A flexible approach works best for modern rural policies, balancing broad and narrow rural policy

Given that rural policy involves a wide number of ministries, the policy framework should, on the one hand, bring coherence to a complex policy setting and, on the other hand, adaptability and flexibility to address the specific needs of rural areas. Due to the large number of ministries and agencies with responsibility for some aspect of rural policy, there is a danger for rural policy to be watered-down within the internal multiple priorities of these sectoral ministries. In order for rural policy to exist in a way that is “fit for purpose”, an institutional framework has to be put in place that provides a proper context. OECD member countries have followed one of two approaches by adopting either a broad or narrow rural policy.

  • 1. Broad rural policy refers to the efforts to influence all actions with impacts on rural areas within and by the different administrative sectors as part of the development of the rural society.
  • 2. Narrow rural policy includes the measures and instruments targeted specifically at rural development.

Broad and narrow rural policy can address the needs of rural policy in different ways. Broad rural development policies are those that adopt a grand overarching design - a cross-sectoral policy in practice, one that attempts to integrate all policies. Included in this frame are those policies and programmes that were designed with other objectives in mind (perhaps without a rural focus or considerations) but which have intended or unintended impacts on rural dwellers and places. In contrast, the more “niche” or “narrow policy” approach is policy designed specifically to address the needs of rural communities (Figure 2.6). Often with the grander scheme, the effort to “address all areas of a rather broad policy framework”, such as agricultural policy, transport policy and energy policy, outdistances capacity. As such, the push to co-ordinate all actions and bridge all gaps tends to yield more inertia and inaction than concrete results (OECD, 2006a). The too-narrow rural policy delivers results, but also policies that risk being too disconnected from other regional, sectoral or national polices.

A broad rural policy tends to see rural regions as being quite similar to urban regions in terms of their opportunities and constraints, and more importantly in terms of the types of policy instruments that are provided to them. It largely assumes that there is little need for a territorially specific policy because a single national policy operated by each ministry can adequately meet the needs of people wherever they are located. By contrast, narrow rural policy is inherently territorial in nature. It supposes that there are such fundamental differences between urban and rural regions that a single policy will be ineffective in at least one type of territory. Instead of a single, uniform policy, ministries may need specifically targeted policies that are designed to be effective under rural conditions.

Figure 2.6. OECD matrix for rural policy analysis

Source: OECD (2006), The New Rural Paradigm: Policies and Governance, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264023918-en.

Different OECD member countries apply different combinations of broad and narrow rural policy addressing their own needs:

  • • The government of Spain adopted the Law on Sustainable Development of Rural Areas. This law extends the responsibility of rural policy from a sole actor, the Ministry of Agriculture, to the government at large (OECD, 2009c). By creating the “politica rural de estado” or a “rural policy of state”, it has enabled a way to better co-ordinate the efforts of the regional administration and better link them with the national government. The national body tasked with overseeing this effort is comprised of representatives of different ministries and one representative from each region, the consejero in charge of rural development in each region. Mainstreaming rural policy at the national level was key because Spain has a highly decentralised governance structure with extremely autonomous regions. Each region has extensive experience with rural development policy garnered through the LEADER programmes and local action groups (LAGs). But the approach to a rural governance policy framework was often disconnected at the regional and the national level and yielded sub-optimal results (OECD, 2009c). The law essentially formalised much of what already existed in Spain, as well as creating a state rural policy with oversight at the national level.
  • • England has tried to achieve flexibility by adopting a broad rural policy that relies on the general programmes of line ministries to deliver essentially the same forms of support to urban and rural places. But because the EU overlays a narrow approach to rural policy through its Rural Development Funds, there is ultimately a mixed approach to rural development that combines broad (mainstreaming) and narrow (the RDPE) policies. Undoubtedly, mainstreaming equates rural with urban and moves rural beyond the negative of rural “special pleading” to focus on the positive contributions of rural areas to the overall health of the regional and national economy. Since “basing policies just on rural needs” could shadow this view and cause “policy makers to see delivery to rural communities as a marginal activity” and possibly “raise unrealistic expectations”, the preference in England is to limit rural-specific interventions to the RDPE (Atterton, 2008). Ironically, mainstreaming rural in the context of England is almost too broad and too narrow, placing it in a space that needs further clarification and support. Thus in England, where the vast majority of the rural population is found within urban metropolitan regions so they have ready access to urban services, the inability to provide any targeted support to rural areas causes problems. For example, while school choice is relatively easy to accommodate in an urban context where there are several schools relatively near any house, it is a difficult situation in a rural location where there is only one school that is accessible.
  • • Finland has also adopted a mixed approach. The National Rural Policy Programme (Maaseutupoliittinen kokonaisohjelma) is drawn up by the Rural Policy Committee and is one of the four special programmes derived from the Regional Development Act (602/2002). It is the main instrument of broad rural policy and as such, aims to provide coherence to the different sectoral policies oriented towards rural areas. Revised every four years, the programme contains both a strategic perspective and concrete proposals carried forward by the Rural Policy Committe. The Rural Policy Programme includes a special Rural Policy Programme. The narrow rural policy refers not only to EU programmes but also to other activities of the national rural policy and the main instrument of the narrow rural policy is the Rural Development Programme for the Mainland Finland 2007-2013. Thus, Finland has successfully integrated EU programmes at the core of its “narrow rural policy” and is considered a “model” in many respects for other EU countries, especially its LEADER method and its approach to mainstreaming national funds and other EU funds in order to cover the entire countryside.

Whether a broad or narrow perspective is appropriate will largely depend upon the mix of rural territory, as described in the preceding section. It will also largely depend on the types of rural regions in a given country:

  • 1. Where a significant share of the rural population lives far from an urban centre and has a quite different quality of life and level of well-being, a narrow rural policy is needed. Differences in conditions and geographic separation make it unlikely that rural residents can rely on urban-oriented policies.
  • 2. Conversely, if the majority of the rural population lives in close proximity to urban territory so they can easily take advantage of urban providers of goods and services and are well integrated into the urban economy, then a broad rural policy may be appropriate.

For the case of Chile, a flexible approach combining broad and narrow perspectives might be needed. The lack of an existing national rural policy framework suggests a broad approach would indeed better integrate the actions of the wide range of ministries and programmes now targeting rural areas. At the same time, given the diverse geography and the presence of rural remote regions, some of which are not fully integrated into a market economy, a narrow approach could better address the needs of these areas.

Given that the set of policy problems is large and complex and the nature of rural is highly variable from problem to problem, a flexible approach is required. The diversity of situations across the rural areas of Chile exceeds what is common in most other OECD countries. There are at least three dimensions to the diversity.

1. The first is geographic. Chile is both long and narrow, which means that every region has considerable climatic variability.

  • 2. The second dimension in density. Some regions in Chile are dominated by large urban centres, others have medium-size urban centres and some have only small urban centres.
  • 3. The last dimension is degree of integration into a market economy. Once again, in some regions markets are strong and comprehensive, while in other regions a significant part the population is still in a semi-subsistence state.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that every region needs a unique rural policy, it is clear that each region requires the flexibility to align national rural priorities with regional needs.

Because the rural situation varies considerably on the basis of the degree of proximity to urban centres, rural policy has to incorporate these situations if it is to be effective. In some parts of Chile there is still a need for support to bring people into the market economy, but this is a smaller problem. In many parts of Chile there are real inequities in terms of access to basic health and education services that impose costs not only on the people affected but on the entire country. In many parts of Chile outside the major cities, there are strong economic ties between primary production in rural areas and first-stage processing in nearby urban areas that are currently not recognised in territorial development policy. In large urban areas, there are ongoing inflows of rural migrants who, in many cases, have difficulty finding adequate employment and housing in the city.

Having a narrow rural policy that lacks flexibility is also problematic. If the definition of rural is overly restrictive, the policy is only applied in certain areas. However, even in areas that might satisfy a definition of rural, the types of policies that are of value may vary considerably among regions. For example, in Mexico, rural policy to provide irrigation water that is effective in the humid south where water is plentiful may not make a lot of sense in the arid north. But if there is only one national policy, it will be targeted on the largest client group and result in considerable inefficiency.

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