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.

Rural Development From the Ground Up

Winter has hit in Natone, and it’s time to start a new series of posts. In these early nights by the fire, there is a clear boundary between warmth and cold; a physicality in the air that is not present in centrally heated places. Ideas feel fragile, while logs have substance. Practical things matter.

So this series explores the hands-on, down-to-earth aspects of rural development. What is rural development, and how do we do it?

Rural development has a long tradition of attention to practical action. We focus on real rural places and hands-on communities, on practical problems and practical strategies for change.

Yet the idea of practice is still theory. The idea of action is not, actually, action.

The gap between theory and practice remains wide. In rural development work, it often isn’t clear what we actually do, or who does it. We propose to work ‘on the ground’ and ‘at the grassroots’, but where is the ground, exactly? Whose grass is it?

We advocate for people-centred development and bottom-up social change, but do not specify which people, or what change.

Groundedness, grassroots change … these are warm and powerful ideas. They sound practical yet are not solid; they flicker and shift, like the fire dancing against the glass. To be hands-on, to make something happen, someone must reach down and pick up a log.

In this series of posts, I’m aiming to haul logs. Come along, it’s a bit of work… but good to be in motion. It’s feeling warmer already.

Secrets to success #4: Bring knowledges together

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.

Secrets to success #3: Re-imagine space

Thus far in this series, we’ve introduced four characteristics of rural regions that can create economic problems – but which can be ‘flipped’ or viewed differently to generate solutions. To date, we’ve explored rural economies’ embeddedness in natural environments and their structural positioning as primary producers in global value chains. Today, we explore the tendency for rural regions to have a small population base, with services and markets thin on the ground.

Rural areas by definition have a comparatively small population base. A small population is not, in itself, inherently good or bad. Humans have always lived in a range of settlement sizes – cities, towns, and small localities – and this is highly adaptive. Different settlement sizes serve different functions in the economy, and they attract residents who value different things. Each settlement type inevitably has its issues; the large end of the spectrum grapples with pollution and congestion, while the small end of the spectrum may struggle to keep its businesses and services viable.

Where populations are very small, the most common economic issues are a simple matter of numbers: there are fewer people, and thus smaller markets for labour, products and services. A small population base can lead to problems such as:

  • Skill shortages – caused by a smaller absolute numbers of workers, exacerbated by limited access to education and training services;
  • Service gaps – because there are often not enough people to keep local services and organisations viable (think closures of local schools, shops, banks…); and
  • Lack of economic diversification – as the combination of skill shortages, service gaps and small markets creates a difficult environment for businesses to start and grow.

Typical policy responses to these challenges are to propose population growth strategies and/ or service subsidies. The former seek to grow the absolute size of the population or attract particular types of people e.g skilled workers; the latter seek to subsidize services to keep them open. Both approaches can possibly help, depending on a range of other factors (e.g. the region’s livability, industry base, and its available resources or political leverage). But neither strategy changes the basic fact that most rural regions will always have a relatively low population base (even if the occasional lifestyle region grows fast). This will not change, but it doesn’t mean that rural regions need to suffer.

The secret to solving low-population problems is to think differently about space. In sparsely populated rural regions, the local skill base is, indeed, small, as are the markets to support local services and businesses. But – as the last post reminded us – rural regions are not economic islands. Local space is situated in global space, and rural economies don’t stop at the region’s borders. Rural economies are globally connected, and in the right hands, this can be a real strength.

Digital technologies are increasingly putting these global connections into the hands of rural people and organisations. These technologies have the capacity to span space, enabling many types of resources to be accessed from across the world as if they were next door. Space-spanning technologies open up opportunities for rural communities to access skills, services and markets across physical space. For instance:

  • In response to skill shortages, businesses and other local organisations can look to crowdsourcing platforms, global professional networks and online resources for flexible ways to access skills at a distance. Further, with emerging digital workplaces and live-anywhere-work-anywhere models, rural regions are well placed to explore how their low-population advantages (clean air, minimal commutes) can offer a base for skilled workers who can ply their skills both within and beyond the local region.
  • Services can also be delivered in digital space. Temporary suspension of face-to-face services is stimulating a quantum leap forward in e-education, e-health, and other services now being delivered via electronic platforms. While not without issues, this rapid digital turn has demonstrated that activities that used to require a critical mass of people in a local space, can now be conducted on-line effectively and relatively cheaply in digital space. Broadband speeds and technical skills permitting, well-designed online services can be an effective strategy to help fill service gaps.
  • Economic diversification opportunities are much more abundant when regional entrepreneurs are able to vault physical space and tap into global pools of skills, services, and markets via digital platforms. Online platforms, cleverly employed, can give rural businesses global reach and the opportunity to engage directly with customers around the world. Moreover, in these virtual spaces, the very concrete place-based characteristics of rural regions can give rural businesses a unique competitive edge.

Technologies already exist that have the potential to enable rural communities to overcome many of their low-population challenges. But these are relatively new technologies, and our thinking is largely mired in old understandings of regional skills, regional services, and regional markets. To open up the possibilities, it is necessary to re-imagine space and its relationship to rural regions. Space is not the barrier that separates rural regions from resource-rich population centres and puts rural places at a disadvantage – the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’. Rather, space is, for the most part, easily traversed. What matters is place.

In global space, people seek to connect with real places, real people and stories. Rural regions are well situated to engage as distinctive places on a global stage, and bring their stories, products, and knowledge to the world. Rural places can offer all the advantages of a low population base, while equipping themselves to avoid many of the disadvantages. Through digital space-spanning, rural people and organisations can link directly with resources in large population centres. Also, importantly, they can connect and exchange with other rural regions.

Re-imagine space. There’s never been a better time to be rural.

Next: Secrets to success #4: Bring knowledges together

Secrets to success #2: Add all kinds of value

In this series of posts, I am exploring four common characteristics of rural economies to show how they can be used as a lens to understand rural problems and spark rural solutions. Today’s post addresses the characteristic I have called Structural positioning at the tail of global value chains.

This statement is shorthand for the way that rural economies are often positioned within global economies – a positioning that is, with few exceptions, highly disadvantageous. In this post, I’ll briefly review how a seat at the tail often leads to a whole raft of more familiar-sounding rural economic problems, such as unemployment. I’ll also show how some rural communities are bucking the trend.

First, What is a value chain? Basically, it’s a way of describing how goods and services are produced – through a process of transformation that adds value. A potato may be harvested, washed, sorted, transported, chopped, cooked, salted, packaged, shipped, and ultimately sold from a retail display as a bag of chips. The process starts with raw materials, and each activity in the chain adds value. Each business in the chain reaps some of that value in return.

The problem with rural economies in the context of global economies is that rural economic activities are often concentrated in the far end of the chain – the metaphorical ‘tail’ – back where potatoes are dug out of the ground, cows milked, or timber harvested. These activities are called primary production, and they sit at the heart of many rural economies.

Producing primary products and sending them elsewhere to be processed has been a standard recipe for economic disadvantage from the days of colonisation to the reign of contemporary corporations. This is because, while primary products are intrinsically valuable, they don’t capture a lot of this value when they are sold. At each step in the value chain, as products are processed, transported, and on-sold, other businesses earn their share. And when those other businesses are large and powerful, they have a lot of control over what that share looks like, and how big it is.

The practical fallout is that primary producers in rural regions often have little control over the terms under which they sell their products and capture only a small proportion of the value that they generate. Of a $2 bottle of milk, for instance, the dairy farmer might receive about 50 cents. This pattern is repeated across industries. Because profit margins are low, even a small price drop can render production unviable. The effects in rural economies can be dramatic: businesses forced to cut labour or close, farms forced to amalgamate. The flow-ons follow: unemployment and population loss in rural regions.

None of this is new – these are longstanding problems. The good news is, rural communities find solutions. One popular solution is called Value Adding. Value adding aims to capture more value from products by adding value locally, for instance by producing potato chips instead of selling potatoes. Value Adding has been part of the rural economic development landscape for at least 20 years. It makes sense, though it only works sometimes. The secret to success is in how we think about value.

If value adding were simply about re-establishing local manufacturing or processing operations (butter factories, textile factories, paper mills), then why do we see these same types of ventures regularly closing or moving offshore to somewhere cheaper. In practice, some rural value-adding ventures succeed, and some fail. What’s the difference?

When I think about successful rural economic ventures, they tend to do something more than just move their product a bit further down the chain. Rather, they generate value in a way that makes their product or service special, so that it can’t be easily duplicated somewhere else. For instance:

  • They add value through quality
  • They add value through distinctiveness
  • They add value through community connection
  • They explicitly add social, cultural and/or environmental value

One example is provenance: that is, the reputation attached to where a product is from. A potato is not necessarily just a potato; in the US, for instance, Idaho potatoes command a premium. Where a product is from can communicate high quality and distinctive attributes: such as taste, history, and symbolic value. In Australia, think of the Barossa wine region or King Island cheese. Provenance can add a lot of value; for this reason many regions protect their label fiercely. And while provenance typically refers to food and drink, the same principle can be applied to any venture that leverages a distinctive local attribute into a desirable good or service: from Bendigo pottery to Byron Bay tourism.

Another example is community connection. The value of community connection is what powers Buy Local campaigns. Customers choose to Buy Local because the product or service is located in the local community. This adds extra value. In some cases, rural towns may embrace their local businesses to the extent that they become an iconic community presence, such as the Beechworth Bakery. For their part, businesses may build community connection into their business models: for instance, Bendigo Bank. Leveraging value through community connection is also increasingly possible via digital platforms; some rural businesses mobilise online communities to excellent effect.

Many rural economic activities create social, cultural, and/or environmental value. These important sources of value creation are often overlooked in discussions of rural economies. For example, rural organisations have always generated enormous amounts of valuable products and services for their communities through mobilising volunteers. When rural communities are seeking to develop economic options, they would do well to consider the types of social, cultural and environmental value that they are well-placed to generate. A range of ideas, from social enterprise, to traditional cultural industries, to community-based renewable energy, suggests strategies that rural communities can use to play to their social, cultural and environmental strengths.

In the end, rural economies are not trapped at the tail. By playing to their strengths, rural communities can – and do – create viable and distinctive products and services that enable them to thrive.

Next: Secrets to success #3: Re-imagine space

Secrets to success #1: Embed sustainability

In the last post, I listed four common characteristics of rural economies and suggested that they could be used to “flip” common problem narratives to suggest solutions. Today’s post explores the first of the four: rural economies’ deep dependence on natural environments.

The key industries at the heart of rural economies – agriculture, horticulture, forestry, fishing, mining, tourism and so forth – are heavily reliant on natural environments. This in turn means rural economies are vulnerable to a range of risks and shocks that create rural economic problems: drought, bushfires, floods, storms, disease, weather variations, climate change and environmental degradation – just to name a few. While policy, research and local action may work in various ways to mitigate the frequency and impacts of these hazards, the fact remains that these are natural hazards. Most of the time, they are outside human control.

Rural industries rely on natural environments to survive. Recognising this pattern enables us to ‘flip’ the narrative: from problem to opportunity. Dependence on natural environments can create losses and shocks, yes. But this dependence also reveals a deeper truth about economic activity – and human activity. No matter how much we may disguise the fact with pavement and boardrooms, websites and streetlights, our economies and societies are deeply interconnected with our environment.

In rural places, in rural economies, these nature – people connections are most clearly visible. Locals directly experience the flow-on effects of damage to primary industries in their businesses and shops. They directly see and experience environmental ipact and damage. This direct visibility is a strength. Daily, those who work in rural industries must grapple with practical questions of how to embed sustainability into their livelihoods and landscapes.

While urban dwellers often paint simplified caricatures of “environment” versus “economy”, rural communities live and work at the coalface of the economic – environment interface. They are well placed to see sustainability in three dimensions: with attention to people, economy and environment.

Successful rural regions are ones that take these grounded insights and transform them into sustainability-focused products, processes and initiatives. Examples of “green economy” and “eco-innovation” are abundant from Australia and from around the world: smart agricultural innovations to maximise water and fertiliser efficiency; community-owned wind farms; ecotourism initiatives; Indigenous traditional food industries; the list goes on. What these economic activities have in common is that they are made possible through embeddedness in local environments.

The deeper the embeddedness, the more sustainable the economy. For instance, while our Western worldview sees “natural resources”, an Indigenous Australian worldview sees Country. The difference is enormous. Resources are inanimate; they can be extracted and used up. Country is animate, relational, sustaining. It is therefore unsurprising that Indigenous land management practices demonstrate effective understanding of how to “manage” natural environments and protect against hazards.

Rural communities work at the “eco-interface”, the meeting-point of ecology and economy. As the global community begins to recognise the need for economic activity to harmonise with ecological limits, and to count the real costs of environmental damage, rural communities are in a surprisingly powerful position. Beyond slogans and political posturing, rural industries and communities are perfectly placed to grapple with sustainability in three dimensions, and use this knowledge to lead real change.

Next: Secrets to success #2: Add all kinds of value

Secrets to success, from problems to solutions

In my last post, I reflected that there are four characteristics of rural regions that make them particularly vulnerable to economic shocks. While every rural region is different – arguably, unique – they also share some common characteristics. Naming these up, noticing the patterns, can help us to understand the dynamics of rural economies.

Rural regions and their economies, with few exceptions, all share these four characteristics:

  1. Deep dependence on natural environments;
  2. Structural positioning at the tail of global value chains;
  3. Small population base, with services and markets thin on the ground; and
  4. Distance from the centres of economic and political decision making.

There is nothing inherently negative in any of these characteristics, yet they explain all of the key “problems” faced by rural economies.

  1. Deep dependence on natural environments means that our rural industries are vulnerable to drought, bushfires, floods, storms, disease, climate change, weather variations, environmental degradation….
  2. Structural positioning at the tail of global value chains means that rural primary producers are price takers; they capture only a small amount of the value they generate, so price drops can quickly render businesses unviable….
  3. A small population base, with services and markets thin on the ground means that there are often not enough people to keep services running and create the skills and markets to enable new industries to emerge…. and,
  4. Distance from the centres of economic and political decision making means that rural communities have, and have historically had, little influence over the decisions that affect them, even when they have good ideas for solutions.

These four characteristics can be used to explain common problems faced by rural economies. Seen from a different angle, they can become the starting-point for new ideas to inspire rural futures.

Each of these characteristics can be “flipped” to become strengths and sources of advantage for rural economies. In the next few posts, we’ll “flip” these problem narratives, one at a time, to discover some solutions.

Next: Secrets to Success #1: Embed Sustainability