The influence of the work of Rural Policy working groups of the OECD on the national and international discourse: Guest post by Thomas Dax

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Rural development, the focus of the OECD Working Party on Rural Policy, emerged as an increasingly influential policy field as soon as the majority of “rural” spaces had lost their economic dependence on land management, and the predominant focus on agricultural activities started to recede in the 1980s. While the features of agricultural structures and patterns of economic activity evolved very differently for different regions, from a historical perspective we can observe intensified debates on rural spaces and the need for a ‘genuine’ rural policy throughout OECD countries (and beyond).With continuous shifts in land management, appreciation of the main features of the economy of rural areas and a rising concern for securing environmental benefits and other public goods from appropriate socio-ecological systems gained attention.

At the outset of the process leading to enhanced priority for rural development activities and supporting rural policies, “rural” had to be defined in spatial terms as the previous perception equating rural areas with a high share of agricultural activities was no longer relevant and useful for all contexts. The first internationally approved territorial classification elaborated by the OECD’s Group of the Council on Rural Development in 1994 was still labelled “Creating rural indicators”, but through its sub-title aiming “for shaping territorial policy” made clear that spatial assessment of any type of area has to be carried out in comparison and relation to other spatial types and other regions. Moreover, meaningful spatial analyses, according to that conceptual framework, have to take account of gradual overlaps of spatial features, dynamic changes of inter-relations as well as cultural legacy in spatial dynamics. At that early time of the OECD Rural Development Programme, the primary task was to increase awareness for a shift in the conceptual basis and provide a “simple” analytical framework for international comparison and exchange of policy experience.

The complexity of spatial dynamics was reflected in the initial territorial framework by applying a three-tier approach of regions (differentiated into predominantly urban, significantly rural and predominantly rural regions) highlighting for each of them the relevance of rural and urban sub-parts (at community level). Due to the limited data availability at fine geographical scale at that time this classification provided a rather straightforward and easily accessible framework which nevertheless reflected the conviction that no unequivocal attribution of places to either rural or urban spaces is meaningful. The approach thus made it possible to avoid the black and white distinction usually applied in rural- urban contrasting perspectives. Nevertheless, it enabled to intensify spatial analyses for rural, intermediate and urban regions and indicated specific trends and differentiation of spatial assessments in the following years. This conceptual base was important for territorial assessment and spatial interpretation of key features of rural regions, not just for regional and national authorities, but particularly in international debate of rural changes.

The most substantial shift in the perspective on rural development was the wide scope of lessons learnt by analyzing the spatially differentiated data, revealing that a significant portion of rural regions displays positive economic performance and provides attractive living places for its population, newcomers and visitors. This is contrary to what we were told previously for decades in narratives of “rural decline”. Yet, we have to be cautious not to fall into the trap and assume this favourable assessment is valid for all rural regions and/or for all its parts. Local and regional features are inherently diverse and rural policies need to consider carefully place-based characteristics and address territorial differences appropriately.

When OECD work on rural policy addressed the need of acknowledging and “Cultivating Rural Amenities” (1999) in the 1990s it put particular emphasis on the specific values of these regions, and underlined through selecting the term “rural amenities” the opportunities included in these attractive features. This discussion largely inspired the OECD working group’s thinking leading to the conceptualization of “The New Rural Paradigm” (2006). Its main achievement was to alert policy makers of the need for rural policies encompassing a broad scope of previously separate policy fields and a policy orientation that seeks to capture (better than previously) the values of natural and cultural resources.

The various reviews of national rural policies among OECD countries carried out since then substantiated the potential of the approach, but also continuous challenges in achieving institutional and socio-economic changes required. At the 10th Rural Development Conference (2015) it was “highlighted that in OECD countries, the term ‘rural’ is synonymous with unharnessed potential for growth”. A significant potential to contribute to national prosperity by rural regions was realized and concern for more effective implementation of “modern rural policy” was raised. The crucial features in the orientation are included in its inclusive and territorially balanced approach. The first addresses strategies and implementation activities that enhance prosperity for all, not just for a small share of rural elites or entrepreneurs. Even if we tend to address this aspect in our documents, policy implementation is still often restricting participation and characterized by social exclusion (e.g. gender differences and migrant population). The second aspect is particularly visible in the increased attention for rural-urban inter-relations and the conviction that shaping core values in rural and urban contexts considering their specific asset patterns is pivotal for harnessing their specific development strengths and “places that don’t matter” (in the mainstream policies) should not be left behind.

In addressing the various types of regions and enhancing the place-based development potential strategies have to consider uniqueness of places as a particular asset. Programs should take account of the threat of converting our living areas into standardized areas with unified features, assets and perspectives. In this regard increased consciousness of cultural backgrounds and processes is needed to take account of the specific potential of rural regions. The current elaboration of OECD Principles for Rural Policy (in combination with those for Urban Policy) can be understood as manifestation of driving policy intentions towards integrated territorial development and policy implementation which responds to global societal challenges, balancing the three dimensions of environmental, social and economic needs. This perspective is set in a framework where public goods provided from ecologically beneficial land management is at the same time threatened and increasingly acknowledged. In particular, climate change and external influences by global integration raise concerns in rural regions how assets and valuable landscapes and services might be secured in future. The elaboration of guiding principles for rural policy should support countries and regions to realize urgently required transformation towards sustainable development pathways and participation in socio-economic progress of these countries. Like with the OECD’s “New Rural Paradigm” it might be important that such principles are based on scientific evidence and are increasingly discussed also in academia focusing on enabling factors and drivers of rural development and rural policy assessment.

Dr. Thomas Dax, Federal Institute for Less Favoured and Mountainous Areas, Vienna, Austria.

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