Last Thursday Volonteurope members and partners gathered in Riga, Latvia, to discuss the rural isolation of citizens in the Baltic States and Poland. The seminar was part of Volonteurope’s European-wide campaign on the issue.
Speakers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland provided compelling accounts of how volunteering, active citizenship and community leadership can change the lives of rural inhabitants. The evidence provided illustrates the need for continual support by EU institutions and Member States to the voluntary sector and communities.
Rural residents in these countries suffer from the same challenges we have encountered elsewhere: mutually reinforcing patterns of lack of investment, infrastructure, and services that lead to higher levels of social exclusion, unemployment, poverty, and depopulation. However, civil society, citizens and communities are actively making use of their resources and capabilities to transform their lives.
The Latvian Rural Forum has promoted dialogue between policy makers and communities. In 2012, the country’s first Rural Parliament took place. The Rural Forum believes in the importance of an invaluable resource at the disposal of communities: their knowledge of their own needs and how to best meet them. Lack of empowerment to act is often an obstacle, however.
The village of Ance is a success story, where a partnership with a Swedish organisation has allowed for the development of local crafts. The village has developed a fashionable black and white pattern for textiles and is now exporting its products. For several years the community faced the challenges associated with an ageing population and lack of skills. Now the village has a new school and a reinvigorated sense of community purpose. There are success stories elsewhere in Latvia. The Latvian Rural Forum understands the importance of enabling environments for development, where each community is aware of the resources at their disposal and empowered to make use of them.
One third of the population lives in rural areas, which cover 97% of the country’s territory. Rural areas are characterised by aged infrastructure, low incomes, high unemployment (27% among young people) and lack of basic services. There is a worrying lack of skills and training. Although the rural population has decreased in recent years, communities are increasingly active in pursuing their wellbeing.
The Youth Volunteer Service has deployed over 650 volunteers in Lithuanian rural areas since last year, with more than 280 hosting organisations taking part. The programme allows young people to volunteer and gain personal, social, and professional skills. Young people classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training) are involved in the project to improve their competences. The volunteers participate in training courses and receive a certificate. Nearly 130 volunteers who have completed the programme have progressed to employment or education.
Organisations and volunteers face difficult challenges: meagre financial resources available for the programme and extremely burdensome procedures imposed by the Lithuanian managing authority (the programme is funded by the European Social Fund).
The country has lots of tiny communities. Outside the capital, the biggest town has a population of 7000 people. The islands are the most isolated parts of Estonia. Some years ago a small group of Japanese volunteers arrived in Estonia and carried out a series of activities in communities, including playing Japanese music in rural schools. Over recent years, Estonian communities have received more than 500 volunteers from Latin America and Asia. International volunteers have demonstrated to communities that they are not isolated and that they can also leave their villages and see other places.
One particular community started organising an international photo festival a few years ago. Participants came from Japan, Indonesia, Kenya and China. Another project has sent senior citizens to Sardinia, where they have studied Italian and learned new skills. International exchanges have proved to be an invaluable resource to combat rural isolation in Estonia. They have changed the attitudes of local citizens, showing them new possibilities beyond their village borders.
International exchanges do not require huge amounts of funding or bureaucracy. They only need active communities, with an open mind and an enabling environment.
Unlike other countries, the rural population in Poland has been growing. Attitudes in rural areas have also changed: 15 years ago the idea of early education was not popular, but now more families are sending their children to kindergartens. New legislation has enabled the opening of kindergartens in rural Poland at much lower costs.
Rural areas face serious deficiencies in local democracy. Technocratic local governments have invested large amounts of EU funding on infrastructure, building sports stadia, swimming pools and libraries. However, these governments have not planned for the longer-term maintenance of this new infrastructure. Lack of consultation and participation in decision making by communities means that investment is not always made in the best interest of local residents. Money is often spent in a way that does not help real development.
The Rural Development Foundation has used EU funds to support and train local entrepreneurs and offer micro credit schemes. The foundation has also trained rural leaders so they can transform their ideas and knowledge of the local context into local action. Volunteering has also played an important role, with young students tutoring children. Once a community decides to receive volunteers, it repeats it each year.
From isolation to active citizenship
These experiences illustrate that volunteering and active citizenship do make a difference. They also show that governments, both local and central, and EU institutions have a strong supportive and empowering role to play. They need to include communities and citizens in decision making. Communities and civil society must be the main agents behind the design, implementation and evaluation of programmes.
Local action drives changes in attitudes and aspirations. People find a new sense of purpose and optimism. This leads to the empowerment of communities, which in turn results in repopulation, higher levels of investment and better services. But communities cannot act in isolation. States need to play an enabling role, supporting communities to acquire the capacity and resources needed for sustainable development. This would also ensure that more deprived communities would have a chance to catch up with more resourceful ones, thus reducing inequalities between regions.
The same goes for EU funding. In recent years, many organisations have pointed to the shortcomings of LEADER. As one of the speakers at the seminar put it, “LEADER is a programme that does not really help communities take care of themselves”. These shortcomings (i.e. excessive bureaucracy, insufficient resources and government bodies not giving communities the power to participate) must be overcome for Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) funding for the 2014-2020 period.
In Riga, rather than hearing stories of isolation, we heard compelling stories of action and leadership. The experiences of Baltic and Polish civil society demonstrate that all sectors need to adopt a holistic view of rural development, focusing on the wellbeing of citizens and the resilience of communities as the ultimate goals.
Volonteurope would like to thank Anita Selicka (Latvian Rural Forum, Latvia), Aleksandr Kurushev (EstYes, Estonia), Nerijus Jankauskas (DEINETA, Lithuania), Justyna Duriasz-Buthak (Rural Development Foundation, Poland) and André Hudepohl (Humanitas, Netherlands) for their invaluable contributions to this event and our campaign.
In addition to the Baltic States and Poland, the Rural Isolation of Citizens campaign has heard evidence from several other countries in Europe, including Italy, Romania, the UK, the Netherlands, Bosnia and France. The aim is to raise awareness about patterns of social exclusion, lack of opportunities and low levels of investment and service availability in rural areas.
Volonteurope will continue to publish evidence on rural isolation and to advocate for policies that empower citizens and communities to meet their needs and improve their lives. The campaign’s next stop is in Sofia, Bulgaria, in early May. Stay in touch with the Volonteurope Secretariat to learn more details about this upcoming event and the campaign.