PRP Board Member
Public policy for rural places and regions has been fragmented and narrow in its scope. Given the social, political, economic, and cultural importance of rural areas in our society, it is imperative that we reexamine our public policy framework as it relates to rural people and places. A cohesive and comprehensive place-based rural policy should address four key issues: the agriculture and natural resource economy, the non-farm economy, the environment and local/regional ecology, and a cross-cutting pillar that encompasses the social, cultural, and political spheres. Very broadly, policymakers should strive to create conditions for dynamic social learning and innovation across sectors as well as social and spatial boundaries.
Although rural communities boast a range of unique histories and traditions, they are also linked by a similar set of experiences and challenges. The extractive and manufacturing industries that have come to dominate most rural economies are structured to allow extralocal urban investors to capture large profit margins while rural workers are paid low wages and receive few or no benefits. This structure restricts rural citizens’ access to both economic and social resources, suppressing economic diversification and providing few incentives and opportunities for local leadership development and collaboration. The combined impact can be devastating for rural communities faced with economic downturn, particularly associated with the relocation of a central industry. In contrast, advocates for place-based rural policy identify economic and social diversity as the foundation upon which resilient, and ultimately sustainable, rural communities can be built. Such an approach highlights the distinctive assets and capabilities of communities and regions; strategic, competitive advantage serves as a springboard for developing smaller-scale, entrepreneurial firms.
This vision for the future of rural communities requires a broad, flexible suite of policy initiatives to address the array of complex and interconnected issues such communities face. At the most basic level, policy makers must commit to establishing and strengthening the physical infrastructure necessary to participate fully in emerging markets and to fostering inclusive, participatory forms of governance through which local knowledge can be gathered and utilized and diverse actors can come together to generate innovative ideas. For many rural communities, the lack of high-speed, broadband internet is the most significant barrier to participation in the global economy. In 2009, the USDA reported that 59 percent of rural communities in the United States did not have sufficient, affordable broadband access. Fostering inclusive, participatory forms of governance also necessitates the formation of new vertical and horizontal partnership across levels of government and between government, the private sector, and civil society. The shape that such forms of governance may take depends largely on the historical patterns of social interaction and the associated power structures that characterize different communities and regions. Attention to local context requires a shift away from the traditional systematic, step-by-step approaches to capacity building and community development. Instead, policymakers should support the development of participatory processes with mechanisms for continual evaluation and the highest standards of transparency, and the education of leaders who are first and foremost strong communicators and facilitators. Although challenging to implement, such integrated, multi-level governance strategies are gaining traction as policy platforms. Most notably, the LEADER Program in the European Union stands out at as a strong example of the possibilities for comprehensive rural community development.
Ted can be contacted at email@example.com