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Socio-economic research

Breathing new life into run-down neighbourhoods

   

Glasgow, Malmö, Leiden, Duisburg, Nancy, Naples - six towns where local associations are battling to revitalise less-favoured areas, with employment as an essential but certainly not unique ingredient. These local development initiatives are analysed in the ELSES project, a new kind of assessment, involving researchers and field workers right from the start.

     
   

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"Go!", an initiative to promote start-ups in North Rhine-Westphalia
© Entwicklungsgesellschaft Duisburg - Photo Günter Matczik

"Until the early 1990s, in most European countries local policy to combat social exclusion focused primarily on the most urgent needs, such as health, housing or subsistence. It is only recently that we have also seen economic projects aimed at tackling root causes. Public authorities are now beginning to support the development of new companies, individual employment initiatives and targeted training in these less-favoured urban areas," explains Sabine Weck, a researcher at the ILS research institute in Dortmund, which is coordinating the EU's ELSES project.(1)

Fieldworker-researcher partnership
How are these actions being implemented? On what basis should they be judged? How effective are they? Do they really meet the needs of those they are designed to help? Can some of them serve as models and thus be adopted in other situations? These are the questions being studied by the German, British, Swedish, Italian, French and Dutch partners within ELSES. Their aim is to analyse the different strategies of local socio-economic development in specific neighbourhoods located in "problem" urban areas. The method adopted is to base this work on close cooperation between researchers and fieldworkers.

"ELSES is unique in having involved the local players right from the outset, when developing the project. This is an innovative approach, and not only in Italy," explains Valeria Fascione, a researcher at the IDIS Foundation (Naples).(2) By drawing on their day-to-day experience these "associated partners" identified the questions to be analysed - and sometimes the way of posing them.

"Contacts with the theorists are vital for those working in the field, enabling them to take a little distance and form a broader view. During discussions with the researchers we were able to verify the validity of our methods and find alternatives to improve our practices," points out Ercan Idik of the German Duisburg-Marxloh association. "Our work with the university shed valuable new light on our project," confirms Russell Stevenson, an employee of Govan Initiative Ltd in Glasgow (Scotland). "We support 90 local businesses, with quite diverse activities. The researchers highlighted the performances of the youngest companies in terms of their growth potential. We will be taking this criterion into account." In Nancy, the involvement of "beneficiaries" at all stages of an integration project was also seen as a guarantee of success. This project helped set up training for a group of women working informally in the family aid sector, with a view to access to part-time employment with recognised employee status.

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The six European towns where local development initiatives are being assessed by the partners in the ELSES project.

Too much red tape
In March 1999 - the half-way point for the project - an initial seminar was held in Naples giving the researchers and associations the chance to compare their experiences and the different contexts. In Germany, where the national public sector assumes the traditional role of the welfare state, local development initiatives are managed largely by politicians and officials, the local community not really having much say in defining priorities and deciding on measures. In the United Kingdom, where the welfare state was trimmed considerably during the Thatcher years, the already well-established role of local associations has grown. As an example, Govan Initiative employs 164 people and manages an annual budget of 6 million euros. In Italy, in the urban area of Pomigliano d'Arco (Naples) - the scene of development schemes under European, national and regional programmes - the local authority has a certain autonomy and plays a particularly active role in initiatives focusing primarily on job creation.

But almost everywhere, bureaucratic red tape can put a damper on projects - if not on enthusiasm. "Managing a contract is such a complex and disheartening experience, takes so much time, and involves dealing with so many different authorities that associations give up on some projects, solely because of the red tape involved," notes Jean-Luc Dumas of the Associations Jeunes et Cité in the Laxou-Nancy (F) district.

Jobs, and much more
"Although the initiatives studied in these European countries differ in many respects - in terms of finance, policy and legislation - they all come up against the difficulty of making the vital connection between the world of business and the survival of populations in difficulty," believes David Chevalier, sociologist at the University of Nancy 2. This was why, at the Naples meeting, the partners decided to concentrate on three subjects: social integration through work (placements, training, etc.), the social economy (based on services generated by and for the community) and support for entrepreneurial initiatives (help with enterprise creation, financial advice and services, development of infrastructures permitting network activities). Although jobs are the common ingredient, the scope of all three is wider than jobs alone. "We are used to measuring these actions in terms of concrete results, such as how many jobs they generate, without giving them the time they need to develop. The number of jobs created is bound to be low in a regional environment with rising unemployment among the unskilled and a stagnant overall employment situation," points out Sabine Weck. "But apart from this aspect, very-small-scale local regeneration actions serve to restore social links, create new networks, introduce factors which improve the quality of life and living conditions in a neighbourhood, and open up new opportunities for participating in social life. These are all very real elements, even if they cannot be measured in the same way. There is a need to go beyond one-dimensional strategies if we are to solve issues that are not at all one dimensional."

From decision-makers to beneficiaries
The ELSES partners held a second meeting in October last year in Glasgow. They presented the initial findings, on the basis of which the direction of future work ideas on the measures to be taken and ways to put these into practice will be suggested to the politicians. Always at the forefront, local partners will have a key role to play in disseminating the project's results. "They are often the pioneers of good practices and they help ensure these are included in local development policy," notes Sabine Weck. "This project will be a success if it manages to bridge the traditional divide between those who make policy, those who implement policy, and those who assess its results. Such a link will require close cooperation - and constant feedback - between these various parties."

The parties include the beneficiaries themselves. "In each country, it is essential to adopt an approach designed to include the most underprivileged groups in the decision-making process," concludes David Chevalier. "To my mind, this goes beyond the field of integration and strategies for local economic development. Above all, it is a question of local, regional, national, and even European democracy."

(1) Evaluation of Local Socio-Economic Strategies in Disadvantaged Urban Areas was launched in 1998, for a two-year period, under the Targeted Socio-Economic Research programme (Fourth Framework Programme).

(2) The IDIS Foundation (http://www.cittadellascienza.it/) is a non-profit organisation whose main aim is to produce socially relevant initiatives promoting scientific culture and technological innovation.


Contacts

Sabine Weck
Fax: +49-231-9051155
sabine.weck@ils.nrw.de

Fadila Boughanemi - Research DG
Fax: +32-2-2962137
fadila.boughanemi@ec.europa.eu
http://www.ils.nrw.de/netz/elses/

     
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