based links are weak, finding a solution is more difficult.

Although the local approach is important, some questions remain: is local social action possible without a clear definition and guarantee of the roles of the different levels (state, municipalities, etc.)? How can what are sometimes contradictory effects be avoided when intervening in the area with public funds?


[17] For more information on this example consult:

[18] The WISE Group 72 Charlotte Street,
UK Glasgow G1 5DW; E-mail: feedback@thewisegroup;

[19] Schucksmith Mark, op.cit., p.2; Philip
Lorna & Schucksmith Mark: Conceptualising Social
Exclusion, Arkleton Centre for Rural Development
Research and University of Aberdeen. Paper presented
at: European Society for Rural Sociology XVIII
Congress, Sweden, 24-28 August 1999.

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