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.

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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.

Grassroots development, digging deeper: Teacups, tangles, other people’s stuff

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

This series is exploring the hands-on, down-to-earth aspects of rural development. Using the practical metaphor of unpacking a crate, we are unpacking the theory and practice of grassroots development layer by layer: from the shiny, hopeful idea of Development – and its dangers – to the compelling idea that rural communities themselves can create change.

The idea that rural communities can create change is important, because around the world, rural people often lack access to things they need. Economic and political power concentrates in urban regions; so do educational opportunities, jobs, and services. Rural voices are frequently missing in the corridors of power, where resourcing decisions are made. Rural disadvantage persists. And rural people end up as the objects of other people’s development efforts.

Recognising rural people as change agents flips the narrative: rural development is no longer about doing things ‘to’ or ‘for’ disadvantaged rural communities, but about change created with and directly by communities, from the ground up. These rural development efforts, informed by community knowledge and energised by community buy-in, have a much higher likelihood of success.

Flipping the narrative from passive rural disadvantage to active rural change-making is a vital first step in successful rural development. But it is not enough.

Practical grassroots development must also recognise that communities are internally diverse. Communities don’t speak or think or act in unison; they are not homogeneous. Community members will, inevitably, have different ideas about what positive change looks like: a new industry, or a new school; a road to bring the city closer, or a morning tea to bring the community together. And of course, some people won’t see a need for change at all.

Because community members are diverse, they will also have different experiences of change. A positive change isn’t necessarily positive for everyone, even in the same local community. A development initiative may look different for women than it does for men; it may mean different things for young people than for old people, and for people who have, or lack, particular kinds of resources: money, land, family support, social networks, and so forth. Even individual personalities and preferences matter.

Development will always look different depending on who you are.

Here is a simple practical example: a rural community creates a music festival. This is a typical rural development initiative from the grassroots, with economic, social, and cultural benefits. But on the ground, the impacts are not so simple. The initiative benefits local music lovers, who get to see great acts on their doorstep, and most local businesses, which profit from the influx of visitors – though other businesses complain of competition from food vans. Some residents are delighted with the increased vibrancy and visibility of their town. Others dislike the late-night noise and the garbage that suddenly appears on the streets. Some enjoy a memorable social outing; others note they cannot afford to go. The volunteer committee puts in a great deal of time for little reward. Meanwhile, some locals argue that the Council’s contribution to the event could more productively be spent on accessible activities that do not change an entry fee.

This story is not unusual; few ideas please everyone. Up close, nearly every rural development initiative has champions and detractors. This isn’t just people being difficult. It is a basic logic of development: even in the same community, some people will benefit and some won’t. Some people will work hard, and others will reap benefits with little work. Some people will think an entire initiative is a mistake, and say so. This is normal and natural, and the debate is healthy – so long as there is space for debate.

In the end, one single rural community may contain many examples of grassroots action for change, driven by different local communities of interest, pursuing different – but usually, broadly compatible – goals. That is what grassroots development is like in practice. It is not neat and manicured; it is vibrant and contested, sometimes messy, peppered with strong personalities and quiet change-makers, with creativity and conflict. And it works. People make good ideas happen. And if they don’t like those ideas, they make different ones.

Except when they can’t.

This is the difficult bit. Not that communities, even tight-knit communities, are diverse and disagree – that is normal. Not that people have different ideas about what positive change looks like – that is inevitable. The dynamic through which people choose to initiate, support, oppose, or keep out of a development process, is a healthy community dynamic. It may frustrate Development Organisations when they try to work with a community and find that everyone doesn’t come on board with their ideas. But it’s not actually a problem.

The problem is that the terrain on which development occurs is not a level field. Not everyone gets to create change.

Not everyone gets to debate, or have a say. Some people have to keep quiet.

This is why poverty and disadvantage persist: Not because change isn’t possible. And not because people don’t try. But because change is blocked.

What blocks change? That’s our next topic.

Grassroots development, the next layer: Gears, levers, engine bits

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

This series of posts is unpacking grassroots development: why it’s compelling in theory, and what it actually looks like on the ground, in practice.

In the last post, Shiny hopeful things, I talked briefly about some of the promise and problems of Development, and I introduced the compelling idea that rural communities can create their own development from the ground up.

Grassroots development recognises that rural communities know their own realities and what positive change looks like for them. Every local context is different, and rural people know the details: what is there, and what is needed.

Grassroots development values local knowledge, local strengths, and the agency of rural people to create change.

But here is where things start to get messy. While the last post explored ‘shiny hopeful things’, this one digs down a layer, into the greasy works. How does grassroots development actually work? Who are the rural people we are talking about, there at the grassroots? Who gets their hands dirty creating change?

Grassroots development is a great idea. But in practice it still needs unpacking.

I’ll start with a simple, practical observation. In all the rural places I have worked, and with all the different rural communities (in several different languages), I don’t recall any community ever saying to me:

“We are doing grassroots development!”

In fact, I should clarify that I don’t remember any community saying anything to me at all.

Communities don’t talk. Individuals do.

Rural communities are made up of individuals. These individuals have things in common – but they also have differences. They certainly do not speak or think in unison.

This might seem obvious. But it is amazing how often practical, obvious things get lost when we talk about Development. Decision makers often claim that they understand what rural communities need or want. Grassroots development proponents counter that communities themselves are best placed to know their wants and needs.

But what about down at the grassroots, in the community? Does everyone agree?

Usually, on the ground, there are different ideas – and a few different interest groups. From a distance, it may look like an undifferentiated swathe of grassroots rural community, but up close, in practice, the community is a seething ecosystem of individuals and groups with different identities, resources and agendas.

These individuals and groups share a common identity as community members – but this is not their only identity. They have some common interests, distinct from the interests of outsiders – but these are not their only interests. Women and men, old families and blow-ins, prosperous and not…imagine all the ways that rural community members might see things differently! Clearly, rural communities do not speak in unison.

So where, then, does development come from? Outside developers often assume it comes from a big-picture rural development policy decision or project created “for” rural communities: like astro-turf laid in neat squares across the landscape. Grassroots development proponents argue, on the contrary, that change needs to grow organically from roots in local ground. This means actions “with” or directly “by” rural communities.

I concur with the latter; I am no fan of plastic grass. And yet, community action is a funny thing. Community action very seldom starts with a community.

Or with a Development Organisation, either.

Community action, despite the name, often starts with individuals or small groups. Someone decide to do something for their community. They start. And they inspire others to get involved.

Other people join: adding resources, ideas, moral support. Grass doesn’t grow overnight; it’s a process. It can take time to mobilise the support that’s needed to make ideas real. When community action hits critical mass, change happens.

Grassroots development is completely practical. Change can come from the ground up.

This is the inspiring bit. There is no reason why communities can’t create the change they want. There are obstacles of course – and there are also solutions. The collective energy of people working together as a community can achieve a great deal.

But there is one caveat. There is no guarantee that you will like what you see.

Communities on the ground may act, but there is no guarantee that the poor or the disadvantaged will benefit. There is no guarantee that community gains will be equitable, or that some people won’t get hurt.

Because community members are all different, they won’t experience change the same way. If we’re serious about positive change, we need to dig deeper.

Grassroots development, the top layer: Shiny hopeful things

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

I fell in love with the idea of grassroots development in the 1990s, when I was young and tired of grand academic theories that ignored people. Having grown up in a poor region, I wasn’t interested in the theoretical indulgences of famous men. I wanted to understand the practical side of economic and social change. I wanted to learn how to actually create change.

That, I learned at university, was called development. It was hard to get a straight definition, but development seemed to be about making poor places and poor people better-off. That sounded practical, so I was willing to put up with a little vagueness. At last I had a word I could use.

And it was an exciting word: a big, shiny, promising word. Big organisations did development; governments and bilateral and multilateral Development Organisations. They knew all about change and how to create it. For my part, I knew nothing about those kinds of organisations – they were a world away from my region, they did not go there. I had never met a real development person on the ground.

But suddenly, I thought I might like to become one.

Development is like that. It’s a big shiny, powerful idea. It’s also a conveniently vague idea, so it can work for you whether you are interested in feeding starving children or building high-rise buildings. For me, it was the one word that explained why I would leave my region and what I might become next. At university, I studied economics and anthropology and waited to learn the stuff about creating change. I did, but not the way I wanted to.

I learned that whenever big, powerful organisations try to create positive change, it seldom works. Whether the speaker was my economics professor in his dark suit or my anthropology professor in jeans sipping mate; whether the topic was economic policy or hydro-electric dams; I kept hearing a similar story: ideas for change that sound good on paper often work badly in practice. When these ideas hit the ground, real people get hurt. They lose their jobs. They lose their villages. They end up worse off, not better off.

A critical liberal arts education can quickly take the shine off anything. Development started to tarnish, but I wasn’t done with it. I only had one word to explain what I wanted. Nobody was offering another that would be of any use to me. I had seen plenty of families in shacks, people without choices, doing whatever they could to survive. And I had to go back to that world. Development might be dangerous; like the coal companies buying the mineral rights on your farm, it might come back to bite. But what was the alternative?

That’s when I picked up a book on grassroots development. It was a slim little volume out of the Inter-American Foundation, very basic, no theory at all. But its message was very clear: people, on the ground, at the grassroots, can create development. This was a proper Development Organisation in Washington, DC, and they were saying that local communities can create positive change for themselves.

This had actually never occurred to me. Communities create change? In the region I was from, everyone just waited for the next big company to come to town and chop the tops off our mountains in exchange for jobs. Nobody thought they had any power at all to change things. But the book on grassroots development told me stories about people in other rural communities that had gotten together and done just that.

And they had succeeded, as far as I could work out, because they understood their situation on the ground. They understood their local obstacles, resources, and possibilities, in a way that no outside Development Organisation could. And so this Development Organisation stopped trying to create change, and started working with communities to grow development from the ground up.

Suddenly, I had another word, the word I needed. Grassroots development.

This wasn’t a big shiny powerful idea. It was a small, glimmery, hopeful idea, and it wasn’t getting me a job directing change in a big Development Organisation. It was a hard idea to explain to Development Experts with big, shiny ideas about development; and it was even hard to explain it to rural communities themselves.

Sometime, because they didn’t think change was possible.

But more often, because they were already doing change. They just didn’t call it development.

They called it volunteering, or fund-raising, or starting a business. They called it helping out, or doing a project, or trying something new. The more I worked on the ground with rural communities, the more I saw practical actions for change: positive ones and negative ones; ones that worked – and ones that didn’t.

So I stood in the grass, watching practical action for change. Grassroots development was a useful idea, but it still needed unpacking.

Grassroots development: theory and practice

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

This series aims to unpack the theory and practice of grassroots development. Grassroots development is also called development from the ground up, bottom-up development, or community-led development. In Spanish it’s called desarrollo de base: Development from, or of, the base.

Unpacking ideas is a bit like unpacking crates: the deeper you go, the more you find. The next few posts will dig through some common ideas about working with rural communities ‘from the ground up’ and explore what these ideas from theory actually mean when we put them into practice.

First, we’ll unpack the idea of development. We’ll consider what development actually means in terms of practical actions for change. Why is ‘development’ such a powerful idea, and what kinds of practical actions does it encourage – and overlook – in rural places?

Next, we’ll unpack where development initiatives come from. Who drives actions for change? Do development initiatives come from outside or inside rural communities – or both? Why is development from the ‘grassroots’ such a compelling idea, and what do bottom-up development approaches offer in terms of practical rural solutions?

Those posts will take us all the way down to the grassroots: to consider the idea of rural communities and who we are actually talking about. ‘Rural communities’ are neither homogeneous nor easily defined. Grassroots development is all about people, so think personalities, personae and politics, and prepare to dig deep!

Only then will we reach the bottom of the matter, the solid bottom of the metaphorical crate. Our questions here are framed by social theory, but they are deeply practical: how much space is there in the crate? How much space do rural people have to create the futures they want?

And most importantly, how can we create more space?

That’s the question that’s waiting, so let’s get started.