Rural development—a ticking time bomb?

3.7.2017 | In many parts of the world people are leaving the countryside. As a result rural populations are ageing. In Europe, the European Union and national governments try to renew rural areas. But instead of improving the situation, in some regions they might actually inadvertently be creating a ticking time bomb. Prof. Seema Arora-Jonsson researches how rural development and environmental governance are carried out in rural areas and what effects gender and ethnicity have on the development.
Prof. Seema Arora-Jonsson
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(© Seema Arora-Jonsson)

Prof. Seema Arora-Jonsson

Dr. Arora-Jonsson, what is the situation on the countryside at the moment?

Since the 1950s agriculture and forestry in rural areas in Sweden have been rationalized and modernized. People moved to the cities in search of employment. The rural population declined and a lot of the services disappeared from rural areas: Schools were shut down, shops closed and authorities such as local police offices, post offices and medical services were centralized to towns. Rural people seem to have been left behind, deprived of basic services. Of course, this hasn’t been the same for all rural areas in Sweden and varies throughout time.

Is it still true then that rural populations are ageing?

In some ways, yes. There is an ageing white population. What is interesting, however, is that with the immigrants coming in—especially with the recent refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia—the average age is also going down and the number of people in many municipalities across the country has gone up. Besides, many of the refugees are younger and have children as well.

So, no ageing but a new influx of young people. That sounds good.

In a way it is, and many municipalities are happy about it. But it also creates new challenges for rural democracy and rural development. For example, rural policies do not really take into account this change in demography. Most policy makers still tend to think in terms of a homogeneous and white rural Sweden instead of looking at the actual population in the countryside.

Due to immigration, rural populations in Sweden are becoming younger and more diverse
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(© Adobestock / Sergey Novikov)

Due to immigration, rural populations in Sweden are becoming younger and more diverse | ...but rural policies often do not really take into account this change in demography, Prof. Arora-Jonsson says.

What actions are being taken to improve the situation in the countryside?

In the new forms of rural governance advocated by the European Union and also national governments, development is meant to be carried out in partnerships between the public-private and the voluntary sector. They want a bottom-up approach where people can come up with their own ideas for rural development.

In my research with some rural communities in Sweden, I have studied the possibilities for groups to use these “bottom-up”-opportunities and contribute to rural development. In practice, it means, more and more basic services are being devolved and carried out by voluntary associations instead of by governmental agencies. These are projects like transportation, or getting broadband etc.

Where is the catch in that?

While there are all these visions for change, associations are getting caught up in providing services with little infrastructure or resources. Also, associations for development and integration are structured in a way that makes it difficult for several people, including newcomers such as the immigrants, in getting involved in the work taking place. When looking at gender, ethnicity and age in the associations, I found that even though women were active in associations, leadership positions were dominated by older white men. There were no immigrants in any of the Swedish associations that I spoke with and very few young people. The immigrants have their own associations of course but that creates a kind of a parallel world and can lead to more exclusion instead of integration. It is a bit of a catch 22—more and more responsibility for development is being handed down to the associations at the same time as the people running the associations are becoming older and frail.

Creating change using a bottom-up approach should reduce boundaries. Especially for those people that were left behind in the last years. Yet, it seems to exclude especially those people?

Yes, in a way it can have the opposite effect: Instead of opening up the space for rural development, the informality, the routines and bureaucracy of new rural governance can exclude many people. The government wanted development from below. In many instances it has worked, as people have been able to use funds from the Rural Program and the EU for activities that they consider important to their region. But the people involved are mainly those who have always been influential in their areas and traditionally have had more power.

So, in a way, this approach can reinstate elites. When the state lets go and asks the people to organize themselves, networks become really important. The question is who already has access to networks and who hasn’t? That makes all the differences: People from outside, and in some ways also women and young people, who might have less access to these networks are often left out. So it is important to have structures that enable the participation of diverse groups of people. At the moment, it is left to self-organizing and then of course those who have greater resources and reach will tend to dominate.

Do you have an example of a project that has changed relations in rural areas?

Let me give you an example from my research. I study climate programs like REDD+ [Reducing Emissions to Deforestation and Degradation]. To put it simply, the logic behind REDD+ is that the global North [that is, Europe, the US and so on] pays villagers and others in the global South [countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America] to stop logging trees from the forests for their use. This is considered to be a cheaper way to sequester carbon than doing that in the global North.

In other words, villagers in the global South are encouraged not to use their forests. They would be compensated with payments instead for what they would have gotten from the wood in the forest. It sounds simple but is in fact extremely complicated and problematic. In some villages in Tanzania for example, this created problems within the communities: It used to be the women who did all the farming while the men worked in the forests. Suddenly the men had nothing to do but, due to societal norms, they couldn’t possibly farm - that was considered women’s work. The villagers also have very little land for farming. As a result there was a great deal of pressure on the women while there were not many options for the men resulting in all kinds of tensions and pressure on gender relations.

If one wants to include women and integrate minorities, what options do they have that might actually work?

One interesting example comes from my research in India: I studied a community forestry movement in the state of Odisha where villagers worked to protect their forests, prevent deforestation and regenerate the forests. It was a social movement, too. The movement got some funding from Oxfam who quickly realized that women were missing from the decision-making process in the movement and insisted that they be included. NGOs also pressured for the women to be more included. As a result they got funding from Oxfam to organize micro-groups or sewing classes to help the women to participate. The forestry groups began to ask women to join the meetings but most of the time only one or two women were called in as representatives. When they did attend, they hardly ever spoke. As a result they started to organize micro-groups or sewing classes to make women participate.

Did these women-only groups work?

An interesting thing actually happened. The women had a reason to meet in public and started to discuss issues that concerned them in particular. That’s unique because normally they are all very busy and also, it is considered inappropriate for them to meet in public spaces. But with the project backing them up, they had a good reason to meet.

Some groups even became more radical and started questioning things like violence against women and new approaches for forest management. They were vocal and outspoken. But in the general meetings the women’s groups’ representatives were often silent. When asked why, they said “because we never got a chance to talk there in between all the long speeches by the men”. For the women, representative democracy did not work because alone they would not be heard. But as a group from the outside they began to make a difference. Numbers within organizations do matter! And also the fact of being able to have their own group where they could decide on their own agenda.

Would that also work in a European context?

That is something I was interested in, too. I studied a similar situation in Sweden where villagers wanted some rights to decide over the forests surrounding their villages. In this case you would think that women have all the possibilities and can speak up in meetings. But here, too, the meetings were dominated by older men. So the women decided that they wanted their own group where they could take up questions that they felt were important. In comparison to India however, the sense that they were already gender equal and the belief that community institutions were neutral, came in the way of collective activism, despite them organizing themselves separately.

Would it be enough to tackle the gender problem to improve bottom-up approaches in rural development in Europe?

I'm afraid there is more to it than just the gender problem. For example, with the LEADER program the EU has made money available for rural development. Rural areas are encouraged to find out what is unique about their areas and then develop ideas that can lead to the areas’ development. This has prompted authorities and others to create essentialized notions of what rural Sweden is. In one big project, the result was the idea of a very white, male and upper-class community based on a narrow reading of history and that excluded other groups around them. It is not always a conscious attempt to exclude people but more of a structural problem in not being very open to diversity.

So, a gender and ethnicity problem again?

It is also a structural and monetary problem: In the LEADER program in the past, some Local Action Groups decided which projects would get funded. That quickly became a problem because the members of these groups were also part of the community in these areas. Suddenly they had to decide over whether or not their neighbour will get money, how much they will get and who would not get funded. It was not a neutral government agency who made these decisions and who would not have to personally deal with the consequences in such a small community.

Another example are the local football clubs for children, often run by the parents. With the refugee influx, the state wants to use these football clubs as sources for integration. Suddenly now, there is money available for things that were previously done on a voluntary basis. The problem for many of these small associations now is: who among them will get paid to organize everything at a bigger scale? Who is supposed to decide who would get money for what they used to do for free and who would not?

That's a lot of responsibility for people that just wanted to volunteer.

Indeed. In a way, the idea of development through projects erodes the volunteer ethic because so far people have been doing these things because they wanted to. Now that there is money involved, it brings all kinds of potential conflicts between and within these groups.

Aren't these things governmental responsibilities?

It indeed shifts governmental responsibilities to NGOs, associations and private people that don't always have the structures to organize everything. In fact, one of the volunteers that I interviewed—this was not in relation to the refugee crisis but to services provided in the countryside—said: “It is a ticking time bomb. Now we have to organize everything. But we don’t have the structures for it and we are getting old. How are we going to support it?”

What does it do to the people’s relationship with the government?

Rural areas that have had little governmental services in the past, will always say “at least something” if money comes in. This is the same in Tanzania or Sweden. People won’t say no because at least it’s something. At the same time, they can get pressured into positions that takes them out of their depth. It’s double edged because they can’t simply say no but also do not have the structures to take on all the responsibility. Also, the boundaries between civil society and government are getting blurred and based on a form of informal lobbying. So, it is indeed a ticking time bomb for the society, as well as for the people’s relationship with the state.

  (© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and

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