With efforts of supporting a project, or resolve a societal issue, the LAGs contribute to strengthening the modern democratic environment. The major limiting factors for their even bigger impact are lack of effective communication, including cooperation with the media, as well as insufficient knowhow on group management, and lack of lobbying skills.
As societies operate today in very complex circumstances, and progress cannot be expected unless several conditions are fulfilled:
- all categories of citizens should clearly, responsibly and proactively express and legitimately defend their interests;
- scientists and experts should not keep their knowledge just for themselves, but should without delay (due to concern for their popularity) present relevant facts and proper insights to the authorities and the public (example: the ecological threats);
- politicians should act timely and responsibly in order to prevent harmful developments affecting us now and in the future.
The European Union is well aware of this and supports several networks of local action groups for more than 20 years, helping them to overcome their limitations and weaknesses, and play their role productively and socially responsibly. The challenges are of course still enormous, but such is the potential impact of these groups – particularly in conditions that give civil initiative more space than ever before.
The KEN Network - committed to contributing to the process of building a knowledge economy/society along with principles of sustainability - has recently launched an initiative to develop a global Sustainability Network of Networks. It is probably not a surprise that among many thematic areas (at least 10 thematic domains considered at this stage) the role of LAGs seems to be receiving the most interest.
These activities are supported by several services and divisions of the European Commission: DG for Regional and Urban Policy, DG Employment, the European Territorial Cooperation Programme, and others.
In the EU the specific attention to local action groups was first generated within the LEADER Program over 20 years ago, and the financial role of Cohesion funding, Common Agricultural Funds, and Interreg have financially supported many projects. Only some 10 years ago a similar initiative has started to develop in the urban context, and for example, the CLLD Network has made an important impact.
There are now several centers of networking, each in its own way contributing to the respective efforts of LAGs. These are probably among the most important aspects of the support received.
Local action groups provide legitimacy to grassroots supported projects, sending a clear signal to regional and national authorities, and helping them take the right position. This is certainly a valuable instrument of democracy, as they mobilize and connect socially concerned and often highly knowledgeable, motivated and experienced people and organisations. The action groups are active in developing responses to issues created by modern life, which political parties, government institutions and other establishment actors are often not sufficiently aware of, or refrain from introducing into the public debate, and solve them successfully.
Parliaments and governments should be open to the initiatives of these groups, as they very often offer workable solutions for relevant problems, and deserve credit for having helped to develop solutions serving the real needs of real people. European Commission is right to recognize the contribution of the local rural - as well as - urban action groups. It is also supporting its associations and projects proposed by its members, particularly through Cohesion funding, the European Social Fund, as well as the resources of the European Territorial Cooperation Programme. The volume of financial support should probably be essentially bigger, as these projects undoubtedly reflect the real needs and interests of European citizens. On the other hand, the same cannot always be claimed for the projects selected and promoted by the governments or regional authorities - as they sometimes serve primarily the electoral interests of the respective ruling parties.
Looking at LAGs, it is important to recognize that in literature there is no consensus about their precise definition. There is no doubt that LAGs are groupings of individuals and institutions, share some interest in matters of public concern. They are not just local chapters of national entities, because these – though they should not ignore locally relevant issues – have to follow the programmatic framework and priorities adopted at the national level, which is usually very distant from local actions. In defining the LAGs there is no precise criteria about the level of their institutionalisation (e.g.: their status of legal person).
For our purpose, let us first identify what kind of groupings we understand to be covered by the concept. They include the following types of entities:
- informal action groups, created by people and institutions at the local urban or rural level, concerned with a specific problem, as well as their networks and associations;
- all types of independent NGOs, their networks and associations, active on urban or rural issues;
- other entities created on a grassroots basis and addressing local urban/rural issues.
Some people include into the concept of LAGs also the local branches of professional associations, and even local branches of political parties. Though these share some features of LAGs, they cannot be considered LAGs in the strict sense.
Many burning issues in urban and rural environments are being addressed and effectively resolved only after an adequate action group has been successfully organised and created the necessary pressure to move the establishment into necessary action. This is, on one hand, a demonstration of the weakness of contemporary democratic systems, and their institutions to address and resolving some problems. On the other hand, however, the emergence of LAGs is such a positive sign, demonstrating the openness and viability of the democratic system. It confirms that strong motivation of the people concerned - leading to the articulation of interests registered at the grassroots level, can lead such groupings to be successful in resolving a problem – partly bypassing the usual procedures, but not necessarily confronting the responsible institutions and authorities.
Historically, this is not a new phenomenon, and it is experienced in various cultures, countries and political systems in a variety of manifestations – one could say, generally corresponding to the maturity of a specific democratic environment. In the United Kingdom, as well as in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example, the LAGs have a very long and successful tradition. In principle, LAGs can have either a purely grassroots origin or could be initiated or facilitated from the regional or even national level.
At the level of the European Union, this problem was first registered in the rural context – and supported by programme LEADER (Liaison Entre Actions De Development Rural) – and funded by the European Agricultural Fund – already since 1991. In economic literature, this is defined as “Community-led rural development”.
Already in 2013, the National Rural Networks have started to grow, and by 2020 the European Network of Rural Development reported 3,134 rural LAGs as its members from all 27EU countries.
Through the LEADER program the Commission has contributed to the growth of numerous rural LAGs (for example their number in Italy is 235, in Austria 77, and in Slovenia 38). And through European Neighbourhood Program for Agricultural and Rural Development 8 GALAGs are financially supported in Georgia – as well as in other neighbouring countries.
The Commission has also assisted the creation of a LAG Data Bank, which facilitates cooperation among LAGs. Activities of LAGs are rising, and so is the volume of their activities: the 28 National Support Units have reported for the year 2020 even 2,548 events are being organised – most of them on technology transfer, and social inclusion and economic development. Also, information on 4,272 good practice projects was collected and disseminated in 2020.
In order to be well perceived and accepted in their socio-political environment, these groups need to meet primarily the following criteria:
- properly defined the key Issue: addressing sufficiently practical problems (like waste management, eliminating trouble spots in urban circulation, introducing urban green surfaces, etc.) – with a clear focus on benefits and proper priorities;
- leadership: capable and credible leadership, characterized by relevant expertise, openness, good communication skills, and personal integrity;
- policy aspects: action programmes to be “political” only to the extent of taking into account the real political environment in which they operate – in other words, they should be operational and pragmatic – appealing to people from all parties and ideological profiles;
- quality of argumentation: offering simple and direct argumentation – easily penetrable to people’s mind-set, with well-formulated answers to relevant questions and anticipated opponent views;
- research base: collaboration with relevant experts and support from recognized research organisations from academia and elsewhere;
- access: to relevant organisations and institutions, responsible for preparing and adopting the needed legislation, as well as exercising required policies in the specific domains;
- networked with like-minded, potential partner organisations, locally-regionally-nationally, as well as sometimes at the international level.
In a survey conducted in the Czech Republic in 2015 (among members of 58 registered LAGs, the total then being about 100), perhaps the most important results are the responses to the question about what determines the success of LAGs. Among 9 offered replies the following three were by far the most dominant: readiness to associate and participate in solving problems (40%), competent LAG manager (27%), and winning grants (23%).
Over the last 10-15 years the trend of LAG activities is strengthening in Europe also in the urban context, the obvious reason could be that in cities people tend to be less connected than in rural areas. But this still does not imply that there is less need for grassroots initiative – particularly as there is a huge advantage in easier access to like-minded groups and organisations, as well as easier communication with authorities.
Potential of urban LAGs and their networks
Challenges experienced in the modern urban context – with various grassroots action groups at various levels and forms of associations addressed – are numerous. They cover, among others, primarily the following thematic domains:
- environment protection – particularly clean air and waste management;
- effective circulation and safe mobility;
- energy supply and management;
- proper integration of business activities into the local environment;
- quality of drinking water;
- greening of cities;
- protection of cultural heritage;
- provision of basic services to all urban inhabitants;
- supporting meaningful engagement of the elderly;
- IT training for the elderly through collaboration with youngsters;
- equal rights for all ethnic groups.
Not unexpectedly, many urban action groups are making systematic efforts to link, associate and network with similar groups at regional, national and sometimes even at international level. This is particularly important, as it allows them to exchange information on problems faced, as well as on relevant experiences and achievements. They often even act together – gaining better access to relevant knowledge and expertise, and increasing their influence, as well as improving their chances for productive results of their efforts.
Though higher levels of institutionalisation in urban context could be interpreted as the main objective reason for lower levels of ULAG activities, compared to rural ones, the situation could be evaluated also very different. Stronger urban institutionalisation implies that any grassroots initiative could more easily find supporters among numerous NGOs and other associations present in the urban context, who also have much easier access to responsible institutions and persons with determining influence on the decision-making process.
Processes and trends in modern urban development require more communication and networking at the grassroots level. These are intensive technological changes and in particular, digitalisation, which facilitates more interaction among grassroots actors in practically all domains of economy and society. The urge for higher sustainability in economic, environmental and social aspects of development also requires stronger involvement of all members of society in developing solutions, which are fully sustainable, and acceptable to all segments of society, to be able to put pressure on authorities.
How can urban LAGs contribute to achieving the SDG 2030 Strategy? On one hand, in activities around a particular development project, members of the respective LAG are expected to ensure that their interests are not hurting any aspect of societal sustainability interests. In other words, ULAGs have to defend their particular interest - without hurting the broader interests of society. Their representatives should therefore be trained to lobby in a legitimate and ethical way. Membership of ULAGs should be briefed and alerted on their responsibility to defend their own interest in a socially responsible way. In ultima linea, this means that legitimate and ethical activities of ULAGs will not contribute only to a sustainable future, but will simultaneously advance the civic culture of their members, and of their socio-political environment.
Involvement in such partnerships means that the people who were previously the passive 'beneficiaries' of a policy, become active partners and drivers of their urban area's development agenda and individual adopted policies. In the EU documents, this is a defining characteristic of “Community-Led Local Development”.
Since 2014-2020, funding period LEADER has expanded to include also fisheries and urban areas. Within LEADER/CLLD now there are over 3,000 local action groups, covering over 60% of the total EU rural population.
Another interesting service is also the Evaluation Knowledge Bank, in Leipzig, Germany, which has supported by end of 2021 even 61 outputs and 25 projects and initiatives of ULAGs.
Though it is happening in our own environment, people are not fully aware of the scope and impact of local action groups, and consequently do not recognize their great potential for serving the public interest and making the democratic system work optimally. The LAGs are only partly to be blamed for this, due to a lack of attention to public communication, and specially not briefing the media sufficiently.
What could help change this and allow LAGs to be even more efficient?
- in our formal and civil education systems the role of LAGs should be much more emphasized (e.g.: as it is in the US, Australia, and New Zealand);
- in most countries the importance of communication and particularly representation of interest and lobbying skills throughout the entire education is consistently neglected – this has to change;
- public opinion and the media can and should contribute to better acceptance of LAGs in society, as well as by politicians;
- LAGs networks deserve more recognition and financial support at all levels, from local to international (European Commission is giving a good example);
- special legislation could facilitate the productivity of LAGs, and it has to be fully adjusted to the conditions and legal traditions of each country.
It is most likely that LAGs will continue growing in importance by contributing to the productivity of our democratic systems. Depending on the changes listed above, we can expect a more active citizenry, as well as more competent and responsible interest representation – promoting LAGs as an important building block in the processes of making our democracies function better.