We have arrived at the final post in the series Rural Economies, Secrets to Success. These posts are certainly not the whole story of rural economic development opportunities. They are barely the first chapter. But they are a starting point for us to engage with the important question, What can rural communities do to take charge of their economic futures?
We have seen how four common characteristics of rural economies which lead to oft-cited rural economic problems, can also be a starting-point for rural economic solutions.
Secret to success #1 was – Embed sustainability: Because rural economies’ deep embeddedness in natural environments means that rural regions are well-placed to lead initiatives for a more sustainable economy;
Secret to success #2 was – Add all kinds of value: Because rural regions that mobilise their strengths can overcome their vulnerable economic positioning in global value chains;
Secret to success #3 was – Re-imagine space: Because many of the limitations that low populations create for rural economic development can now be overcome with clever use of space-spanning digital technologies.
This post offers a final ‘Secret to success’. Secret #4 starts from another common characteristic that diverse rural regions share: their distance from the centres of economic and political decision making. This distance is not only physical, but also social and cultural.
Distance from the centres of economic and political decision making means that rural communities have historically had little influence over the decisions that affect them. Powerful, resource-rich elite institutions have always tended to cluster in capital cities, not in rural areas.
Policies for rural areas are generally created in capital cities. Knowledge about rural areas is generated in urban universities and think-tanks in capital cities. Decisions that impact rural areas are typically made without rural people in the room.
Rural regions often struggle precisely because they are on the receiving end of decisions from elsewhere. Decades of rural development projects around the world have failed because they offered solutions to problems that the decision-makers only partially understood, in contexts almost completely unfamiliar to them. Mark Hobart called this development ignorance. Over thirty years ago, Robert Chambers urged professionals to pay attention to rural people’s knowledge. But very little has changed.
Decisions are informed by what the decision-makers know – and this knowledge is often incomplete. Rural people are, however, in an ideal position to know ‘what works’ in rural regions. By mobilising and communicating their knowledge, rural people can begin to challenge development ignorance. They can draw on what they know about the strengths and opportunities in their local context to equip themselves and others to make better decisions.
Yet in practice, this often doesn’t happen. Rural people’s knowledge remains largely invisible and unrecognised. Urban-based decision makers often struggle with the idea that economic solutions can come from rural communities, and rural people seldom challenge them. There are two common issues.
First, rural people aren’t necessarily confident in expressing what they know. They often internalise the assumption that real knowledge is managed by policy makers or academics in capital cities, and that what they know and do does not really count. Thus, they may be hesitant to engage with academics or policy makers.
Second, rural people’s knowledge is not a single, homogeneous thing; it is often deeply fragmented, both within and across rural communities.
- Within rural communities, people and organisations often fail to ‘connect the dots’ between different groups: industry and community, schools and businesses, arts and trades, young and old… the list goes on. Each part of the community has part of the knowledge required to grasp an opportunity; but no one connects these together. So the opportunity is missed.
- Across rural communities, people and organisations often solve problems independently, reinventing solutions from scratch, rather than benefiting from and building on the knowledge of others in other communities. Grassroots creativity and initiative is wonderful, but rural communities too often spend their scarce resources tackling the world alone, unaware that others have knowledge and experience that can help.
These disconnects mean that rural people’s knowledge often remains invisible, and rural communities lack the confidence and influence to challenge development ignorance. It is difficult for a single rural organisation or community to stand up to powerful, high-status organisations.
The flip side of this, however, is surprisingly simple. When rural organisations and rural communities connect with each other, they gain confidence and influence. They learn from each other. Rural people’s knowledge becomes easier to explain, easier to action – and much harder to ignore.
So here is a proposition to end this series: Rural people’s knowledge – about local environments, social dynamics and context-specific opportunities – can create unique sources of economic advantage. But rural people’s knowledge is not a singular knowledge. Nor does it exist in a vacuum. Rural people’s knowledges are plural and diverse, and they are often disconnected. So long as they remain disconnected, key resources and allies stay out of reach.
Secret to success #4 is – Bring knowledges together: Because that is how strong rural economies are born.