Starting Points #1: Home Place

I grew up in a beautiful region that did not know it was beautiful. That is the starting point of this tale, like the ugly duckling. Once upon a time there was a region called ugly. Its language was called backward; its people uneducated. Its ancient green mountains were labelled not-city, and its productive family farms labelled not-industry.

Where you grow up matters. And what you are taught to believe there matters even more.

This series looks at regional development starting points. When working in or for or with rural regions, it’s important to understand our own starting-points. These affect how we see the regional development landscape, and how we frame problems and solutions.

The first starting point is where you are from.

This isn’t as simple as saying “I’m from a rural region.” That can be a point of credibility, of course; I have heard it used by city-based colleagues when discussing rural issues or rural communities. It suddenly become important for them to say:

I grew up in [insert name of rural town here].

Subtext: “I get it”.

Whether or not they actually do “get it” depends. But the point here isn’t about being born “rural” or “not-rural”, or some hybrid of suburban or mobile childhoods. These categories matter very little.

Rather, it’s about our specific starting-places: real physical places with landscapes and buildings, trees and rocks, people and ideas, that formed your first views of the world.

These starting points tend to keep on colouring and framing what we see, even many years later. They make a difference to how we think about concepts like regional development, and the logics we use to create change.

From my own “home place” here are three frames that still influence what I see today.

  1. The Hollow

Hollow, pronounced holler, is West Virginia dialect for the deep valleys between hills. Hollow was a word people used, but it wasn’t a proper word; nor were hollows themselves particularly proper. In the cultural imaginary hollows were wild, wooded places, hillbilly havens, full of pickup trucks and stills. In practice they were very loosely defined geographies: narrow valleys far from town, most with roads and houses. Some people admitted to living “up a hollow” though most did not.

Hollows taught me that we had our own words; I loved the sound of them, though our traditional Appalachian dialect did not fit the rules of grammar. Hollows encouraged me to look at a landscape of streets and trees and wonder what was else was there, behind the surface, down back roads, their banks tumbling wild with touch-me-nots and honeysuckle. I began to wonder what lives were lived behind the hills, right nearby, just out of sight.

Hollows taught me to look at the world from the bottom up.

2. The Shops

I’ve always had a fascination with shops. It might be because shops were where my grandmother went to escape. There was a shop called Hills and she used to take me there with her, in her big car. It was the type of shop that had everything, in the days – when I was very young – when some department stores were still local. Another local shop recycled dolls, people brought in their old ones to trade and my grandmother saved them: gave them new dresses and new hair. I still have some of those dolls.

I remember shops and I remember how they disappeared. The Hills closed, so many years ago, I was maybe five. Then Murphy’s – with the soda fountain – closed, the Parson Sauders became Stone & Thomas, some big city firm, and only the old people kept calling it Parson Sauders. K Mart came in, and another big chain, and one by one the signs went up the hill, big shiny signs in the trees, names from somewhere else. No one owned these shops; and no one seemed to control them. One day, they chopped the top off the hill. That hill became paved, with big names you know: the Walmart, the Lowe’s.

The shops taught me to notice what is local, and what is not.

3. The Roll of Stamps

When I was eight I told the grownups I wanted to be a writer. The grownups told me: Writers don’t come from West Virginia. Years later, I learned that was wrong…but when you’re eight, you believe what you’re told. Right?

Well, no. I wrote, regardless; I sent my manuscripts away to editors in New York – starting when I was about nine. Poor editors! I can only imagine what landed on their desks. Apologies if any of you are reading….

These were the days of electric typewriters, then dot matrix printers. Manuscripts had to be typed double spaced, one sided, no mistakes, and accompanied by a SASE – a self-addressed stamped envelope. That meant for one piece of writing, I needed at least two stamps: one to send it away, and one to bring it back. So all through my childhood, birthday presents and Christmas presents always included the one thing I needed most: a roll of stamps.

My words traveled in envelopes to New York, where books came from. Then they traveled back again folded up in small their SASE, with little notes to say they were not wanted.

Until I was eighteen, when a New York editor said yes.

I learned that if you start on the margins, you need to buy a lot of stamps.

Those stories from the rural region where I was born just hint at some of the ways my own starting points have influenced how I see rural people and places. I remain unshakably convinced that beauty and brilliance can come from places that other people consider poor, or marginalised, or in need of paving-over. I look for the potential on the ground and am suspicious of the shiny signs on the hill. These are my biases, and my strengths.

And what about you? How does your “home place” – where you are from – influence how you see rural regions? How does it colour and frame the causes and ideas that you are most passionate about? Admitting our biases is also admitting what we know, and what we don’t know. It is the first step toward reflexive practice: that is, the ability to see yourself and your role in the regional development story.

2021 Welcome: Regional Development Starting Points

Welcome to a new year, and a new series from the Bush Prof.

Each new year is a start – even when it starts out looking a lot like the old year. So the new Bush Prof series is about starting points.

It turns out that a great deal about how we see regional development depends on where we start.

If you start from somewhere different, you see a different landscape. I see the back of the mountain, you see the front. Same mountain, different shape.

Background, culture, history – these starting points matter for how we see regions, their problems and solutions.

Training, profession, sector, role – these starting point matter too.

Different starting points cause us to see different things, and develop different strategies for tackling what we see.

Many of the debates in regional development can, I believe, be illuminated by paying attention to starting points.

In this series, I will share my own starting points: where I came from, what I saw, why I became the Bush Prof – rather than, say, a regional economist, a policy analyst, or a bus driver! And I’ll challenge readers to consider their own starting points.

We’ll consider what these starting-points mean for what we see, and what we fail to see, when we look at rural regions and imagine their possible futures.

And we’ll identify some practical strategies we can use to fill in the gaps in our view.

It’s a big agenda, but here in Tasmania the days are long and the sun is bright. So let’s see how far we can get.

How Does Your Region Grow?… The 2020 Wrap

When I started the Spring Series reflecting on regional growth, I did not anticipate how quickly growth would appear on the horizon. Yet now that summer has arrived, it is clear that many rural regions in Australia are setting out on a growth path. Observing the sudden influx of population into our rural regions from our cities. I admit to being reminded of the phrase, Be careful what you wish for.

In much of our region, housing demand and house prices have skyrocketed as new residents arrive. I have spoken recently with several families who simply cannot find a rental property. Locals are starting to be squeezed out of the housing market. Friends and colleagues in other regions report similar situations. Housing shortages in regional areas are starting to make the news, as cashed-up city refugees head bush, seeking to alter their people-to-tree ratio.

Clearly for many rural regions, longstanding aspirations for population growth are quickly becoming a reality. Other kinds of growth – such as regional investment in property assets – are booming too. If growth is really a must-have for rural regions, then Christmas has come early. But what does this growth actually mean for your region?

In this series, we have identified 9 kinds of growth; 3 myths about growth; and some important questions to ask when seeking to grow your region. In this final post, I’d like to step back and reflect on what this all means when suddenly, everyone wants to Be Regional.

9 Kinds of Growth

One of the most important questions to ask about regional growth is, What kind of growth are we talking about? We’ve discussed 9 kinds: from population growth, to jobs growth, to growth in community capacity.

Having one kind of growth doesn’t necessarily mean you have the others. Population growth doesn’t necessarily grow jobs, or businesses, or community capacity. It depends on how the growth is managed. And that “management” is not necessarily done by managers. Households and communities play an important role in steering growth in positive directions.

A sudden influx of people from cities to rural regions can do many things, good and bad. It can grow human capital and community capacity, if the newcomers use their skills locally; it can diminish both, if engaged and knowledgeable locals are displaced. Rapid population growth can destroy amenity, or bolster it; it can infuse new life into local businesses, or bypass them.

Much depends on the extent to which newcomers are willing and enabled to engage in the social and economic life of their new region; and the extent to which the region is able to incorporate and accommodate newcomers.

If the region’s new residents ensconce themselves in home offices and spend their talents and salaries in other places, there will be few benefits for our rural regions. If locals don’t spot the business opportunities, and newcomers don’t buy local… if locals aren’t welcoming, and newcomers don’t get involved… then population growth will have few benefits.

The post-COVID digital landscape brings additional complexities. With remote working and online shopping, it is easier than ever to live in one place and create value elsewhere. If newcomers work and spend elsewhere, and locals are crowded out, this risks creating fragmented communities and a new kind of “two-speed” economy. Long-distance jobs can generate wealth in rural regions, but only if there are connections back into local economies and communities. The same goes for other resources that newcomers bring: such as their skills, networks, and ideas.

Population growth doesn’t necessarily grow everything else. What kind of growth does your region need?

What ind of growth thought bubble
Three Myths

In the Spring Series we have also discussed three myths about growth:

  • Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems
  • Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else
  • Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Each of these myths highlighted that growth isn’t always positive; and even when it is, it doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. These three myths lead us to the second important question to ask about regional growth: Who Benefits?

It is possible for regional incomes to grow, while some people in the region get poorer. It is possible for the number of jobs to grow, but many people still be unemployed. Importantly, not only does growth not necessarily benefit everyone equitably, but growth may displace resources from some people to others. For instance, an investment in the region by foreign businesses can displace local businesses. An overall growth in income may drive local prices higher, to the point where some people can no longer afford to buy what they need.

As regions start to grow – in some cases quickly – it is more important than ever to ask Who benefits? And the flip side is at least as important: Who is bearing the costs of growth? When local people start saying they cannot find housing, or they cannot afford the housing they find, this is a warning flag. Growth is displacing resources and making some people worse off than they were before.

Who benefits? thought bubble
Towards the Future

Conversations about growth in rural regions are often about the future: growth is a goal, a set of targets, something positive to work and hope for. When growth starts to happen and we get what we wish for, then it’s time to unwrap the rhetoric and look at what we really have.

In our region…

  • What are we growing… and what are we failing to grow?
  • Who is benefiting from growth… and who is bearing the costs?

Growth has both benefits and costs; these look different depending on who you are. Sustainable regions recognise this. They harness the benefits to mitigate the costs.

How does your region grow? Not just how quickly… but how equitably? How sustainably?

Growing your Region, Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

In the last post, I started by observing how I often sit in meetings and workshops where regional growth is spoken of as something urgent, a matter of survival for rural regions. Yet it isn’t always very clear what kind of growth the participants are talking about. Growth is one of those shiny words that attracts nearly everyone, yet it is slightly blinding when it shines.

When regional growth is the topic, the next question should always be: what kind of growth, exactly? Is it population growth, or productivity growth? Growth in businesses or growth in jobs? When someone starts to talk about growth, ask: Which growth, exactly, do you mean?

In this series we have discussed nine kinds of growth that are relevant to rural regions. We have seen that growth – of different kinds – can be positive, negative, or a bit of both. We have also seen that the impacts of growth may look different depending on who you are.

In none of these conversations, however, have we seriously challenged the idea that growth in some form is central to the future of rural regions. But spring is heating up, we’re on the cusp of summer, and it’s time. Here is the hot question: Do rural regions really need to grow?

Myth #3: Regions need to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Do regions need to grow, in order to survive and thrive?

There are some lines of thought that suggest they do. A region that does not grow may be portrayed as stagnant, or even in decline. It may be seen as essentially unsustainable, unable to to offer opportunities and so unable to retain people and prosperity.

The old saying goes, if you don’t grow, you die. Is this true for rural regions?

The flip side of the argument is that growth itself can be unsustainable. Growth consumes resources; growth puts pressure on ecosystems. Since most resources are finite, growth cannot be infinite.

So is growth sustainable, or isn’t it? Is it part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The answer is, very simply, it depends.

  • It depends what kind of growth you’re talking about.
  • It depends on what kind of region you’re talking about.
  • It depends on how much growth you’re talking about.
  • And it depends who you are… and what you value in your region.

Take, for instance, population growth. A region with a strong and diverse population probably does not need to grow. A region with a small population on a fragile ecosystem probably should not grow – at least, not much. A region with a small and declining population may need to grow in order to survive – or at least, for local services and businesses to remain viable.

With population growth, it’s often a question of balance: enough people to provide critical mass and vibrancy; not too many for the local community and environment to absorb. But there is no scientific precision behind ‘enough’ and ‘too many’: regions aren’t rated with a carrying capacity! Enough and too many are largely questions of human preferences. What is your preferred people to tree ratio?:

Does this preference change if you are running a retail shop, or an artist’s retreat? Does it look different when you are collecting council rates, than when you are mapping species diversity?

Population growth is seldom a necessity – after all, many rural regions have survived for hundreds and thousands of years with small populations. Population growth may, however, be a preference – even, a preference masquerading as necessity. In the end, what you prefer depends on who you are.

And what about economic growth? Many definitions of regional development put productivity growth at the centre. Successful regions, through a traditional economics lens, are expected to grow their productivity – continually. But how much, for how long, can productivity grow?

Traditional calculations of productivity are problematic when they fail to put a value on the resources that are consumed in order to produce more. This is a recipe for healthy statistics and unhealthy regions. Over the long term, this kind of ‘productivity’ is a race to the bottom as it drains resources from the local place.

Productivity, therefore, must be balanced with sustainability – growth should not deplete the resource base. Some regions may need to grow their productivity; it may be the only way for them to create or buy the resources they need. But it matters what is being produced, what it costs to produce it, and who benefits. Bigger factories don’t necessarily generate more school books.

Similarly, growing jobs or incomes may be vital for regions where people lack secure livelihoods. But be careful of assumptions. Is it really more jobs that are required, or making existing jobs more accessible? Simply adding more jobs won’t solve problems like lack of access to transport or child care.

Growth is a necessity sometimes… and sometimes, it isn’t what is needed at all. Growing human capital may be necessary in regions where the population is under-educated. But again, be careful of assumptions. Are more qualifications needed, or more recognition of what local people already know? Are more formal courses needed, or more informal learning opportunities?

The next time you’re in a room and someone says growth is the goal for your region, ask, What kind of growth?

Ask why it is needed, and what it will achieve. Ask, What are the costs?

And importantly, Who will benefit?

If you like the answers… then you’re good to grow.

Growing Your Region, Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

I cannot count how many meetings, workshops and talks I have sat through where the term regional growth is accompanied by words such as must, urgent, and vital. The message is that growth is not an option for rural regions, it is non-negotiable for survival. It is usually unclear, however, which kind of growth is driving this urgency.

In our Spring Series, we have been exploring 9 different kinds of growth relevant to rural regions. Each kind of growth is a process that creates different results – and results can vary quite a bit depending on the local context. In the last post, we saw that population growth can have a range of impacts, both positive and negative.

In this post, we’ll explore economic growth: another topic that can raise urgency and passion in rural communities. Recall that economic growth in practice is not a single ‘thing’; it can take multiple forms: such as growth in jobs; growth in productivity; growth in the number of businesses in a region; growth in regional investment; and growth in incomes.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is growth-updated.png

All are relevant forms of growth for rural regions – but they do not all happen in the same way, or at the same time. Further, some assumptions about economic growth can be dangerous when seeking to create prosperous futures for rural communities.

Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else

There is a long tradition in development work of expecting that all issues can be solved if only we had a strong economy. A strong economy, a growing economy, generates resources – and rural communities need resources. So economic growth is painted as a motor that will grow everything else.

Despite this logic, ‘economy first’ approaches have generally failed to deliver good results, particularly for regions that start from a position of disadvantage. When economic growth happens, the results tend to be uneven. Some things grow; other things don’t. Some people benefit; other people don’t.

To understand why, it is useful to remember that economic growth actually refers to a number of different processes within a regional economy. Growth in jobs, growth in productivity, in businesses, in regional investment and in incomes are all different economic processes, with different outcomes. Each has different flow-on impacts, and each benefits different people differently.

Jobs growth, for instance, is not the same as productivity growth. Jobs growth means more jobs in an economy; this benefits workers and people who are looking for work. Jobs growth may flow on to support other forms of growth, such as household income. Productivity growth, on the other hand, benefits business owners and investors, but not necessarily workers.

Productivity growth may also flow on to generate other kinds of growth: for instance if the profits from productivity are re-invested in workers (jobs, human capital), infrastructure, or community benefit. But if profits leave the region, productivity growth will not have much impact. In some cases, it can even have a negative impact: if growth is achieved by diminishing other regional resources, such as natural environments or social capital.

Growth in the number of businesses is another kind of economic growth; it is very useful for diversifying regional economies. Business growth may also grow jobs in a region – but not necessarily. Some businesses, even quite successful and productive ones, don’t require much labour. So businesses may grow and jobs not. The relationship between business growth and jobs growth may even move in opposite directions: when jobs disappear, business numbers may actually grow as people look to self-employment to make a living.

Economic growth can generate important benefits – and costs – but benefits and costs vary depending on what, exactly, is growing – and who is in a position to benefit. For instance, is growth in incomes enjoyed by many people in the region, or concentrated in the pockets of a handful of wealthy people? Economic growth can make entire regions more prosperous, or it can widen the gap between haves and have-nots, growing only inequity and disadvantage.

The relationship between economic growth and other forms of positive regional growth is often far from straightforward. It depends a great deal on how the growth is generated, and how the fruits of growth are distributed. Economic growth can create the resources to enhance local amenity; or it can sap resources from the environment and diminish amenity. Economic growth invested in people can grow human capital and community capacity; yet economic growth at the cost of people and communities can diminish both.

In the end, it is unrealistic to expect that economic growth will grow everything in a region. The important thing is to be clear about what kind of growth you are seeking to create; how growth will generate (and not diminish) regional resources; and who will benefit. This is the start of a recipe for regional prosperity.

Growing Your Region: Myths and Possibilities

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

Growth is one of those shiny words that always seems to mean something positive. Children grow, plants grow, and when we learn or stretch or extend ourselves, we say we grow. And what about the places where we live, the places that matter to us? Can our regions grow, too?

In the last post, we identified nine different kinds of growth. All are different – yet all are relevant to rural regions. Here they are again, this time in a picture:

Recognising that there are different kinds of growth makes it clear that growth is not one single, shiny thing. Nor is it necessarily good or bad. Rather, we need to ask the question: What kind of growth? And who benefits?

When politicians or policy makers promise regional growth, what do they mean, really?

Recognising that there are different kinds of growth, that interact in different ways, can give us the tools to challenge some common myths about regional growth.

Here are some of them:

  • Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems
  • Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else
  • Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Over the next posts, we’ll look at these myths, starting now with #1:

Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems

Let’s start with population growth. For rural regions, population growth is often presented as a solution to regional problems – even, as a synonym for regional development. Yet this is not necessarily the case. Population growth simply means that there are more people in a region. This does not lead automatically to other kinds of growth.

How does population growth relate to other kinds of growth? The answer is… it depends!

For instance, population growth can lead to employment growth, if new residents use local shops and services. But if new residents spend elsewhere, growing population is unlikely to lead to more employment. It may even increase competition for local jobs.

Population growth in a region can increase local amenity, when there are now enough local people to support a bank, a footy club, or a university campus. But growing the population can also decrease amenity, when roads become clogged and views blocked by houses.

Population growth can grow investment in the region, if new residents come with money to invest. But ultimately the effects depend on what they invest in. Investment in businesses may have flow-on benefits to employment and productivity, while investment in houses may have little impact… or even drive housing out of reach of locals.

Growing population can build community capacity by adding new skills and networks into the local region; but only if the newcomers join in – and are accepted – as part of the community. Growing population can just as easily lead to fragmented communities.

In the end, population growth on its own is nether good nor bad, and it is rarely a stand-alone solution. Population growth can bring benefits, and it can also bring problems. Its relationship to other kinds of growth depends on the speed of population growth, and its nature. It matters who comes to the region, and why they are there. It matters what do they do when they get there, and how others in the region respond…. Because population growth is ultimately about people, not numbers.

Growing Your Region: Nine Kinds of Growth

Our Spring Series is about growth in rural regions. But what do we mean by growth? Growth is a word that can mean different things. Sometimes it can mean different things in the same conversation, and the result is the conceptual equivalent of spring mud.

Our task in this post is to start to make sense of the mud. What kind of growth are we talking about, and how do we know if we have it?

I propose that there are actually nine kinds of growth that are relevant to rural regions.

Economic growth, it may surprise you, is not one of them.

Not one, but five. There are at least five different kinds of economic growth that matter for rural regions. For instance:

  1. Growth in the number of Jobs.
  • Job creation is particularly important for rural regions with limited employment options, and regions that are in transition from an old industry base into a new one.
  1. Growth in Productivity
  • Productivity growth means more value is produced in the region’s economy, for more competitive regional industries.

Jobs Growth and Productivity Growth are both kinds of economic growth, but they are not the same thing. Productive, globally competitive regional industries may create more jobs in the region – but not necessarily. In practice, businesses may also shed jobs to boost productivity, replacing workers with machines or moving jobs away to cheaper locations.

There are other kinds of economic growth too. For instance:

  1. Growth in the number of Businesses
  • Increasing numbers of business start-ups in a region suggest entrepreneurial dynamism and a more diverse regional economy.
  1. Growth in Regional Investment
  • Attracting investment into a region provides important inputs for other forms of growth, with flow-on benefits depending on where the investments are made.

Business and Investment Growth are a common focus of regional economic development plans, but they are not the same thing. Nor do these kinds of growth necessarily grow jobs or productivity. Investment, for instance, may be directed to a range of ends, not all of which are productive or beneficial to the region (think of absentee owners buying up housing stock).

A fifth form of economic growth is:

  1. Growth in Incomes
  • Growth in the average incomes of individuals or households in the region points to a more prosperous population.

When we talk about economic growth, therefore, we may not be talking about the same thing. While these five kinds of growth are related, they are not interchangeable. Growth in one does not imply growth in another.

Nor is economic growth the only kind of growth that matters for rural regions. Sometimes, when we talk about growth, we’re not talking about the economy at all.

Here are four other kinds of growth that are deeply relevant to rural regions:

  1. Population Growth
  • Population growth means, simply, growth in the number of people who live in the region. It may, or may, not relate to any of the economic ideas above.
  1. Growth in Human Capital
  • Human capital growth means an increase in the skills and education of the population, achieved by importing skilled people, and/or growing the skills of locals.
  1. Growth in Amenity
  • Amenity refers to the number and quality of facilities, services, and other environmental and sociocultural attributes in a region that support well being and livability.
  1. Growth in Community Capacity
  • Growth in community capacity is an increase in the ability of regional communities to solve problems, support each another, and proactively manage change.

There they are: 9 kinds of growth. All important and relevant for rural regions; and all different.

If the aim is to Grow your Region, this raises the question, What kinds of growth does your region need? Knowing what you are aiming for will get the best results!

Spring Series: Growing Your Region

Spring is nearly here, and the stand of slender wattles just beyond the orchard is bright yellow. Those trees stand tall in a space that, ten years ago, was a grassy paddock. Wattles come up from nothing; wattles are fast. They make a good starting point for our spring theme: Growth.

Careful readers of the last two Bush Prof series may have noticed that I seldom use the word growth. When I wrote about rural economies, I spoke of secrets to success; when I talked about grassroots development, I spoke of positive change. My language was vague, and this was intentional. Success and positive change are place-holders, fill-in-the-blanks for each reader to fill for themselves, because – as we know from our last series – development looks different depending on who you are.

I wasn’t ready to tackle the growth question, yet: not with an audience that was just warming up. But now we’re in spring, the sun is out, and the wattles remind me that it is time. Growth is out there, it is powerful, and it influences how almost everyone thinks about regional development in rural regions – whether they realise it or not.

For many people, development is all about growth. Regional development = regional growth, plain and simple. If a child or a tree develops, it is growing; the same goes for rural regions and their economies.

For other people, however, growth is problematic. Trees and children grow only so far; why should economies be expected to grow forever? Questioning the sustainability or desirability of growth has led to a range of counter-narratives about development, from ‘small is beautiful’ to ‘degrowth’.

These debates about growth run deep through the history of development policy and practice. And they regularly surface in practical conversations about how to define and measure success in rural regions.

Is success about growth, or is it about something else?

Or perhaps there is a deeper question here:

If we are seeking to grow our region, what is it, exactly, that are we trying to grow?

Let’s explore this question in our Spring Series. Welcome aboard!

Grassroots Development, Practical Takeaways: How to Make Space for Change

We’ve reached the end of our winter series, Rural Development From the Ground Up. Thank you to all who have come along on the journey! If you’d like to review the past posts or share them on, the full series is here.

Our exploration of grassroots development set out to be practical. That means it’s time to gather up some practical takeaways you can use when working in and with rural communities.

First, we’ve learned that grassroots development is a hopeful idea that actually works. If your aim is to solve problems in rural places, start by recognising the power of the people on the ground to create change for themselves. Remember: You don’t have to do it for them!

Second, we’ve learned that rural communities are diverse, and they don’t think or act in unison. So when you are working with communities, don’t expect to find a single spokesperson or a single point of view. Pay attention to what different people say… and listen for the differences!

Third, we’ve seen that positive change can start with anyone, anywhere. The key… is to start, rather than waiting for change to arrive. Grassroots development happens when individuals and groups mobilise resources and support to make their ideas happen. So don’t be afraid to start!

Fourth, we’ve seen that people have different ideas about what positive change looks like, and different ideas about how to get there. In the end, development looks different depending on who you are! So don’t be surprised to find different visions of positive change in the same rural community. Importantly, pay attention to whether everyone has the opportunity to create change.

Finally, grassroots development requires space: to think and act; to mobilise resources and support. When people and communities seem stuck in poverty, pay attention to what is blocking them. How much room to manoeuvre do they actually have? What needs to shift to create space for change?

In the end, I still love the shiny hopeful idea of Grassroots Development, just as much as I did years ago when I read about it in books like Kevin Healy’s Llamas, Weaving and Organic Chocolate and Charles David Kleymeyer’s Cultural Expression and Grassroots Development. Perhaps I even love it all the more now that I understand the messiness of change on the ground. Messiness is creative; messiness can spark new ideas and make space for voices we haven’t heard yet. In Knowledge Partnering for Community Development I talk about how bringing different kinds of knowledge together in communities can catalyse new solutions. I learned that from working with rural communities…and it works. I keep learning!

Getting to the bottom of ‘bottom up’: Broken things and hidden treasure

This post is part of the series Rural Development From the Ground Up. Read the full series here.

These last few weeks, we’ve been unpacking a metaphorical crate to explore, layer by layer, the practical aspects of grassroots development. We’ve examined the shiny hopeful idea that rural communities can create their own positive change from the ground up. We’ve dug down into some of the messy works about what community-led change from the bottom up actually looks like in practice. We learned that communities are diverse, and one person’s change can be another person’s clutter.

Yet the overall story has been positive: we have seen that people can create change. Grassroots development works in practice.

Then we hit something solid, hard. Grassroots development works, yes, but not for everyone. Not everyone gets to create change.

This is the bottom of our metaphorical crate, the bottom of the story. Here we find broken things – and hidden treasure.

Let’s start with what’s broken. We have lots of words to describe it: poverty, disadvantage, and exclusion. We can ramp up those words for seriousness: extreme poverty, entrenched disadvantage, generational exclusion. We can focus on the definition and measurement of economic, social, environmental, cultural, or multidimensional poverty, disadvantage and exclusion.

But at the bottom of the crate, the practical question is, why do people stay poor, disadvantaged, and excluded? If grassroots development really works, why doesn’t it work for them?

The answer is surprisingly simple, and it is not where most people look for it. The reason is not primarily about things that ‘poor people’ lack: like money, or education, or the motivation to better themselves. Lacks and absences on the ground are indicators that something deeper is wrong.

Grassroots development fails when the space for change is taken away.

Generally, people who are ‘poor’ are doing everything they can to improve their situation. Ethnographers who have spent time with poor communities have described how poor people are often very strategic and work very hard. Yet the social context in which they live does not give them much space to make their ideas happen. Instead, it constrains and blocks them, keeping resources and opportunities out of reach.

The more constraints and blocks that are in place, the harder it is for people to formulate and express their ideas, or put them into action. Grassroots change requires room to manoeuvre: to put forward ideas, and to identify and mobilise resources and support. This can only happen when it is allowed; when it is safe; when it is accepted, and not squashed. People need space to create change.

Unfortunately, people are very good at taking away each other’s space. Around the world, communities and societies create hierarchies, institutions, processes and rules that are comfortable and affirming for some people and groups, and foreign and oppressive for others. The world is full of people and organisations that take away other people’s room to manoeuvre: prescribing what they can and cannot do, what resources are off-limits, and what options are not open for them.

Sociologists call these limiting factors ‘structures’, but they are not as impersonal as that language suggests. Structures are always created by people. Whether in rural towns or corporate boardrooms, communities of people make and re-make the rules that say who can do what. Old customs and assumptions persist unquestioned; new rules keep claiming space. As people create and maintain structures that constrain others, space for change disappears. People are silenced before they can speak, and blocked before they can act.

Poverty persists whenever the space for change is taken away. And now, among the litter of broken things, we can see the treasure: the bit we have been missing all along.

The ‘poor’ as others label them at the bottom of the crate, are not a problem to be solved. They are not an intractable social issue or a costly economic load. They are people with ideas and energy, people who can create change.

They just need space to do it.