Venhorst, The Netherlands
18th -21st of October, 2017
The European Rural Parliament is a biannual gathering for all interested in rural development issues across Europe. In the span of four days, NGO’s, businesses, ordinary people as well as governance officials, engaged in learning experiences about rural development’ successes and challenges. North Brabant, The Netherlands proved to be an inspiring example in that regard. Apart from the hosting site/country’s expertise in the matter, the delegates/representatives of more than 40 other countries provide with the opportunity to hear about their unique local experiences.
The programme format included numerous expeditions (fieldtrips) and workshops that steered up lively discussions and exchange of ideas.
The first day (19th), everyone had the option to choose one from more than 20 expeditions. I went to Kessel Castle. The tremendous success of the local community to transform the ruins into sustainable local venue is an inspirational story for local governance and social innovation. Castles, of which Scotland has quite many, are easily recognised by the local community as something that belongs to the place and people. Therefore, the shared history and magic easily brings people together in the efforts to preserve it and develop into a gathering point and symbol of the community.
The tour and history of the rebuilding of the castle were followed by a presentation. The Dutch way of doing bottom-up is strongly influenced by the decentralised governance system. Clear-cut three colour code system guides what is to be decided at the national level, what can be negotiated, and finally, what can be decided independently by local communities.
Finally, a workshop in small groups focused precisely on ideas how local communities can be supported further in their bottom-up initiatives. Interesting point was made by the Dutch facilitators that every community has to be allowed to evolve in its own pace and mature for bottom-up activities.
The success of Kessel Castle is a great example of the rights-based approach for sustainability and resilience building in rural development. First, communities are given the rights, and with that the responsibility, to care for something of communal importance. Second, the discussion of what and how should be done next, transforms issues of local governance and decision making into everyday engaging experience.
The next day I attended two workshops, one focusing on the efforts in creating a rural development movement in the Western Balkan and the Black Sea region, and another, discussing Climate Change challenges affecting rural communities.
The first one was particularly interesting as it raised again the leading role of NGO’s in community initiative and bottom-up processes. The LEADER approach was mentioned quite often not only at this workshop but throughout the whole event, without, however, reflecting deeper on the idea that social innovation must come from within the community. This brings a fundamental question. What, and who, is the inspiration for the community? How human and social capital that are necessary for innovation, are planted in the community? An NGO? The abundant EU funding could easily turn into dangerous incentive for the formal creation NGO’s exploiting rural development as lucrative business, without in fact, ever empowering any rural community to take have faith in its own capabilities.
Such influx of funding is present in Romania and Bulgaria since the accession in 2007 and very little progress has been made in terms of creating a formal network of NGO’s with the clear goal of organising and inspiring a rural movement.
The Western Balkans, however, seemed to be more actively pursuing the idea of community empowerment and bottom-up. Perhaps due to the political instability in the recent past, people tend to rely on each other and believe that if they hold on to something together the chance for success is greater. Furthermore, in those countries the motivation of doing it right is partly related to their future accession to the EU. It can be suggested that they are put on a test and this highly motivates them to act in a dignified manner for building resilience and pride.
The second workshop, was more of an inspiring example how the Dutch are combating the effects of severe climate changes, in particular to the water management authorities. The contributions to the general discussion, however, has left the impression that a lot more emphasis is placed the immediate effects, such as surviving in severe weather conditions or natural disasters. Surely, climate change is often portrayed with apocalyptic messages in the media. However, talks about bottom-up efforts and resilience building are often side-lined. Concerns of food securities, for example, rarely come to mind, although the problem was recognised by UN and governments as not only constrained to developing countries.
Overall, the event was particularly inspiring and opened up many new discussions. Sadly, one of the motivational speakers at the end of one of the plenary sessions was left with very little time to explain the changes happening in society, namely, the transition from materialistic to post-materialistic values and how this relates to emancipation and empowerment, and eventually resilience in rural communities. Perhaps, bringing such messages in a more simplified manner to communities will have greater effect than using acronyms such as LEADER.
I have met a lot of interesting people and actively engaged in discussions about rural development in different contexts. There was certainly a lot of knowledge to acquire from the older generation that has been actively organising the rural development movement across Europe.
Certainly there were many useful connections with professionals and likeminded people from different countries and backgrounds. Positive emotions and inspiration were abundant.