Engaging with the hard to reach in rural areas

Engaging with the hard to reach in rural areas was the topic of the workshop organised by SIMRA during the European Rural Parliament organised in Candas, Spain, in November 2019.

Who are the “hard to reach” in rural Europe? 

The hard to reach are often those in need of support to enhance their wellbeing, increase their participation in society and economy. They can be “hard to reach” because they are not very visible or because they are not adept at accessing public services. They are those in poverty and unemployment, the elderly, the young, the mentally and physically disabled and the outsiders by virtue of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.  Many people also experience severe loneliness and social isolation, especially in areas where there has been much outmigration and an ageing population is left in a precarious situation.  There are additionally those that feel disenfranchised by economic changes and who have struggled to adapt.

The hard to reach in rural areas may be isolated from access to services by their immobility when those services are becoming more remote, or available only to those with digital literacy.  Private and public services from banking to shops on one hand to social care, primary schools and libraries have tended to close and become more concentrated in urban service centres.  Third sector bodies which increasingly work together with state agency or even replace it, but are often weakly represented in rural areas, so the hard to reach may be more difficult for support agencies to find in rural areas.

Why should we be concerned about them? 

Three main factors drive concern about the hard to reach. First, there is a humanitarian argument that structurally disadvantaged people need to be supported if we want more inclusive societies.  This is why policies for affirmative action or positive discrimination have been developed.  Second, empowered people with a degree of control over their own wellbeing are normally people with higher levels of subjective and objective wellbeing. Third, it is clear, not least from the disruptive populism which has reared its head in recent years, that change comes at a cost to certain groups, and some among them can become a disruptive force.  The disadvantaged and disenfranchised are often distanced from mainstream public service provision and their coping capacities are limited.

Can we find good practice examples of engagement with the hard to reach?

The SIMRA project introduced several examples of social innovations engaging with the hard to reach:
-IntegraTodos, a Spanish insertion company which sets up production activities in parallel of training programmes for women at risk of social exclusion
– Dagnja Cooperative, a veteran’s cooperative in Croatia cultivating mussels to develop skills and gain a sense of inclusion through employment and direct sales
– The Joutsenten Reitti LAG in Finland chose quality of life as its priority and supports many grassroots initiatives, such as a Welcome House for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers

Check out the SIMRA database to access the project’s selection of best social innovation practices: www.simra-h2020.eu/index.php/simradatabase/

What are the characteristics of those good practices? 

A key characteristic of successful interventions or projects is to provide support in ways which give new skills and capabilities to the disadvantaged group or person(s).  A second characteristic is to alter the framework conditions to reduce any sense of discrimination and stigma and, at the same time, to celebrate diversity. A third key characteristic is to ensure that the disadvantaged do not get locked into blockages in unhelpful bureaucracies and hyper-regulation- this is an area where third-sector citizen support services can be crucial.  A fourth key characteristic is to ensure equity of access to support services for those in remote communities.

Is there a role for social innovation? 

There are many challenges to rural wellbeing which are often felt most acutely by the “hard to reach”.  In our project we have encountered many examples of how social innovation has benefitted hard to reach groups, including young unemployed rural people, isolated elderly people, disabled people, and PTSD-suffering war veterans.  Civil society agency, often but not always in collaboration with public sector bodies, is often leading the way in engaging the hard to reach and coming up with novel solutions to address their challenges and problems.


Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)


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