This year our team was engaged in undergoing strategic planning processes with 5 small communities in Romania. The project consisted in offering assistance to 5 town halls to draft local development strategies for a 7-year timespan, helping them better prepare for mobilizing resources during the 2014-2020 EU programming cycle.
Working in parallel with the same team in five different communities can be quite consuming but definitely full of insights. Our partner communities ranged from just 2 thou people (Bărbătești, în Gorj County and Provița de Jos în Prahova County), 4,7 thou people (in Zemeș, Bacău County and Independența, Galați county) to 15 thou people in the small urban municipality of Marghita (Bihor county). Applying a similar work methodology in all these five communities offered us the chance for instant feedback and insights on how our work is perceived and has different outcomes, depending on the specificities of each community – social and economic backgrounds, political context, institutional capacity.
The project implied working with young mayors in their first years of mandate but also mayors at the edge of retirement, after almost 20 years in their positions. As our communities where located all throughout the country, the project allowed us to experience regional cultural differences in terms of social capital and their impact on associational economy, in aspects where it most matters (eg. the drive of small farmers to associate, and thus their future capacity to access commercialization markets).
We also explored the role of human capital in local institutions in generating soft initiatives, aimed at human and social capital formation. The vibrancy of small communities is dependent on the drive of different key persons to generate activities fostering social interaction and sense of community – the principal and teachers working with the school population, the local librarian, the general practicionner, local priests or different antrepreneurs and farmers. For instance, a local librarian developed the local library into a real community center, mobilizing children to put togheter a small community museum, organizing dance and reading circles and hosting international volunteers to help with environmental campaigns. Other communities lacked such a resource person, therefore the local library was simply a storage space of books, largely untapped by the locals.
Besides the richness of insights described above, this project provided several challenges. A strategy is not (just) a document but, first and foremost, a process and working with communities and town halls which have never been through such a process is a difficult endeavour. It implies moving focus from strategy elaboration to actively building awareness for the local stakeholders on the role of a strategy and the importance of different steps necessary in its generation: data gathering and consultations for assessing needs and local potential, local council endorsement and monitoring of implementation. As one mayor declared at the end of the project, ‘we now have a better understanding of what a strategy is useful for, both myself and our local councillors present at the consultations’.
It may seem that small communities are easier to grasp and deal with. However, there are several challenges specific to such communities, the most important of these being the lock-in factor. Small communities count a very limited number of opinion leaders and civically-engaged individuals. Such people may be divided across different political groups or personal aversions, which blocks cooperation and promotion of initiatives of common interest. By contrast, in larger towns, the source of initiative and action is more diversified – if x and y fail to cooperate, there’s a higher chance of having a z to move things forward. Also, in small towns the lack of exposure to other realities translates into strong reluctance to new ideas and resignation (eg. ‘this has never been and will never be possible here’), significant barriers to many relevant and otherwise realistic development initiatives.
This project was initiated and funded by OMV Petrom SA as a corporate social initiative meant to help the local communities to better plan and mobilize resources for development. The implementation was done in partnership with GEA Strategy & Consulting, which further continues the assistance to townhalls untill 2017 for identifying EU funds which may help the strategy implementation.