Being invited to speak at an event prompted me to reflect on 15 years of evaluating rural development projects and programmes in Wales. I started in 2006 (ouch…) and a lot has happened since then (including 29 different iPhones!). I wanted to set the scene. So, to help me do that, I decided to spend some time in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth looking at old ‘Rural Wales Strategy’ documents. There have been a few of them including a ‘Strategy for Rural Wales’ written by the Welsh Council 50 years ago, in 1971.
What I found reading through these documents is that they are quite similar to the strategies that are out there today. A lot of the same issues that we discuss today were being discussed way back in 1971 and again throughout the 1990s. Most notably, all the documents talk about the need to address the outmigration of young people from rural communities and the need to diversify the rural economy. So, on that basis, what’s changed? What has been achieved by the billions that have been spent over the years on rural development projects and programmes? Should we not have addressed these issues by now?
Those are difficult questions to answer; we don’t know for example whether the situation would be worse/different today if these investments hadn’t been made. A lot of the issues facing rural areas are also really big ones and difficult to address. We all know that. But we need to ask these kinds of questions. We also need to be more prepared to challenge and (equally important) to be challenged about the programmes, schemes and projects that are being delivered in the name of ‘rural development’.
Generally, failure is said to be acceptable, until you fail. We need to be prepared to accept that some things will fail and then learn from that. We need to stop skating around the fact that some things don’t work, particularly when projects are new, innovative or pushing the boundaries in some other way. Of course, they don’t always work. Until we do, we’re not going to learn from those ‘failures’ and risk doing the same things again.
We also need to challenge ourselves by questioning whether we fully understand the problems that rural areas are facing or the opportunities for that matter. Einstein is quoted as saying that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on the solution, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, because if he knew that, he could solve the problem in less than five minutes. If you don’t fully understand the problem, how can you solve it? This means challenging (that word again) our understanding of issues and testing the assumptions that underpin them. Do we really understand for example why young people are leaving rural communities?
In my experience, there can be a rush to develop project ideas and to want to take action. Yet problem-solving is a process that includes the important steps of collecting information, deciding the cause of the issue and identifying a range of possible solutions. I’m not sure we always pay enough attention to those steps in the process.
Also, once projects are delivered, I’m not sure we spend enough time reviewing what’s been achieved and (importantly) sharing the findings of those reviews with others. I know that I work in evaluation and so would of course say that. It’s still true though!
My main reflection is however that, fundamentally, projects are about people and the places and communities they come from. More often than not, there’s a key individual behind a successful project or a successful business. That individual is usually highly motivated and committed to what they do. This is such a key factor in the ‘success’ of projects and its importance cannot be understated. Further, a place or a community is often key to that individual’s motivation. Finding and engaging with those individuals is, therefore, the critical factor. More could also be done possibly to find out what makes those key people tick and using that to get others in the community engaged and enthused.
Endaf Griffiths | Director