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Can the Andalusian miracle be replicated?

Once upon a time, there was a region rich in natural resources, with an exceptional historic and cultural heritage, a fine environment, good climate, and a major network of towns. And yet, the inhabitants, mostly farmers tired of barely eking out a living, had emigrated to big cities in droves in search of prosperity. The half-empty, crumbling towns were surrounded by fields exploited by wealthy absentee landlords known as “latifundistas”. Once in a while, officials from the capital would visit the region with proposals that nobody could understand, offering the locals a recreation center when what they needed was a health care center, three-lane highways when they didn’t even have running water in their homes or irrigation on their land, and buses to travel to the city, when they just wanted to stay where they were, work the land, and bring their families back home.

This could have been the story of many rural areas in Latin America, but it is the story of the legendary Andalusia region in southern Spain.

One fine day, the inhabitants of the region got together and agreed on a plan. They set up Local Action Groups and, with the help of government experts and representatives of trade unions and business associations, prepared a diagnostic study on their situation, drew up guidelines for the future, and wrote concrete proposals for the present. From then on, any help or proposal from outside had to go through the Local Development Groups. Ten years later, the situation in Andalusia has improved so much that the townspeople themselves claim “nobody even recognizes our towns anymore”.

José Emilio Guerrero, a professor at the University of Córdoba in Spain, was a special witness to this transformation process. He was recently invited by the IDB’s Inter-American Institute for Social Development (INDES) to give courses on rural training. He is also providing support for the Rural Development Unit of the IDB in the preparation of a rural development program that incorporates many aspects of the Andalusian experience. Guerrero spoke with IDB America’s Charo Quesada.

IDBAmérica: What happened in Andalusia?

Guerrero: I experienced firsthand how a backward agricultural region changed dramatically and was rebuilt through modernization. The main ingredient in the process was that the inhabitants identified their own needs and were empowered over their own destiny.

The situation in Andalusia 20 years ago was in many ways worse than what some parts of Latin America are experiencing. Some 80 percent of the population lived off the land; the region had a history of poverty, depression, high unemployment, and considerable social disintegration; and the central government had clearly completely ignored the region. The only way out was to emigrate.

IDBAmérica: How and when did the change start? Who took the initiative?

Guerrero: Like many other agricultural regions in the world, Andalusia faced dizzying changes in the market and was unable to meet the many new market demands—for quality, sanitary requirements, consumer preferences, and so on—given its situation at the time. The region was in a dead end, on a seemingly never-ending tailspin.

The plan was launched in Andalusia under the LEADER I and LEADER II Community Initiative of the European Union. The purpose of the LEADER Initiative is to develop a new model for rural areas to make them full of life, people, opportunities for recreation and business, and jobs, with a participatory approach. A new institutional framework was necessary for this bottom-up revolution to take place. At the core of the framework were the new Local Action Groups, which totaled 49 and represented 88 percent of the land area and 667 municipalities. A team was set up in each Local Action Group with representatives of the ministries of agriculture and fisheries, economic affairs, tourism, labor, and the environment, the majority trade unions and the Confederation of Business Associations. It was essential that the activities of all these institutions be coordinated, based on local needs and objectives—enough wasting resources on unsupported projects and duplicated efforts.

IDBAmérica: Could you give us an example of how things were going to change after that?

Guerrero: A depressed, problem-ridden region needs to coordinate very different measures to address the issues of farming and employment, urban needs, education, health, the elderly, youth, recreation, the environment, and maintenance and repair of streets, squares, and housing.

IDBAmérica: Did you also need a lot of money?

Guerrero: Social capital is far more important. Human resources come before technology and economic means. The entire Andalusian reform cost about $200 million for the period from 1994 to 1999. This is a very small figure for a region of 87,548 square kilometers and seven million inhabitants. And the results cannot be measured in figures only, such as the increase in GDP. In Andalusia, you just have to look at how well kept, attractive, and lively the towns are and listen to what people are saying about them. They feel optimistic, empowered.

IDBAmérica: How did you manage to forge such a complex partnership?

Guerrero: The goal was to put together a core unit for interaction between the Local Action Groups and all the public and private sector stakeholders representing the region. We wanted to create an institution that could take on joint commitments and would have the legitimacy to manage public funds and the technical capacity to do it, with complementary instruments to ensure proper implementation and an oversight committee. The priority was to defend local interests with a single voice.

As could be expected, we had to face many challenges and overcome many obstacles: the lack of a rural development culture, delays in activities, inadequate cooperation among the groups, difficulties ensuring proper use of the public funds by private players, a low level of commitment, and insufficient scientific and technical support. As greater autonomy is achieved, there is also greater dependence on the public sector, with the genuine risk of bureaucratization. However, the optimism sparked by change often minimized the difficulties.

Nevertheless, we knew that building institutions for a process such as this was the most crucial step and would be the greatest hurdle.

IDBAmérica: What did you learn during the process?

Guerrero: A lot: that the rural world can and should be a player in its own development; that regional identity—moving the region forward—proved an unprecedented motivation; that local decision making can happen and that minor decisions are often as important as major ones; that participatory models are practical and useful and that the rural world is a very important part of society as a whole. These are some of the lessons.

IDBAmérica: And what are your plans now?

Guerrero: We are now in the 2000–2006 period. Our objectives are to take steps to consolidate the social and technical structure of the groups, intensify scientific and technical training, and improve representativeness. There is a total commitment to rural development with a sound strategic plan and greater participation by civil society because of the open-door policy we maintain. Public information campaigns are going to be carried out and teaching materials disseminated within the region to publicize the current objectives and achievements to date.

IDBAmérica: Tell us about the situation in Latin America, especially at a time when, unfortunately, rural areas are again in the news because of the tragic drought in Central America. Are there regions in the world that are hopeless, that are condemned to be forever at the mercy of the elements?

Guerrero: The rural world is strategic for Latin America. Far-reaching changes need to be made, with new national and international perspectives. There is a juxtaposition of international initiatives and uncoordinated proliferation of NGOs, but rural areas have not been treated with a multidimensional approach.

Latin America has superb human resources, well educated and experienced people. It needs a trigger mechanism. It needs to decentralize and grant autonomy to local institutions, create a track for local action, and establish a screening process to coordinate the work done by government agencies. In general, ministries in Latin America lack legitimacy and human resources. In the countryside there is an identity crisis and anxiety about the future.

Droughts are not a climatic phenomenon: they can be mitigated by properly managing water resources. Rural communities should develop the capacity to respond to adverse conditions, anticipate crises, and prepare for them. There is a Spanish saying that goes: All the flies swarm around the poor. In other words, when it rains, it pours and when you’re poor, it’s always raining. Things cannot go on that way.

IDBAmérica: You came to the IDB to discuss the Andalusian phenomenon with Latin American experts and officials. Do you think the Local Action Group model can be exported to the region?

Guerrero: Any initiative requires a change in mentality. Agrarian reform is not the main means of achieving such a change; instead, you need a new distribution of decision making authority. Furthermore, the region has an organization, the International Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) based in Costa Rica, with offices in all the countries in the region that does not exist in other parts of the world and would have the capacity to implement this type of initiative.

Argentina and Chile are carrying out pilot projects with Andalusia that have been very successful. There is a network called RURALE to sponsor rural development and the exchange of experiences between Latin America and Europe. Multilateral financial institutions like the IDB and agencies for international cooperation need to try a different tack to help bring the region out of its current stalemate. Latin America has deserted areas and others that are overpopulated, and too much poverty. It can indeed implement such a project. The issue of rural development is so crucial that no politician or leader would refuse to spearhead it.

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