Last week, Volonteurope members and partners gathered in Sofia, Bulgaria, for the latest seminar of the campaign on the Rural Isolation of Citizens in Europe. Organisations from Bulgaria, Croatia and Albania provided compelling accounts of how local action can transform communities and improve the lives of citizens.
Rural areas in these countries face the well-known challenges we have encountered elsewhere in Europe: depopulation, lack of services and infrastructure, lack of investment and economic opportunities, and relatively high rates of social exclusion.
However, citizens and communities are taking advantage of their strengths and capabilities to achieve positive changes in their lives.
A place of stunning beauty, the Devetashko Plateau is one of Bulgaria’s most isolated regions. Until recently, people from the area’s handful of villages saw no reason to come together in common activities or projects. In 2007, however, the Devetashko Plato Association built a playground in one of the local villages. The following year, the Association brought the region’s residents together to share their visions on how they wanted the Plateau to develop.
From then on, the organisation has carried out several projects based on the communities’ wishes. Internet connection became available in 9 villages, doctors were brought in to provide healthcare, and public spaces were restored. Most significantly, the communities found a way to revitalise the local economy and generate income.
Taking advantage of the beautiful natural attractions and rich traditions the Devetashko has to offer, the communities registered guesthouses and restaurants to cater for tourists. Only 10 years ago, the region was completely unknown to Bulgarians, but now it receives hundreds of visitors every year. The local residents are very proud of their heritage. They offer visitors unique culinary experiences and planned activities (for example, foraging for wild herbs). For the past 8 years, the villages have also competed to host the annual “Songs of Spring” festival, which attracts people from all over Bulgaria.
The people from the Devetashko Plateau have come together to show their region and traditions to the world. According to the Association, one of their main successes was to foster a sense of common purpose and friendship among the villages. The Association can count on more than 140 volunteers and funds from the local government.
Networking and cooperation have not been limited to the Plateau. The Association has supported international exchanges between local residents and partner organisations in several European countries. This has facilitated mutual learning and sharing. In addition, a photograph exhibition about the Devetashko has toured Bulgaria recently.
Very importantly, the Association and the communities have attempted to spread the benefits of their revitalised local economy throughout the region. Visitors are encouraged to stay and participate in activities in the most remote mountainous villages which are not so close to the most popular attractions. This way, communities with apparently less capabilities to flourish are supported in generating local income.
The National Rural Network (NRN) has 425 members across Bulgaria. The network provides information and facilitates the sharing of best practice that can benefit communities and local organisations. The NRN works as a platform where views from different rural areas can be shared and discussed. It builds the capacity of Local Action Groups to develop initiatives and participate in discussions at the national level.
The network raises awareness about rural issues and promotes local festivals and farmers’ fairs. It also organises thematic working groups, which in turn produce reports with policy recommendations to relevant authorities. In addition, the NRN carries out initiatives to support young unemployed people and micro rural enterprises. The network operates under the logic of local people taking the lead in the projects, activities and initiatives they need to change their lives.
Albania has experienced mass migration from rural to urban areas as well as to other countries over the past 25 years. The hardship of rural life has caused half the population of rural areas to leave. Depopulation and the resulting lack of investment have significantly increased social exclusion in rural communities.
A series of rural policies in Albania since the early 1990s have failed to improve the lives of rural inhabitants or revitalise local economies. International organisations (most prominently USAID) have provided assistance and expertise to support Albania’s rural development. However, this has achieved few results. Agricultural and rural development have been a priority in Albania’s accession negotiations with the EU.
The Albanian Institute for Public Affairs has adopted a human rights perspective to rural development in the country. Poverty and isolation have serious consequences for the enjoyment of human rights in rural areas. Poverty disproportionately affects women in Albania. They have substantially less access to credit, education, health care, skilled work and technology. They have less ability to become independent and assume control of their lives and the lives of their families. They also enjoy fewer opportunities to influence the development of their communities. The lack of qualified staff and educational services in rural areas also means that children cannot fully enjoy their right to education.
The Institute for Public Affairs has pressed the government to adopt a human rights perspective to rural development and especially to promote women’s rights. It also recommends investment in infrastructure, support to civil society and local organisations, and a consistent effort to train teachers in rural areas.
Croatia is mostly a rural country. Over 56% of its population lives in rural areas, which cover around 80% of the territory. Rural communities in Croatia face low employment rates, depopulation, abandoned or neglected agricultural land, lack of services and infrastructure, and loss of local traditions, knowledge and capabilities.
The Croatian Rural Development Network has 33 member organisations in the country and gives voice to rural communities. The network promotes the exchange of knowledge and experiences between rural communities and organisations, and advocates for rural development.
The network believes that LEADER (the axis of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development that promotes locally-driven initiatives) can still have a positive impact on Croatia’s rural areas. Under LEADER, local actors can make use of an area’s development potential to implement initiatives that improve wellbeing and social inclusion. The Local Action Groups (LAGs, set up under the LEADER mechanism) have the opportunity to design strategies that are based on the conditions and needs of the local area.
Croatia has 61 LAGs, which are volunteer oriented. Volunteering in LAGs provides opportunities for personal and professional development. The Croatian Rural Development Network advocates for the effective implementation of LEADER and supports its members and rural communities to take advantage of it. The network recently organised Croatia’s first rural parliament, bringing together more than 200 participants from rural areas.
Community strengths and human rights: the way forward
The evidence from Bulgaria, Croatia and Albania confirm what we previously heard from other countries: Local actors need to be regarded as essential protagonists in their own development, not passive recipients of external aid or subjects of top down policies. Local residents, community organisations, groups and social entrepreneurs know better than anyone else the needs and aspirations of their communities.
They have the motivation, knowledge and skills to drive local development and regeneration. These are invaluable strengths that cannot be imposed from above, but are endogenous to rural areas. If left untapped, they become wasted resources. If allowed to flourish, they become more important than any funding or policy designed in Brussels or European capitals.
Volonteurope has repeatedly called on the EU and member states to support local communities and citizens to become active agents in driving change. This does not mean assuming a paternalistic role towards them. On the contrary, it means providing these actors with the necessary support to thrive. Paradoxically, this may also mean getting out of the way: governments can reduce bureaucratic burdens, for example by making access to funding easier.
As the Devetashko case shows, not all communities possess the same levels of capabilities or assets. The exercise of empowering communities to act is only effective when it addresses these differences. Otherwise, it may lead to further inequalities between regions.
Volonteurope has advocated for a more effective implementation of LEADER. Communities and organisations are often sidelined in local processes that are dominated by local government or business interests without adequate regard for their expectations. This needs to be addressed urgently. Governmental and EU officials need to understand that communities will only flourish when they are supported to take the lead.
The networking promoted in these countries illustrates the importance of mutual learning. Networking builds bridges between isolated communities and allows them to draw on each other’s strengths and experiences. Again, governments and the EU could support this process whenever this support is required by communities.
Finally, rural development has a lot to gain from adopting a human rights perspective. The capacity of rural inhabitants to fully enjoy their human rights must guide policy and practice. The EU and member states need to focus their funding and programmes on the promotion and realisation of citizens’ rights: economic and social, political and civil (including the right to participate in decision making processes, enshrined in Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty). A human rights perspective to development leads to the implementation of common good approaches, something which Volonteurope has promoted through its Europe for the Common Good campaign.