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Leader investment for social inclusion must change so it promotes people not capital

Rural Ireland faces depopulation and outward migration. This is fed by limitations in access to transport, broadband and many services and supports which also undermine the quality of life for those who want to stay.

However, rural Ireland maintains strong local communities. Its economic value and social role in agriculture and associated activities, mean that it remains a vital part of Irish society. The recent election has raised issues as to the survival of rural Ireland, its development into the future, and its relationship with its urban neighbours. The LEADER programme has been put forward by the new Government as a potential saviour.

The funding available to Ireland from this EU programme is €250m, 2014-2020. €235m of this will be for local-development strategies in every county, excluding the five cities of Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Galway. LEADER is supposed to contribute to economic development, enterprise development and job creation, and, crucially, social inclusion and the rural environment. If it is to fulfill its mission as saviour, it must alleviate poverty and social exclusion and promote human rights in rural communities.

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Rural poverty has traditionally been less visible than urban poverty. It tends to be linked to a lack of access to services and supports such as childcare, healthcare, transport and education. Rural isolation is a particular issue. Poverty is more likely to be experienced by those living in low-income families such as small-farm holders. It is, like urban Ireland, also experienced by groups such as lone parents, people with disabilities, Travellers, migrant workers, and older people.

It is welcome that, this time around, LEADER has a more explicit focus on social inclusion and, specifically, the provision of basic services for ‘hard to reach’ groups and rural young people. LEADER can now not only support local economic and rural development but invest in marginalised communities so that economic and local development benefit the whole rural population.

The Government has also communicated its requirement that LEADER must be complementary to other developmental programmes funded by the exchequer to support social inclusion, local development, and community development. This is an improvement but it is far from clear who will take responsibility for this. Any monitoring and evaluation must ensure that that this integration actually happens.

Economic development of rural areas will not be enough to address the inequalities experienced by various communities. Many of them have limited power and say in the issues that affect their lives, they are often not organised collectively to engage with economic and local development, they lack the resources to apply for LEADER funding, and they experience additional inequalities that require specific responses. These issues will not be addressed unless there is an investment in meeting their particular needs.

The LEADER companies responsible for delivering the programme must work with the organisations already working in these communities. If such organisations do not exist, they must provide opportunities and resources for people to organise. This is paramount so that these communities can influence and affect LEADER and benefit from rural economic and local development. LEADER funding for projects must be weighted in a manner that gives investment in social inclusion parity in resources and esteem with economic development and rural environment activities. This would be a new departure for LEADER.

LEADER could provide an innovative model for social inclusion in rural communities. Investing in creating strong vibrant communities who can articulate their needs and demands, and who can participate in deciding on what they want and need for their communities, will pay dividends in the long term. This is achievable through LEADER but only if the political will is there.

The relevant Ministers in the new Government should take time now to meet community organisations working with marginalised communities in rural areas and the LEADER companies. They should discuss and agree who are the excluded in rural communities and how LEADER will empower these groups to get resources from LEADER to address the inequalities they experience.

These communities lack the social capital and resources required to harness LEADER funding and changing this must be a priority. We need to invest in people and move away from the flawed analysis that underpinned LEADER in the past: that social inclusion is about capital investment. For now, the jury remains firmly out as to whether or not LEADER will meet this challenge and take up the full scope of activities required to advance social inclusion, and as to whether or not it will be a saviour.

What is Leader?

The LEADER (an acronym in French meaning Links between Actions for the Development of the Rural Economy) programme is a European Union initiative to support rural development projects initiated at the local level in order to revitalise rural areas and create jobs. Over half of the EU’s population lives in rural areas.

The first phase was in 1991 and the current phase is 2014-20.

Since its launch in 1991, LEADER has supported the delivery of local development actions in rural communities and has formed an integral part of the EU funding framework, through the national Rural Development Programme (RDP) of each Member State.

Rural development is a significant component of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and is supported by funding from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), which in turn is delivered through nationally co-financed RDPs. For 2014-2020, three long term strategic objectives have been identified for rural development policy in the EU:

• Improving the competitiveness of agriculture;

• The sustainable management of natural resources and climate action;

• A balanced territorial development of rural areas.

These broad policy objectives are given more detailed expression in six priorities for rural development:

1. Fostering knowledge transfer in agriculture, forestry and rural areas;

2. Enhancing the competitiveness of all types of agriculture and enhancing farm viability;

3. Promoting food chain organisation and risk management in agriculture;

4. Restoring, preserving and enhancing ecosystems dependent on agriculture and forestry;

5. Promoting resource efficiency and supporting the shift toward a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy in agriculture, food and forestry sectors; and

6. Promoting social inclusion, poverty reduction and economic development in rural areas.

The commitment to promoting social inclusion and poverty reduction is a defining feature of LEADER for 2015-2020. Whilst LEADER has primarily operated from a rural and economic development context, historically it has generated social inclusion for individuals and communities. The policy context for the new programming period calls for a focus on addressing poverty and social exclusion, particularly given the significant economic and social changes that have taken place within the last decade.

LEADER+ projects are managed by local action groups (LAGs). Each project must involve a relatively small rural area, with a population of between 10,000 and 100,000. In France, the whole country is eligible with the exception of urban areas with over 50,000 inhabitants. France has 140 local action groups.

LEADER+ has three objectives:

• to encourage experiments in rural development

• to support cooperation between rural territories: several LAGs can share their resources

• to network rural areas by sharing experiences, and expertise in the development of rural areas by creating databases, publications and other modes of information exchange

LEADER developed seven principles of local development.

1. Area-based: taking place in a small, homogeneous socially cohesive territory

2. Bottom-up: local actors design the strategy and choose the actions

3. Public-private partnership: LAGs are balanced groups involving public and private-sector actors, which can mobilise all available skills and resources

4. Innovation: giving LAGs the flexibility to introduce new ideas and methods

5. Integration: between economic, social, cultural and environmental actions, as distinct from a sectoral approach

6. Networking: allowing learning among people, organisations and institutions at local, regional, national and European levels

7. Co-operation: among LEADER groups, for instance to share experiences, allow complementarity or to achieve critical mass.

In 2013 the LEADER approach, which had developed for rural areas, was extended to apply to urban and coastal areas under the title of Community-Led Local Development (CLLD).

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Sinead Smith is a community worker living in Co Meath.

By Sinéad Smith