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Global tendencies, local responses


Rural renewal in Europe:
Global tendencies and local responses

by John Bryden

"Global" market and policy changes
are likely to mean major challenges,
as well as some new development
opportunities, for rural areas.


The attention given to rural development in Europe has steadily increased over the past decade, and especially since the publication of the Commission paper on "The Future of Rural Society" in 1988. The period since then has been one of considerable change at both global and European levels. Liberalisation is driving global trade and capital movements, and significant market adjustments follow from this. Partly linked to this, we foresee major changes in policy frameworks affecting rural areas over the next few years (agriculture, structural funds, research and development, transport, telecommunications, social welfare etc.).

Both market and policy changes are therefore likely to mean major challenges, as well as some new opportunities, for rural areas. The capacity of rural areas to assess potential opportunities and threats, and respond rapidly and effectively to these, is a critical issue both for rural people and for policy makers and rural development agencies.

Some rural areas are better placed than others to adapt to these processes of "opening up" and the consequential exposure to external forces. Rural areas differ markedly in their economic structure and activity, their natural and human resources, the peripherality of their location, their demographic and social conditions. Therefore, they are affected in different ways, and to differing extents, by the major trends which we identified.

Policies and support structures for rural areas must increasingly recognise this diversity of conditions and outcomes. It follows that knowledge and understanding of the processes involved, and local responses to them, becomes a crucial element in the improvement of policy and local action.


General impacts of globalisation

Although the internationalisation of economic activity has been occurring for centuries, globalisation is a recent phenomenon which has intensified in the 1980's and '90s and has been facilitated notably by the huge development of information and communications technologies (ICT).

These changes mean that capital can be assembled wherever the costs of production are the lowest and where social and environmental restrictions are least. The component parts of a product (or service) can increasingly be manufactured in different international locations and assembled at one spot, either through the growth in transnational corporations or by out-sourcing and "just-in-time" techniques of the new production system and forms of "flexible specialisation".

Globalisation is also changing the role of the nation state. National borders are less relevant in a world of international finance and global liberalisation of trade, the laws of which are determined collectively at the international level rather than by single countries.

The role of governments is increasingly to facilitate development, to collaborate with other nations for trade purposes, and to initiate partnerships with local groups, including local government and private enterprise to stimulate economic development that is locally driven and cost-shared.

The increasing focus on "community" is linked both to the changing role of the state and to a counter-reaction to the sometimes oppressive size and scope of global reordering. On the one hand, the state sees processes of decentralisation and transfer of responsibility to lower levels ("subsidiarity") as more consistent with its new role and fiscal constraints, as well as encouraging a more caring and localised scale of service delivery. On the other hand, communities represent a more human or meaningful scale of organisation in a world of trading blocks, economic alliances, giant corporations, and big governments.


Rural impacts of globalisation

Globalisation is having profound impacts on the economic and social milieu of rural and peripheral areas. Particular impacts which affect nearly all rural areas include:

  • the decline in agricultural employment, and in the relative economic importance of food production, accompanied by structural changes in the farming industry;

  • increasingly global penetration of local markets, exposure to increased competition, and the related restructuring of capitalism;

  • growing inter-dependence between areas and activities which are physically distant from each other;

  • global movements of capital and finance towards the most competitive areas and businesses, leading to a shortage of external investment capital for local activities;

  • the introduction and spread of new technologies, especially ICT and biotechnology;

  • demographic changes including increased personal mobility.

What distinguishes rural from urban areas is not so much the nature of globalisation forces driving change or their general consequences, but rather the specific forms which these take in areas we perceive as "rural": rural areas have become progressively less self-sufficient and self- contained, and ever more open to the wider forces – economic, social, political – shaping European and indeed global development.


New structures and the search for new forms of governance

Both rural and urban areas in most EU countries experience changing systems of values: notably the decline in forms of authority and hierarchy (church, state, monarchy, "hard" science), a decline in social and economic relations based on trust and familiarity, and a growth in individualism. Social relations are less bounded by space, and "communities" increasingly form around interests rather than places.

There is a widespread desire for more democratic participation in decision making at local levels where sustainable forms of rural development will increasingly be shaped. New modes of collective action and solidarity are needed at local levels in order to address issues of exclusion, public goods, local competitiveness, sustainable development, integration, and participation, all of which are increasingly important for rural development.

There is a consequential search for new forms of governance which seek more popular participation, often mobilised through local and regional systems of governance, partnerships between levels and interests, and greater reliance on private and public "entrepreneurship" and innovation. It is important that the legitimacy and accountability of these new forms of governance are addressed.


New opportunities and threats

These major tendencies are affecting all rural areas. They arise from forces of globalisation and restructuring as well as from more specifically European tendencies and represent an increasingly important, and rapidly changing, set of external conditions to which rural areas must respond in some way. Globalisation and restructuring brings both threats and opportunities to rural areas and people.

Opportunities exist to tap new global markets, to develop new service based activities including knowledge and information based activities which are, in principle, less dependant on location as a result of the extension of markets and the introduction of ICT. New consumption demands on the countryside bring opportunities in tourism, recreation and residential development.

However, the threats to rural areas existing activities, often based on natural resources and low-wage manufacturing or local services formerly protected by distance, are also evident.

In general, the evidence to date is that many rural areas are responding positively to the challenges. However, not all such forces are equally important in different rural areas – some are better placed to take advantage of ICT or urban markets; some are more vulnerable to globalisation of markets than others; some are more vulnerable to reductions in social welfare spending or flows of public and private investment finance.

Moreover, each local area has a particular history and structure; and a particular set of relationships with its surroundings which influence and mediate the effects of external forces and responses.


New competitiveness for rural areas

New, and quite unexpected, trends have emerged in rural society quite independently of policies. These affected some areas more than others, but they demonstrated that the competitive advantage of rural areas could in many cases increase:

  • demographers have noted that in some regions of Europe a reversal of the traditional rural-urban migration patterns has taken place (cities have stopped attracting new population, some rural areas have stopped losing population) though commuting can often play an important role in these rural areas and results in a negative balance of jobs to local residents;

  • as is the case with the emergence of new industrialised countries (particularly Asian countries) at the international level, geographers and regional economists have pointed out the shifting location of economic activities towards new regions and intermediate cities within national boundaries. The positive performance in such "attractor" regions in Europe is not yet fully understood but probably includes aspects such as regional and local cultural identity, the entrepreneurial climate, the vitality of public and private networks, and the attractiveness of the cultural and natural environment;

  • field researchers have found unexpected dynamism in some peripheries and disadvantaged areas. In fact, some rural regions (Ireland for instance) belong to the most dynamic areas within OECD member countries;

  • industrial and general economists have indicated that networks of small and medium industries in some contexts achieved the same economies of scale as large enterprises and both competed on international markets in the supply of goods and services; at the same time the demand for these goods and services was increasingly segmented and requiring flexibility of production supply;

  • new rural employment has been created not only in activities related to new functions for the countryside, such as tourism and recreation, but also in small scale manufacturing and crafts and even in some cases information services linked to ICT;

  • the 1996 OECD's research work on rural indicators has shown that new employment opportunities in general have not been correlated with the degree of rurality or urbanisation in the Eighties in most countries.

These new trends suggest that we need to revise our ideas about how development takes place and to rethink those sequences of development actions, strategies, perception of threats and opportunities, policies, and impacts which are normally taken for granted.

This is the more necessary when we consider that these traditional recipes for development have seldom produced good results while the newly observed trends have succeeded in achieving new competitive advantages for rural areas. The lesson is that we should improve our understanding and explanation of the reasons for these changes in competitive advantage and then revise the tools used for promoting development.


Local responses to new threats and opportunities

Local responses are influenced by several sets of factors of which external threats and opportunities represent but one set, albeit an increasingly important one. In the case of LEADER, other factors include:

  • the particular context of the LEADER local action group (LAG) including its surrounding areas;

  • the nature of the LAG and its partnerships;

  • the human and financial resources of the LAG.

Updating the analysis of the local context

The meeting point between the analysis of an area's strengths and weaknesses and its external constraints and opportunities is conducive to a new appraisal of its local potential. What has, for decades, been an unexploited characteristic or worse still a handicap, can today become an opportunity or vice-versa. Thus, a longtime ignored heritage can become the driving force of a renewal project in one area whereas elsewhere an industrial tradition, such as mining, which brought decades of prosperity to the area but has not been able to adapt to the new global context, may become a handicap for future development.

Strengthening local partnerships

The need to focus available local resources on commonly agreed goals, as well as the dynamism injected in a project by the involvement of a large number of people, has made a strategic tool out of local partnership creation.

Local partnerships can contribute to a local unity and cohesion which go beyond ideological and social divisions. By reaching out to all socio-economic actors of the area using such methods as awareness raising, this partnership can transcend the simple gathering of representatives of the various sectors of economic activity. It can be extended to all layers of the population including the groups which tend to be excluded from debates and decisions (women, disadvantaged persons or the retired, etc). The local partnership introduces specific forms of "basic" democracy which can engender a stronger involvement of actors in both deliberation and action.

Increasing local added value

The self-sufficiency of a region is a key idea behind the LEADER Community Initiative. In order to maximise the economic benefits of an area, efficient and effective use of local resources must be taken as a starting point and then a strategy can be developed and adapted to meet its specific characteristics, resources and requirements. This means, among other things, sound knowledge of an area's strengths and weaknesses, an ability to innovate and the existence of a structure which can encourage and support initiatives. It also means looking at value-added chains for local products (from producers to consumers) to assess whether larger proportions of value-added can be captured by local businesses and co-operatives. This is the "supply side" of self-sufficiency. The "demand" side is also important – what is "imported" into an area may be assessed in order to identify areas of potential new production to meet local needs.

Developing niche markets

Many rural areas (and firms) seek to protect themselves from global competition by creating local products which depend on local identity for their market niche, and LAGs have been active in this sphere.

The precise niches explored are very dependent on local context. For example, rural areas in densely populated countries (such as England, Belgium and the Netherlands) or near urban centres can exploit local markets for speciality food, possibilities for direct marketing of local products, and for local day and short stay visitors. On the other hand, more remote rural areas can use local products and abilities to develop a niche market and at the same time maintain the local identity of the area.

Strengthening local-global linkages

The internal mix and the external degree of integration of local economic activities becomes the main strategic aspect which identifies different types of areas. The process of internal diversification is linked to external integration, its driving force: for example a new business established in the area may bring with itself relationships with new markets and other producers, incoming residents may bring previously untapped contacts and know how which enlarge the opportunities for external exchange and might be imitated by others.

Taking advantage of information and communications technologies

Some areas have tried to capitalise on the distance reducing effects of ICT, developing new information-based activities which depend on digital telecommunications. Others are seeking to widen markets and capture a higher share of value-added by using the "information highway" to market local goods and services directly to far away consumers and firms.

Investing in human resources

The effective development of human resource potential is needed in order to adopt the organization and production processes that are required in the global market place. Human resource development is particularly important for rural areas where formal education levels are generally lower and skills sets are more limited than the national averages. The necessity of a second source of family income or off-farm income has specific implications for human resource development in rural areas where employment opportunities are more limited in scope and options.

The natural and physical attributes of rural areas are also special concerns in terms of human resource development. The remoteness of rural areas and physical isolation within rural areas limits the access of rural residents to educational institutions and training programs. The information highway and distance education could facilitate the education and training that is limited for some rural people.

Restructuring the primary sector and diversifying farm incomes

Although primary agriculture still constitutes an important element in the economic base for many rural areas, it can no longer be considered the engine of employment growth.

In order to maximise the role of the primary sector in regional economies, restructuring is often a priority. Techniques, methods and equipment must reflect maximum efficiency and adhere to the increasingly strict environmental standards and regulations. As well, horizontal and vertical integration of primary activities within a region will ensure maximum economic benefit from the resource is retained within the area and provides the opportunity to develop and market the resource as a uniquely local product.

There is some potential for diversification within the agricultural sector: diversification into non-traditional crops or farming practices (organic), on-farm processing, new marketing methods and organisational models – sale on the farm, sale by co-operatives, mail order or road-side sale – as well as the provision of recreational and tourism services. This is also potential for working off the farm, where rural opportunities outside agriculture exist.

Tapping new tourism markets

Demand for tourism in the EU 12 was about 1.7 billion bednights in 1990, compared with very roughly a capacity of some 5.7 billion bednights. The increase in supply of tourism beds often exceeded the increase in demand for a major part of the 1980's.

At first sight, accommodation capacity appears able to meet demand well beyond the year 2010. However, the supply may be in the wrong places or not satisfy customer expectations.

Demand is also extremely seasonal. There are major concerns about the demand side and the environmental impacts of tourism.

LAGs have been innovative in trying to open up new niche markets in tourism, develop eco-tourism and other forms of speciality tourism linked to specific environmental, historical and cultural attributes.

Developing environmental activities

In recent years, the concept of "sustainable development" has emerged. This is a dynamic concept treating the environmental aspects alongside economic and social development. If sustainable development is to be achieved, environmental considerations must be incorporated in economic development strategies. The environment can also be a real source of economic development, either through the direct exploitation of resources or through creating conditions likely to favour economic activities. People want to live and work in clean and healthy conditions, eat healthy food and have healthy lifestyle.

Already, the LEADER experience indicates economic potential in areas ranging from the optimisation of farming practices, with the emphasis on farming methods which are less polluting or use fewer additives and the encouragement of alternative crops (medicinal, official or aromatic plants, small fruits, honey, hardy breeds, etc.) to increasing the income earned outside agriculture, notably through developing a range of "green" tourism packages (farm holidays, nature holidays, theme routes and holidays revolving around discovery of the natural heritage) and through exploiting local products, such as farm foods and craftwork.

There are also opportunities for economic development inherent in environment policies, in that they create demand for new technologies and new services relating to environmental management – the development of fragile or endangered areas by transforming them into areas with a range of accompanying activities (eco-museums, environment initiation centres, architectural assistance, agri-environmental measures) or by their "combined" management – endangered biotopes used for recreational purposes, traditional but endangered species of fruit trees conserved as a result of value addition through the production of fruit juice, cider, brandy, etc.

Changing attitudes

In many areas in rural Europe, there is a strong connection between fiscal transfer payments and dependent mentality. Transfer payments coming from the state under various headings (unemployment benefits, public administration jobs, pensions, allowances for training courses) have helped to create an "assisted mentality" which is held to have negative effects on economic development. An explicit objective is therefore to change this type of local/global interaction and generate new responses, without damaging social cohesion, a key condition for a sustainable development.

Many LEADER groups are using animation and training to develop capacity and support a network of local community development activists who will stimulate local people to organise, identify local needs and prepare their own action plans for local resource development.

The networking and partnership components inherent within the LEADER Initiative are designed to combat the isolationist and competitive attitudes that might have developed within and between rural areas. Co-operation and mutual learning are more proactive and productive attitudes for development.


        This article is an updated synthesis of a dossier written by John Bryden following a seminar on the "Situation and prospects for rural Europe" held in Bad Windsheim (Bavaria, Germany, September 19-22 1996) and organised by the "Future Prospects" Group of the LEADER European Observatory. It builds on various background papers which were produced for the seminar including those by John Bryden and Patrick Commins ("Some issues concerning the future of rural areas"), Bertrand Hervieu ("Politique agricole ou politique rurale integrée: la difficulté d'un choix pour l'Europe" / Agricultural policy or integrated rural policy: a difficult choice for Europe), Elena Saraceno ("The changing competitive advantage of rural space"). A professor of Human Geography at the University of Aberdeen and the coordinator of the LEADER European Observatory "New Prospects" Group, John Bryden is joint director of the Arkleton Centre for Rural Development Research and adviser to the Scottish Office Inter-departmental Committee on Rural Policy and the Land Reform Policy Group.

source: LEADER Magazine n°18 - Fall, 1998

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