Tag Archives: rural

Rural development in practice

IMG_5161

It is comparatively rare that the cover of a book so adequately describes not just the contents inside those covers, but also manages to capture so completely a flavour of the book itself. It is even more rare to have a ‘textbook’ land on my desk that is such an absolute pleasure to read. The author is an evaluator in the field of international development, and his down-to-earth style of writing manages to satisfy both the practicalities of the development worker in the field and the academic in the study. A quick glimpse at the comments from reviewers in the official blurb, saying ‘insightful’, ‘enjoyable’, and ‘engaging’ seem to summarise the common perspective. To that, I would add ‘useful’ because although this publication is nominally directed at rural development in ‘the global south’ there is a wealth of reading for practitioners and socially aware academics everywhere. For example, although the fine-grained details of the context vary hugely between least-developed countries and my own region of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, there are gems of thought-provoking reading in this book that should allow people “to see ourselves as others see us” (as Burns wrote in his poetry). This is a book that should stimulate people of all sorts who are working in rural development anywhere. I have little doubt that it will also usefully inform many other areas of activity, including regional studies, colonial history, the psychology of development, and several other related topics.

The main topics for each chapter deal with the big issues of our time – agricultural change, micro-finance, migration, and climate change, among others – but the inclusion of text-boxes for more detailed explanations, along with many well-chosen examples, lifts this text beyond the normal. Above all, it is both accessible and challenging – a rare combination. It is accessible because it is well-written, in language that is not cloaked in jargon nor obscured in cliché – most importantly, it is understandable. It is challenging because it looks at the failings both of practices in the field and of theories in the classroom, thereby forcing us all to re-evaluate some ideas that we have taken for granted or simply not explored thoroughly enough. This is not a smug take-down of development that has been done by others, this is an honest re-evaluation of what matters, and what should matter, when anybody begins to talk about improving social and environmental conditions, or social equity in rural areas. This is a book that can be informatively read sitting in an old armchair at home, or shared with others who have come straight from the fields and want to understand better how to plan for changes that will improve their own lives and the lives of their families.

Does this book give us ‘the answer‘ to better rural development? No, but it gives us some suggestions, and it throws a welcome and an insightful light on some ill-lit corners. I have no doubt that critically reading this book, and following up some of the many interesting ideas that are discussed here, will help readers gain a deeper appreciation of the necessity of integration, and the imperative of engaging, with the many diverse strands of activity that we loosely describe as ‘rural development’.

I will certainly put in a request for multiple copies in my university library, and I will recommend it as background reading to every student of rural development in our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. It is not enough simply to enjoy this book personally, it has to be shared with others, and above all acted upon.

Willem van Eekelen. (2020). Rural development in practice: Exploring challenges and opportunities. London: Routledge.

Enjoying place

Chapel2

One thing good that can be said about the lockdown, is that it gives us plenty of time for reading and reflection. I read recently in a book by the explorer of Himalayan natural history, George Schaller, that the mountain K2 (second highest peak in the world) is so remote that there is no habitation within sight of it, and that it has no local name(s). That, I would concede, is pretty remote. There is nowhere in Western Europe to match that. On my daily walks around Gabhsann I often pass the sites of previous communities – Norse and Iron Age settlers, and the nameless tribes that built the now-ruined dùns. I wonder if they considered this place ‘remote’ or was it simply an extension of what they already knew?

In one of those sites, many years ago, I found a hand-axe. It is a piece of beautifully crafted stone that could still be used today as a cutting tool. Listening to a podcast of an episode of A history of the world in 100 objects, I heard a fascinating presentation on a hand-axe from the Olduvai Gorge. At one stage, bewilderingly, Sir James Dyson – not an archaeologist or historian – is asked by the presenter to comment, and he suggests that the tool is probably an item of decoration because it is slightly larger than normal and he is unable to use it without cutting his hands. With a flash of imperial (over)confidence it does not appear to occur to Sir James that the misuse might actually lie with him, rather than with the creator of this wonderful object.

In a similar fashion, John Love noted that the author Steele Elliot, on a visit to the archipelago in 1895, declared that, “Little could be gleaned from the natives… owing chiefly to the difficulty of their speaking only Gaelic.” Notice the cultural twist here. The difficulty is not apparently that Steele is deficient in his understanding of Gaelic but lies with the local community. I wondered on my walks if he also complained about the unreasonable natives speaking French in France and if he was the type of 19th century traveller who simply spoke English LOUDER to make the foreigners understand his needs? Who knows now? As cultural awareness changes, many of the place names of empire are reverting to their pre-colonial names. Even lonely St Kilda is more commonly recognised as Hiort these days.

The crucial factor missing from many of the ‘rewilding’ arguments is that lots of apparently ’empty’ places in the H &Is are because people were forcibly removed from the land. Furthermore, when those villages were active, their mosaic of land use created a more vibrant and diverse biodiversity than the depopulated landscape of today. With those missing crofting villages, we have lost not only the variety of wildlife, but the intangible cultural heritage of local stories, place names, and regional connections that give a place its deeper meanings.

Well in NG

Looping back to K2 and unnamed places, I wonder yet again what were the names that the first inhabitants gave to this place where I live? How many place names have since disappeared? Perhaps there were micro landscapes with topographical names known only within an extended family, and then lost forever as they moved on. Or were the names simply overprinted by the next dominant power? If the latter is the case, what is next in this evolution? How many contemporary hill walkers make the effort to pronounce hill names properly, far less understand what those names mean? Has Strathspey become ‘ the Spey Valley’ because Strathspey is too difficult to say?

For me, immersion in a landscape is more than just walking around the surface topography, more even than exploring the geology and observing carefully the wildlife. It is about attempting to understand how others have viewed this land, and to respect the layers upon layers of ways of knowing this land. Elsewhere in his book, George Schaller wrote, “There are many ways to enjoy mountains: some persons engage their passion by cutting steps into impossible ice walls, others entrust their lives to one fragile piton in a rocky crevice, and still others, I among them, prefer simply to roam the high country.”

To go one stage further, for me, the country doesn’t even need to be all that high! It is simply enough to be present here.

Moth

Love, J. A. (2009). The Natural History of St. Kilda. Edinburgh: Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-797-4

Schaller, G. B. (1980). Stones of silence: Journeys in the High Himalaya. New York: Viking Press. ISBN O-670-67140-1.

Lessons from Lockdown

Coffee

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “A day without learning is a day wasted” so today I have tried to draw some lessons from the strange circumstances that we now find ourselves in. As I look to pass my 100th day in lockdown and working from home, there are five strong messages that have become apparent to me.

Continuity of work

Although my work has a different dynamic these days, it has continued relatively smoothly in my new office environment at home. Much of my work was already in the online environment, with email communications, videoconference meetings, and discussing web-based resources with distance-learners. In this new situation, I am aware that I have been luckier than many others, but I am also aware that lots of my regular work colleagues are in a similar position to me. We have swapped the financial and time costs of commuting to work with the extra costs and time spent at home. We may miss interaction in the same physical space, but there have been some amazing and innovative ‘workarounds’ that have brought some groups closer together, extended networks, and enabled a ‘new normal’ form of work to continue with scarcely a blip.

The global shift to online

After a faltering start, it has been impressive how many individuals, businesses, organisations, and services have quite comfortably shifted their activities into the online environment. In addition to my work with the university, I have been impressed by my recent personal experiences in interacting with the HNS, with Third Sector voluntary organisations, and with retail shops and outlets that previously did very little, if anything, using the online environment. Even the government is having its fling with business-as-usual-at-a-distance. Some would no doubt never have made such a move unless they had been forced into it, but many have discovered that there are real benefits to working online, including greater geographical inclusion, cost-saving in travel requirements, asynchronous viewing of missed meetings, and so on. How many of these newly realised benefits will continue to be pursued after lockdown ends and some sort of pre-COVID19 reality returns remains to be seen?

A fortunate space

In the offline world, there are also revelations. A rural environment, in particular, the Isle of Lewis, (and even my specific village) has long been my preferred bastion of retreat. The necessary restrictions of social distancing and locked-down premises, has brought into sharp focus the many benefits of living in a beautiful, safe, and spacious personal location. If I have to withdraw temporarily from the world and ‘self-isolate’, I cannot think of anywhere that I would prefer than precisely where I am now. I realise, of course, that a great many people do not have that option, and I wonder to what extent this realisation, in combination with the previous point on shifting possibilities for distance-working, will mean that we might see a renaissance in thinking about rural areas as ‘the place to be’ once things eventually begin to settle down. Certainly, the flight of some urbanites to the safety of their rural homes might be a sign of things to come. The rural idyll is dead, long live the rural idyll.

The intensity of connectivity

Nevertheless, despite all of the benefits of being able to buy online, work online, communicate online, and more or less continue life with some veneer of normality (whatever that was) there are gains and losses in the current iteration of normality. Although I am accustomed, indeed habituated, to email communications and videoconference discussions, the present emphasis on these options and these options only, can take its toll. I am fortunate to have a distinct study-place, but its proximity to the bedroom, kitchen, garden, and the croft outside, means that I need to be more disciplined and more regulated in my distinction between work and play. This is difficult for a person whose job is interesting and whose idea of fun is what they are already paid to do for a living. As the lockdown continues, I see growing frustration and (say it gently, but say it) mental health issues in some of my colleagues. Across a table, there is some physical distancing, but when the computer screen is barely 30cm from you, the person on the video-link ranting on their personal soapbox is literally in your face. The interconnectivity of the internet, despite it now becoming recognised as a great leveler and all-encompassing source of information (not all good), means that whenever I end a meeting, somebody, somewhere else, knows that I am ‘free’ and seeks to make contact. A strict self-policing of my ‘availability’ needs to be implemented!

The darker side of social media

Despite being an enthusiastic, (no, that’s not correct) an atavistic user of succinct social messaging (i.e. Twitter) I have recently experienced, much to my surprise, (after 40 years of online activity) some of the unsavory aspects of ubiquitous online accessibility. My simple response to an incorrect post led (with frightening alacrity) to a spate of online messages pointing out the error of my ways. It didn’t matter that the (perhaps, positively intentioned) people posting those messages know nothing about me, or that they obviously had only read part of the (very short) post. Undoubtedly there were some naïve comments and some genuine misunderstandings that would normally have been speedily resolved, but there were also some pretty nasty Trolls. The frustration of not being able to set the record straight, the disinclination to throw oil on the fire by responding, and an almost physical revulsion to some of the posts, was a strange combination. I can truly empathise with people who have been the subject of online abuse, false accusations, and spiteful comments. Subsequently, a subject expert (unknown to me) wrote a post to substantiate my original point, but the damage had been done. Now reaching for my mobile phone has a hesitancy that was not present previously when I went to check-up on comments from my friends and colleagues. Do I block these Trolls? No, for the present I simply ignore them, for I am very comfortable in my own skin and among those who actually know me. It has, however, presented a distasteful glimpse of the future online that is every bit as unacceptable as racism, misogyny, civic violence, sectarian bigotry, and the fascist intolerance of political diversity.

Welcome to the new normality.

Quantum landscapes

Cladach

After posting a couple of blog articles recently, https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/where-and-what-is-here/ and later https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/05/21/development-place/

that talked about “the other landscape” and how places can be imbued with characteristics and features that are apparent to some people but hidden completely from others, I received quite a few emails. Fortunately, none of them supposed that I had been talking about supernatural attributes (perhaps they know me too well) but I was surprised how deeply the concept seemed to resonate. Several people genuinely wanted to explore in greater detail this idea of how we might come to appreciate, and possibly explain, what we might mean by “a sense of place”.

The following might bring some enlightenment, or it may simply confuse the issue further. What it certainly will not do is to help you to understand quantum physics (in as much as anyone ever really understands it). Nor is it advisable to take the comparison too literally- it’s really only an analogy. The following is a suggestion for an alternative way of thinking about “the other landscape” that I hope will clarify, (but don’t get sucked into pseudoscience).

When we look at a landscape, or immerse ourselves deeply in a place, we see it as a certain reality. There are many ways in which we can measure or describe that reality. Some obvious factors that could be employed are the physical parameters, the latitude, longitude, and altitude of the place. Then, expanding the idea of place beyond a single spot to encompass an entire section of the landscape, we might add a consideration of the aspect (the direction it faces – sunward or shade?) as well as the complete hydrological system, the soil types, the covering vegetation and the habitats that they provide for the various species in that place. We might ponder the atmospheric conditions of the place (weather) and the climate (the effects of weather over a long period of time). Then, of course, there are the impacts of the human species on that place, both the physical imposition of changes (roads, farms, drainage, buildings) and the intangible aspects of society and culture (legends, stories, songs, old images, names on a map and other heritage examples). There is the terrain (the surface features of the landscape spreading out before us) and then there is the terrane (the geologist’s three-dimensional block of Earth that extends a place below the superficialities of the surface to include the rock strata that quite literally supports the world we walk upon).

All of these multifarious factors contribute to the creation of a place, and of course, they all change over time. Here is the quantum comparison, though, because this perceived reality not only is different for every person looking at that place, it is also different for each individual every time we look at the place. Although some changes may be invisible (the subterranean flow of water, for example) other differences only become known slowly (learning a historical anecdote connected to a place) or remain forever hidden from our deepest awareness (like the nocturnal movements of an otter or the unfailing attachment to place by migrating birds). All of these different realities of place are real, but the reality is unique to different people and different times simultaneously. Like Schrödinger’s cat, which quantum theory indicates can be both dead and alive at the same time, the quantum landscape is both the same (in memory, at least) and intrinsically different every time we perceive that place. It is changeless and at the same time constantly changing.

To make sense of this paradox we can adopt the realisation of quantum mechanics that multiple realities coexist (indeed, multiple universes, apparently) or we can simplify (as many physicists do) and try just to understand more deeply, more completely, the singular reality that we personally perceive, feel, smell, touch, and enjoy at any one time. Avoiding the wormhole of postmodernism that seems to deny any objectivity in anything, we humans have the advantages of being able to communicate in networks (that we call community) and that we are able to share and agglomerate our knowledge, and even our subjectivities. This facilitates multiple interpretations and empathies of what a place is, what a place means. We can attempt to express that sense of place through writing, arts, photography, film, or utilitarian social activities. Or we can simply enjoy the quantum variations of place – the differences between the static fluctuations and the (de)localisation of the observable. Enjoy your weekend, in whichever place you may be.

The digital polymath

IMG_5777

So, here is an idea.

I have written in other places about the benefits of using online communications for education, so I will not rehash that here. Initially, I began my online journey by seeking ways to offer high-quality education and supervision to learners in rural areas, because I firmly believe that many learners (especially mature students who have jobs and family) do not want (or are unable) to remove themselves to the city simply because that’s where the education is provided. In addition, it can also cause a dislocation between people and places that perpetuates the myth of ‘city = buzz: rural = sleepy’.

There has been a steady growth in the delivery of online education, whether through dedicated chat spaces and/or videoconference facilities, and there has been a massive leap in adoption by a whole range of organisations and individuals since the COVID-19 lockdown. As colleagues across the UHI have responded to the difficulties of the lockdown in various ways – social interaction with online quiz nights, intellectual satisfaction through open online seminars extending across modules and disciples – there is a real sensation that (in that overused phrase) we are seeing a paradigm shift. This is literally a fundamental change in approach from previous assumptions and practices. No-one is in any doubt that at least some of the current shift of education online will revert back to face-to-face contact once it is safe to do so, but returning to face-to-face need not necessarily mean the abandonment of the benefits of digital education.

So, let’s take this a stage further.

For similar reasons to those that initiated the great clubs and learned societies of the Enlightenment, when people of all sorts came together to share a joint passion for science, or literature, or simply for exploration, there is an opportunity now to extend the frontiers of knowledge networking.

My idea is simply this, that an opportunity can be managed through the university networking systems to bring together online a small group to share perspectives that are intellectually and academically challenging. I do not mean simply listening to the delivery of seminars or lectures, stimulating though these can be. The intention would be to invite a short (ten minute?) presentation by one participant, to which is then added to, challenged, refuted by other participants in a round-table discussion. The events would need to be carefully moderated in order to avoid online rants and allowing everyone the opportunity to contribute, but within these flexible guidelines, there need be no barriers to disciplinary engagement or geographical affiliation. This would be available as a resource for open education. In the online environment, it is as easy to bring in external guests, research students, and colleagues from other institutions and organisations as it is to network within the university. In fact, given the costs, difficulties, commitments that are required to bring people to a face-to-face round-table (not to mention the carbon footprint) the online gatherings have a great deal to commend themselves.

Those gatherings might coalesce around a blog post (there is an excellent example set by The Edge blog at https://idruhi.wordpress.com/ ) and they might record the core presentations to create an open-access archive of clips for subsequence reference and reuse. Unlike a standard archive, these recordings could be made available as a continuously broadcasted stream, as well as being available by click-on-demand. There are possible difficulties, of course, and it is it more difficult to apply the Chatham House rule of confidentiality when digital records can be disseminated globally at just the click of a mouse, but with trust and professionalism these need not be insurmountable barriers.

The idea of participating in an online academic coffee house, with the flexibility of not needing to leave the home office, is an intriguing idea, and possibly a good deal more interesting than most of what is on television these evenings.

UC Dublin

UC Dublin

Just back from a couple of days at University College Dublin where I was an external on an interview panel for a new member of senior academic staff. Two things struck me as I compared UCD with the UHI. Firstly, that UHI is currently so far ahead of UCD in e-learning terms, both conceptually and in practice, although they are doing some interesting things and are keen to embrace new practices. Secondly, how well co-ordinated they seem to be across the university, in comparison with the UHI. We have sites of duplication that don’t even speak to each other; several academic partners that claim to be the ‘lead centre for X’ although there is no attempt to link up similar work across the UHI and attain a critical mass. Surely the time has come when we can set aside inter-college rivalries and establish something bigger and better than the sum of the parts? There are some great examples of collaboration and innovation at the UHI and some real blind spots…. Let’s hope that 2014 sees us getting to grips with some of the latter!