The future of villages lies in the hands of rural activators

Justyna Turek

December 14, 2022

One of the critical objectives of current EU policy is to maintain lively rural areas. Rural activators are the only ones able to change these areas' fate. However, the desire to restore the rural areas should lay to all of us since we benefit from it. Rural activators face various socio‑economic pressures that make their work hard to maintain. 

Around 30% of the EU's population lives in rural areas. Between 2020 and 2030, rural populations are projected to increase by only 1 per cent, compared with 8 percent in urban areas, which means that rural areas will continue facing their already existing challenges like demographic changes, poverty, and a lack of access to basic facilities. These regions risk their inhabitants abandoning the villages, and those who remain don't have adequate tools to regain their agency or rebuild interest in this place. In 2021, the European Commission adopted its communication "A long-term vision for the EU's rural areas – Towards stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas by 2040". This apparent need to support the rural activators so the rural region can flourish caused the beginning of the project Open School for Village Hosts (founded by Erasmus+).  

“Rural areas are the fabric of our society and the heartbeat of our economy. They are a core part of our identity and our economic potential. We will cherish and preserve our rural areas and invest in their future”– Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.

It's never the people's problems. It's a situation problem. Holis has marked all the projects we have been working on with this approach. It became incredibly relevant at the Open School for Village Host project since, to reverse the system (situation), we need to support the people first. The rural activists need the most attention, not yet another house to build or a highway to make. Through this project, we want to build agency within the people and the community by investing in them. Rural activators with the right tools can change the situation/system more than outsiders, who often do not know the context and community. 

Holis, together with other partners, aims to support and train rural activators through an innovative training program that proposes creating a new core of competencies that benefits European villages. With this project, we also aim "do our part" (The Flight of the Hummingbird story) and reverse (or at least try!) global issue as rural depopulation step by step. Rural depopulation affects regions where the rural exodus outstrips natural growth, reducing the total number of inhabitants to a critical level and causing the ageing of demographic structures. The Shrinking Rural Regions policy brief shows that Europe's demography became a significant policy challenge. A shrinking population has become the typical course for numerous rural regions as agriculture is restructured and the population (especially employment) moves to urban areas.

We stumbled upon this topic with Holis' participants at Holis Summer School in 2019, where we worked on revitalising economic and social fabrics in the Odemira region, Portugal. Then we discovered the depth of this challenge and got close to the rural activators who were almost willing to fight for their villages to stay alive. Small villages around Europe and the world suffer from accompanying problems that often are inseparable from depopulation. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic amplified it even more. For example, in America, the effects of the pandemic on rural populations cause unemployment, downsized life satisfaction, and cause serious mental health problems, not to mention the economic outlook.

Nevertheless, several social and rural enterprises are already generating positive social impact in those areas, changing the rural regions' perspective and future. A common feature in all these positive experiences is a skilled person based in the community, who identifies opportunities, connects local actors, and continuously develops projects. Such superheroes are already existing and might recognise them (article about the rural activators). Although the description of a rural activator, called a 'Village Host' for this project is new, local and regional work is already being done by local pioneers, social innovators, and enterprising local officials. 

We believe that the rural regions' future is not yet decided. We believe that the future lies in the hands of these rural activators. By supporting them, we give them the right tools to sustain the development of the villages and the regions. At the same time, we will be able to promote a new economic model to be potentially applied to all inner areas and small villages of Europe that will foster social innovation, inclusion and valorization of local heritage. The most relevant aspect is the sustainability and transferability of the identified cooperation model and training solutions. Open School for Village Hosts project seek to reach out to adjacent projects in Europe and beyond whose work and expertise overlap with ours.

"Village Hosts bring new social, economic and ecological life to small villages and their local economy. In terms of public policy, the Open School for Village Hosts creates 'public goods in the form of social cohesion, public health, territorial development, food sovereignty, farmer livelihoods, learning, innovation, and biodiversity" - John Thackara, the expert supporting the program.

What's next? Holis and Open School for Village Hosts partners have been busy for the last couple of months. We have been researching, collecting data, and conducting focus groups and interviews with experts on capacity building, the future of the skills and rural development. Now, we are creating a test training module out of these findings that will be used to teach rural activators new skills. At the end of 2023, we aim to deliver outcomes as a practical platform, handbook, manifesto, and additional materials to support Village Hosts' development. What is most important in this work is remembering the human element, which is crucial here to make this program succeed.  To do it, we invite you - dear readers and Holis supporters - to provide us with your feedback, knowledge or/and opinion on this topic. Maybe you know an already existing rural activator? If yes, please put us in contact.