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The European rural model

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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 currently. 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 components.

  • 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.


    U.S.-European knowledge-sharing

    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 environments.

    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.


    Final words

    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

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