Rural regional learning in Alytus County, Lithuania

Last week (October 21-22, 2010), I was given the opportunity to visit our DERREG project partner Emilija Kairyte (Institute NeVork) in her case study area of Alytus County in the South of Lithuania. In this blog, Emilija and I would like to share our experiences.

Like the Dutch DERREG case study region Westerkwartier in the province of Groningen, Alytus County comprises four rural municipalities. In terms of demography and economy, both areas are very different from each other. For example, the Westerkwartier has a population density of 173.4 inhabitants/ km², whereas the population density of Alytus County is estimated as 32.6 inhabitants/ km². While the Westerkwartier has witnessed an increase in citizens over the last years, amongst them a large number of young families, rural development in Alytus County is strongly affected by an increasing out-migration and an aging population. Living standards differ considerably. In the Westerkwartier, the GDP per capita was estimated as 55.400 Euro in 2006 while the GDP in Alytus County was estimated as 19.100 Litai in 2007 (equals 5.531,74 Euro, October 2010). Also in geographical terms the two regions are very different. The Westerkwartier is characterized by open grasslands in the North and small fields with framing hedgerows in the South. Alytus County is renowned for its vast forests and lakes.

During my visit to Alytus County, I accompanied Emilija to two workshops, one for the LAG and other public administration authorities on the 21st of October and one for rural initators and actors on the 22nd of October, which she organized in order to evaluate existing arrangements for support and facilitation of joint learning-by-doing activities within rural development initiatives. At these workshops, I presented supportive arrangements and benefiting rural development initiatives that we found during our investigations in the Westerkwartier and which we evaluated together with local stakeholders at a workshop organized by the Rural Sociology Group in the Westerkwartier on the 18th of October.

Meeting with rural development initiative supporters in Alytus District LAG office, Alytus

To my surprise, both regional learning supporters (including the LAG) and rural initiators did not see striking differences between the existing arrangements and support given to rural development initiatives in Alytus County and the Westerkwartier. Emilija and I however learned that there are some basic differences in the foundation and operation of the Countryside House (Plattelandshuis) in Westerkwartier and Seniūnija (NUTS5) in Alytus County.

The Countryside House in the Westerkwartier is not founded as a front office of the public administration but as an inviting public place where inhabitants of the Westerkwartier can freely meet and associate, they should see it as their place. Most importantly, however, the Countryside House in the Westerkwartier operates as a link or interface between initiators of various rural regional development activities and a wide range of rural and regional policy measures. A team of experts acts as broker between initiators and supporting policies, thus housing representatives of the municipality, province, governmental service of the ministry of agriculture as well as provincial development organizations. At the same time, the Countryside House also stimulates and animates rural development initiatives, amongst others through the residing Association of Groningen Villages and touristic catalysts.

Seniūnija in Alytus County, is a public authority structure below the municipality level. It only has limited functions and is concerned with organizing public/social work, paying social allowances and collecting local information. In contrast to the Westerkwartier, where rural initiators can find all forms of support within the Countryside House, rural initiators in Alytus County thus need to contact different support structures at different levels to receive the right form of support, depending on the subject of their interest. We can therefore conclude that in Lithuania there are more state founded bodies in place at regional/local level, which partly substitute new support structures created in the Netherlands, though similar ‘contact points’ and stimulating/animating functions could be considered to establish within already existing institutions.

 According to the representative of Alytus LAG, the majority of applications received for the first call of their Rural Development Strategy 20010-2013 are aiming to reconstruct public buildings or objects and to improve water quality. The priorities are linked to the basic needs where funding is urgently needed. Rural initiatives in Alytus County also try to use their cultural heritage for rural development. The type of application is linked to the quality of life – more innovative projects can be expected after basic infrastructure is in place.  

Discussion with rural development initiators and actors in Butrimonys seniūnija, Alytus district municipality

During our meeting with the local initiators and actors in Alytus district municipality, Butrimonys seniūnija, it was interesting to note that these people were facing different problems with the support structures than in the Netherlands. For example, one initiator raised the question why individuals are not eligible to receive subsidies for projects when their initiative serves the rural community. This question is particularly interesting considering the low population density, aging population and out-migration in Alytus County. Regarding these circumstances, it is indeed more difficult to find a group of people that is willing to form a legal group in order to request support as required by the LEADER programme (and similar NGO oriented programmes) in Alytus County than in the Westerkwartier. The initiator questioned the artificial formation of an NGO in order to fit the support requirements, when an individual is the actual creator and executer of a non-profit activity. The initiator emphasized the importance of attention to the person, bringing change to rural regions, not only to the organization. Examples of such initiatives in Butrimonys are a weaver of material for national clothes, a founder of internet TV and others. Does this mean that the rules around LEADER need to be adjusted?

A further difference was the type of initiatives founded. In the Westerkwartier, initiatives deal with agriculture, nature, agricultural nature management, business, and tourism and to a lesser extend with culture and youth. In Alytus County, however, the majority of initiatives deal either with culture or with youth or both. This difference occurs because of the different problems and interests of the regions. While a high population density and different interests in the Westerkwartier lead to the formation of various legal groups in order to realize their goals and development visions in the region, these conflicts of interests are not present in Alytus County. Since Alytus County is dealing with out-migration, it is logical that initiatives are founded to keep young people in the region. Furthermore, Lithuania has a strong cultural heritage and has always been careful to preserve its tradition. These initiatives are thus not only stimulated and supported through LEADER but also through cultural funds.

The regional business initiatives ‘Business Association of Alytus Region’ and ‘Business Angel’ noted that regional support to business initiatives is lacking and they struggle to keep their premises and to cover operating costs. This is however understandable, since municipal budgets are limited as a result of the economic crisis. Thus, EU support to this type of NGOs could contribute to the regional learning and business development in Lithuania.

The leader of regional business support initiative “Business Angel” believes in the youth of the region

The comparison of the two case study regions shows that although both case study regions at first sight appear to have similar formal supportive arrangements, their foundation and operation is quite different. This raises the question if supportive arrangements that aim to favour participation, social cohesion and capacity building, like LAG and a Countryside House which were developed in Western European countries, can simply be transferred as a formal standard or blue print to address rural development initiatives and their specific problems in Eastern European countries like Lithuania. One can argue that the presence of a formal arrangement such as the LAG or Countryside House does not by itself increase participation and the individual and collective capacity of inhabitants to act. For this to happen, an arrangement has to operate as an interface between grassroots initiatives and supportive policies and facilities.

Arrangements to support and facilitate joint learning by doing activities in rural development initiatives will soon be evaluated in other DERREG case study regions across Europe (including Ireland, Spain and Germany). It will be interesting to see what further differences will be revealed between these countries.

For more information, you can contact Wiebke Wellbrock ( or Emilija Kairyte (