Within the European research project DERREG, we are investigating how public policy can best be arranged to stimulate capacity building within development initiatives operating at grassroots level in rural areas across the European Union.
To find out how public policy interventions can best be arranged, we and our research partners have spoken to various stakeholders in different rural regions across the European Union to find out how they intend to support and facilitate learning and innovation and- most importantly- how the support and facilitation agreed upon is actually provided to the grassroots development initiatives. To find out what is working well and what isn’t working well yet, we have spoken to a number of grassroots development initiators in the participating DERREG case study areas and ask them to evaluate the current support and facilitation received.
To be able to compare the results obtained in the different case study areas, I have travelled to Alytus County, Lithuania in October and Oberlausitz, Germany in December of 2010. In January of this year, I was able to visit our colleague Lola Dominguez Garcia of Universidade de Vigo in the Comarca de Verín in the South-West of Galicia, Spain. In this blog, we intend to share our experiences.
Like Alytus County and Oberlausitz, the Comarca de Verín differs from the Westerkwartier in terms of population, geographical and socio-economic characteristics. It comprises eight municipalities on a surface of 1003 km² (Westerkwartier: 374 km²). The area is characterized by hills with shrub vegetation and forests (montes) and valleys. The population has been declining over the years, leaving an estimated ~29 inhabitants/km² (Westerkwartier: 174 inhabitants /km²).
In both areas, the Westerkwartier and the Comarca, the agriculture is an -even though declining- important economic sector and shaper of the local landscape. In the Westerkwartier, agriculture plays therefore an integrated role within rural development and is only one of the targets of policy interventions for capacity building. In the Comarca de Verín, in contrast, agriculture and the related food processing sector are the primary targets of support and facilitation to stimulate capacity building because they are regarded as an important potential driving force to maintain nature, landscape and social cohesion.
Consequently, socio-economic development programmes such as LEADER are targeting different development initiatives in both areas. In the Comarca de Verín, individual entrepreneurs are the primary beneficiaries of LEADER funds as, for example, in the case of the first LEADER programmes the plant nursery Ecoagro Viveros, the cooperative A Xuntoira producing wood kitchen doors or the winery Bodega Quinta da Muradella. In the Westerkwartier, in contrast, beneficiaries include entrepreneurs, civic as well as landscape and nature oriented grassroots development initiatives. These are asked to form legal entities (such as associations or foundations) before they can apply for LEADER support, thus encouraging only groups of people to apply in place of individuals. One can therefore argue that in the Westerkwartier, LEADER is stimulating joint learning and innovation processes while in the Comarca de Verín it is more focussed on stimulating individual capacity building amongst entrepreneurs. In the Westerkwartier, individual entrepreneurs are supported through a separate (LEADER financed) programme (STIPO) while in the Comarca de Verín initiatives dealing with civic and community development, such as the Cirgarrons of Verín, are supported through different local funds but not through LEADER funds. As regards farming activities different European funds have been of high importance to foster some at first individual, later common initiatives as it is the case of the bio-cooperative Biocoop.
The Westerkwartier is participating in the LEADER programme for the first time while the Comarca de Verín is already participating in the fourth LEADER period. Throughout this time, the operation of LEADER in the Comarca has seen an increasing inrush of politics on decisions of who and what to support and facilitate at grassroots level. Currently, the local action group in Verín (consisting of politicians, entrepreneurs and local stakeholders) is only left an advisory function and helps grassroots development initiators to write subsidy requests which will be handed to the Xunta of Galicia (local government) who then decides whether the request is approved. In the Westerkwartier, the LAG has an advisory function and decision power as to whether a proposal is supported or not. Since the LAG in the Comarca has only an advisory function and the decisive powers lies with the Xunta, LEADER- and in fact the whole rural development process- is characterized as a political instrument.
The described dominance of politicians on agreements on what and who to support and facilitate at grassroots level also influences the realization of these measures in the Comarca. For example, like in the Westerkwartier, a house was allocated (actually constructed) in the Comarca de Verín to facilitate get-togethers, knowledge exchange and cooperation between grassroots development initiatives. The same function is fulfilled (amongst others things) by the rural house and rural cafés in the Westerkwartier. In reality, however, the Centre for Integrated Development Cooperation of Verín is not used by grassroots development initiatives (except one). Get-togethers of local initiatives is thus not stimulated by simply providing the necessary infrastructure.
Consequently, grassroots development initiators seek support and facilitation from other agents and institutes- either outside the Comarca or of national and regional agencies which have an office in the Comarca (e.g. Comarcal Agricultural Organisation). Especially the Comarcal Agricultural Organisation (former extension service) was given high importance in supporting and stimulating grassroots development initiatives in the past but because of a change in policy they function is momentarily reduced to administrative tasks. Similarly, also the NGO Portas Abertas and the PDO Monterrei were stated as important facilitators and supporters of economic grassroots development initiatives within the field of agriculture and related production.
Apart from these agents and institutes, informal networking activities were considered a further important source for learning and innovation at grassroots level. Informal networking activities, in turn, appear to depend largely on the role of specific persons operating at grassroots level who are keen and able to foster different lines of development, looking for new opportunities and/or improving the already existing ones.
The different forms in which support and facilitation is provided to grassroots development initiatives in Alytus County, Oberlausitz, Comarca de Verín and the Westerkwartier indicate that the way in which policy interventions can best be arranged and the way in which people can be motivated to collaborate at grassroots level differ considerably within the European Union. It is therefore not possible to find a one-fits-all formula to identify what arrangements work best to support and facilitate learning and innovation within development initiatives working at grassroots level. Our next task is therefore to identify and describe dimensions that determine what type of support and facilitation is working well in what regional context and for which target groups.
For further information on learning and innovation within grassroots development initiatives you can contact Lola Dominguez Garcia (email@example.com, Comarca de Verín) or Wiebke Wellbrock (firstname.lastname@example.org, Westerkwartier).
Stay also tuned for future weblogs about examples of how to support and facilitate learning and innovation within grassroots development initiatives across the European Union!