The European rural model
[ Index ]
Rural development, the European model
and the LEADER Initiative:
4 views from the outside
Rural development in the US:
what's happening today and what's on the horizon?
by David W. Sears
director of the National Rural Development
Partnership Office [Washington D.C., U.S.A.]
It is common knowledge that the United States has no rural
development policy. This does not, of course, mean that there is no
rural America: there is a rural America, which contains about one-
fourth of the U.S. population. This also does not mean that there is
no rural development in the U.S.: there are numerous rural
development activities in the U.S. What is missing is an overall
policy framework in which these activities occur.
Two new institutions are moving to create such an overall framework.
The Centre for Rural Studies (CRS), at the Federal Reserve Bank of
Kansas City, is holding a set of two major conferences (one in 2000,
the second in 2001) to bring key rural development interests
together to formulate a rural development policy. Partners for Rural
America (PRA) also has a plan for gathering grassroots input that
will lead to the creation of a national rural development policy.
The left hand in this case does know what the right hand is doing,
but it is not yet clear whether these two efforts will soon merge or
run on parallel tracks for awhile.
U.S. rural development practice
Without the benefit of such an overall U.S. rural development
policy, State Rural Development Councils (SRDCs) have begun to tie
together rural development activities into a coherent tapestry at
the state level. Begun as a pilot effort in 1990 in eight of the 50
U.S. states, these Councils have expanded to cover 40 states
Together, the 40 SRDCs form a National Rural Development Partnership
(NRDP). Each State Council brings together many of the key
institutions involved in rural development in the state - including
public programs operated by federal, state, tribal and local
governments as well as the private sector. The better understanding
and communication promoted by these Councils leads to greater
cooperation and collaboration among the key rural players.
Ultimately, the more effective programs stimulated by the State
Councils contribute to an improved quality of life in rural America.
- Reality no.1: rural is much more than agriculture
The image that many Americans (and perhaps Europeans too) have of
rural America is that of amber waves of grain and cows in pastures.
That image is not wrong - it is just incomplete. For instance, only
6% of rural Americans live on farms today, and less than 2% of rural
Americans are engaged in farming as a primary occupation.
The State Councils are responding to this reality by bringing
agriculture along with many other key economic interests to the
table. For instance, Wisconsin Rural Partners (the SRDC for
Wisconsin) has the state's Department of Agriculture as an active
participant, but other participants include the Great Lakes Forest
Alliance and the Wisconsin Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, as well
as the state's Department of Commerce.
- Reality no.2: most rural problems are intricately interconnected
In the U.S., as in Europe, most key rural problems are
interconnected. For instance, a U.S. rural area where many persons
lack health insurance will often have deficiencies in workforce
skill levels and severe shortages of affordable standard housing.
The problems in these three areas - health, workforce, housing - are
interconnected in such a way that thinking of each as an isolated
issue will be much less productive than approaching the set of
problems as a system.
The States Councils are responding to this reality by focusing on
clusters of issues, rather than just focusing on issues one-at-a-
time in isolation from one another. For example, Rural Partners (the
SRDC for Illinois) has developed a comprehensive state-wide rural
development plan; this plan knits together strategies for addressing
education, health, workforce development, agriculture,
transportation, tourism, law enforcement and other issue areas - and
it explicitly deals with the interrelationships among these various
- Reality no.3: successful solutions to most rural problems
will involve multiple institutions
By and large, whatever the rural problem, no single institution is
equipped to design and implement a successful solution. If the
problem is, for instance, upgrading the skills that K-12 students
acquire, the local school system is clearly central to the solution,
but does not have sufficient scope to undertake the full solution.
Other institutions that may have to play a part include the state
public health agency (to provide immunizations and screening for
children without insurance), the local chamber of commerce (to
provide interesting and skill-enhancing jobs for high school
students) and the state department of environmental quality (to
assure that the students' drinking water is safe).
The State Councils are responding to this reality by bringing
together a multitude of institutions to work on solutions to a wide
range of problems. For instance, the Maine Rural Development Council
has brought more than a dozen federal and state agencies together
with the Houlton tribal government to work on a variety of ways for
improving the economic viability and quality of life of the tribe.
- Reality no.4: rural conditions vary enormously from place to place
In the U.S., rural communities in the Great Plains are experiencing
significant population losses, while many attractive mountain and
coastal rural areas are coping with enormous pressures of growth.
Many southern rural communities face the problems of low wages and
low skills and the loss of manufacturers to third world locations,
while in other parts of the country the skilled and educated rural
population is very attractive to incoming employers. The point is
simply that knowing the key characteristics of one rural area does
not give much insight into another rural area some distance away.
The State Councils are responding to this reality by being
individually tailored to their unique local situation.
Although the NRDP is in place as a national network of State Councils, the agenda
for each SRDC is set at the state level, and the decisions about
which institutions will join each Council are made at the state
level. This means that each Council is in a position to know and
respond to the specific rural conditions in its state. For instance,
in recent months, the North Carolina Council has focused its energy
on improving the rural water and sewer infrastructure, while the
Oregon Council has emphasized workforce development.
The U.S. and Europe can be compared on a number of key dimensions;
these include the social, economic, cultural, geographic, political
and historical aspects of each region. There are enough
commonalities that a comparison of the American and European
approaches to rural development will almost always be enlightening
to both. In fact, within each region substantial diversity exists
(e.g. Greece vs. France, or North Dakota vs. Mississippi) so that
rural development practitioners are already well versed in the
advantages of learning from others working in somewhat different
A variety of U.S.-European knowledge-sharing mechanisms could be
very valuable on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, good
learning possibilities can occur on both policy and practice, as
well as on the design of effective institutions.
A quick set of ideas for trans-Atlantic knowledge-sharing vehicles
include: conferences, seminars, guided tours, visits, short
personnel exchanges, publications. Every one of these mechanisms
should be helpful to those engaged in rural development in both the
U.S. and Europe.
The U.S. is perhaps at a crossroads. A movement toward the
establishment of a national rural development policy is a strong
possibility. The work of the State Rural Development Councils will
be a good foundation for this emerging rural development policy.
Americans undoubtedly have much to learn from our European
colleagues. In turn, watching how the U.S. grapples with its rural
development practice and policy over the next few years can be
enlightening for Europeans.
Researcher in rural development at the ERS
(Economic Research Service) between 1988 and 1995, David W. Sears
has published a number of texts including two books: "Gearing Up for
Success: Organizing a State for Rural Development"
and "Rural Development Strategies".
National Rural Development Partnership,
National Partnership Office,
1400 Independence Avenue S.W., Room 4225-S,
Mail Stop 3205, Washington D.C., 20250-3205
TÚl: +1 202 690 23 94 - Fax: +1 202 690 1262
source: LEADER Magazine nr.25 - Winter 2000/2001