What is rural development about?

On 1 January 2011, 41% of EU-27 population lived in urban regions, 35% in intermediate regions and only 23% in rural regions, as suggested by the latest release of Eurostat. What is more, the population of urban regions grew by 5.2 per 1000 inhabitants, that of intermediate regions by 2.2‰, while rural regions decreased by 0.8‰ in 2010. These figures are based on a revised urban/rural typology, developed by the European Commission, and are valid for NUTS3 regions. Regions are classified as rural, intermediate or urban based on population density and total population.

However, as expected, individual member states differ significantly regarding the share of their rural population. The largest proportion of the population living in rural areas can be found in Ireland (73%), Slovakia (50%) and Estonia (48%). As another side of the coin, the largest share of the population living in urban areas can be seen in Malta (100%), the United Kingdom (71%) and the Netherlands (71%).

This situation is an outcome of a longer structural change and has several reasons like ageing society, lack of rural job opportunities, economic development patterns, etc. What is for sure is that EU rural development policy could not reverse these trends and was not effective in retaining people in rural areas. The second pillar of the CAP supported farming, agri-environmental programmes, economic diversification and the quality of life in rural areas but all in all, rural residents have gone.

What I find a basic problem here is that no one knows what rural development is really about. Some say it is about farm competitiveness enhancement, some suggest it deals with the environment and again some argue it seeks to increase quality of life. Currently it seems that RDP is confusing many different issues without clear targets. What is more, Eurostat figures suggest that current priorities in rural development show little evidence of recognising the problems experienced in rural areas. In allocating the vast majority of resources to the current first two axes, problems touched upon in the third axis, which are more about the essence of rural development, can not be properly tackled. Although many measures in the first two axes also have a number of second order effects, they are not well-targeted towards improving the standard of living of rural people. It is disappointing, for instance, that one of the most pressing issues in rural areas, namely rural poverty, seems to be side-lined. Are we sure that rural development is doing what is should be doing?

Unfortunately, the future does not appear to change in this regard. Most of the eleven thematic objectives and six rural development priorities proposed by the Commission are again about different issues which will maintain confusion. The debate is again about small details and not about the whole design. With such a broad spectrum of targets, I wonder who will evaluate (and on what basis) in the future whether public money spent on rural development has led to the achievement of the policy’s aims or not. By definition, a good policy should contain four elements: problem identification, design, implementation and feedback. I would be glad to hear which of these is working well in the case of rural development.

This post was written by Attila Jambor.

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One Response to “What is rural development about?”

  1. Jack Thurston →
    April 12, 2012 at 09:41 #

    A classification of urban/rural ‘regions’ based on NUTS3 regions makes little sense as the basis for policy. NUTS3 regions are rather large and typically contain urban, rural and suburban areas. It’s conceivable that the typology is workable for Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands because their NUTS3 regions are much smaller than those in other countries. For a map see: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/NUTS_3_regions_EU-27.svg

    It seems as though the Commission is way behind the current thinking in economic development policy which tends to think in terms of ‘city regions’ as the units of analysis rather than observing hard demarcations between city places and rural places with ‘intermediate’ places as a kind of half-way house between the two poles.

    Turning to the main thrust of your post, ever since the introduction of the Rural Development Regulation by Franz Fischler in the 1990s, I have regarded it as being a potentially useful policy with a misleading name. It’s not really a rural development policy, rather the aggregate of various “second generation” agricultural policy measures whose only shared characteristic is that they are not “first generation” measures (commodity market management / farm income support).

    As such it is not a single policy but a panoply of measures within an overall budget heading. Policy analysis is better focussed on the individual elements of the RDR rather than the aggregate whole.