Geography of discontent of “places that don’t matter”

Geography of discontent of “places that don’t matter”

Euroscepticism, approach to extremist positions and parties… the geography of discontent has become a problematic issue for, among others, European governments, which are unable to understand how, despite progressively increasing the investment of their economic and cohesion policies in all the Member States, they are witnessing a gradual increase in this disaffection with the European project.

Facilitating greater participation, promoting governance, betting on a paradigm shift in the way public policies are implemented… can be solutions to combat it, and the LEADER methodology has been demonstrating that it is possible for more than three decades.

We cannot continue to consider rural areas as places to compensate or satisfy for past and present grievances, but to detect their potential and stimulate them to the fullest, with the aim of turning them into more prosperous and dynamic areas. In turn, we must recognise that it is not fair to hold public authorities responsible for this reality only: rural territories must bet on a more proactive and less reactive stance.

According to OECD data, since the last economic crisis (2008-2009), EU countries increased their GDP and experienced a progressive reduction of inequalities, but what happened to the regions? A number of regions, unfortunately, have suffered the opposite effect, a considerable increase in the socio-economic disparity compared to the richer areas (which, in most cases, coincide with urban areas). It is what has been called geography of discontent.

The geography of discontent is a recent phenomenon, which refers to the feeling of grievance or dissatisfaction perceived by a good part of the population living in those territories that feel abandoned by governments and policy makers. These are the territories that the Professor of Economic Geography of the London School of Economics (LSE), Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, has defined as “places that do not matter”: areas in which the population is increasingly alienated and disenchanted with the common European project and that ends up opting for extremist or anti-European political options. A feeling, on the other hand, that has its real motivations.

The territorial gap is one of the main causes of this phenomenon, but it is not the only one. The reality is that Community and national policies have not achieved their objectives, neglecting the historical and regional configuration, just as they have not taken into account the current weight of public policies, private investment and globalisation in the territorial areas. The current situation is paradoxical for the European authorities — where this concept has emerged — since, despite increasing investment in their territorial and cohesion policies, the feeling of uprooting these areas is increasing. How did we get to this situation? What solutions can we find to reverse it?

One of the many reasons is that, as a society, we still maintain an ethnocentrist view of what is happening in rural areas and the future of its policies; in this epistemological framework we could talk about legislation that has taken into account the object (the rural areas), without taking into account the subject (the rural population) and the relationship between the two. This has been transformed into policies designed more to compensate or indemnify these territories, than to exploit their full potential to become better developed and competitive
areas. However, there is still plenty of room for hope. To correct this situation, we must bet on what has been called policies sensitive to the territory (Iammarino et al., 2019).

The policies sensitive to the territory are those designed, executed and examined from local needs, in which its inhabitants have a say, from a bottom-up perspective. It is not enough to “water” these territories with cohesion funds and to expect them to develop themselves: public policies must provide valid tools that allow the population to break this vicious circle and begin to develop all its potential. All these characteristics could be applied to the LEADER/CLLD community-led local development approach, a methodology that has been for more than three decades demonstrating that it is possible to give the territories the key to their future and that they can develop in a sustainable and effective way.

Against extremist populism and anti-Europeanism there is a very effective antidote, listening to the territory; to give its inhabitants — the best connoisseurs of the needs of the place in which they live — the freedom to decide, which also entails greater responsibility and commitment. On the one hand, we are aware that we are entering a new era, on a path of unparalleled prosperity, in which change is already a reality. In this scenario, we have an obligation to make rapid progress through structural changes in governance; greater flexibility and agility in terms of the applicability of policies so that they adapt to real needs and the occasional conjunctures to give us more strategic autonomy and not leave any territory or inhabitant behind; in this way, we would change the geography of discontent to the “places that do matter.”

On the other hand, not least, we must recognise that it is not fair to hold the public authorities responsible for this reality only: in this case, rural territories must bet on being more proactive and prescriptive. If public policies have not had enough impact on our territories, it would be necessary to analyse this element not only exogenously, but designing a synchronous exercise that allows us to know its causality, taking into account the consequences.

María José Murciano Sánchez
Manager REDR (Spanish Network for Rural Development )