Perspectives: Learning internationally about multi-level policy responses to rural depopulation and the challenges of effective evaluation.


Blog by Hana Davis, MPS Research Assistant

Rural depopulation is a challenge of international significance, facing not only Scotland but countries across Europe and the Global North. Although Scotland’s population as a whole is expected to grow over the next 10 years, rural areas across the Islands and the West are facing depopulation as younger people move away, mainly for employment and education opportunities. This, often coupled with an ageing population profile, creates a number of sustainability challenges including skills shortages and additional pressure on public services in rural areas. The Scottish Government is not alone in seeing migration as playing an essential role in addressing these challenges. Used strategically, it can help cultivate vibrant and sustainable communities, providing a vital boost to economies and public services and improving the quality of life in areas facing demographic challenges.

Migration Policy Scotland’s research into the role of migration in strategic responses to rural depopulation was funded by The Scottish Council on Global Affairs (SCGA). Under the guidance of Senior Researcher Rebecca Kay, I worked as Research Assistant on the project. Together we mapped out a variety of case studies of differing scales and stages of development across Europe and Canada, bringing together international examples of multi-level responses to rural depopulation. We investigated the roles played by communities, stakeholders, and national and regional governments, as well as the successes and challenges faced by policy interventions. The project culminated in an online roundtable event where Rebecca discussed our findings and gave the floor to a panel of international experts to talk further about their experience and insights into effective multi-level policy making.

Throughout my research, the question of how initiatives and interventions should be evaluated was seemingly challenging to answer. I came across Pueblos Vivos, a Spanish online platform which brings together local projects, actions and initiatives designed to counter depopulation. They had developed an evaluation framework to assess the impacts of each project in relation to generating employment, reducing and raising awareness of depopulation, stimulating economic activity, and improving wellbeing. While useful, it was unclear how these categories had been assessed in practice and how qualitative and quantitative data had been used. This led me to consider what migration means for places, not just in terms of their rural economic development, but in making them better places to live in, and how these outcomes can be measured.

During the round table discussion, Rachel Marangozov (Director of MigrationWork CIC) provided food for thought on this issue, laying out a clear formula for developing evaluation frameworks (listen here). In particular, she spoke about how the evaluation criteria must come from a shared vision, encompassing the interests and needs of the community, newcomers and any other stakeholders. When evaluation is seen as an integral part of interventions and initiatives, and not treated as an ‘add on’ used at the end of a project to assess primarily quantitative outcomes, a richer picture of their true impact on communities can be painted.

Empenta Artieda, our Spanish case study, demonstrates what this kind of evaluation could look like for small, locally-led initiatives. Situated in Aragon, this project was initiated by Artieda’s town council in 2016 in an attempt to reverse the negative demographic trends experienced by the area. Formative evaluations shaped the direction the project took, as residents of Artieda worked together to diagnose and prioritise the local population’s needs and develop a plan of action for their town. This initiative is less about growth and permanence, and more concerned with collaboration through locally-led diagnosis to create sustainable solutions rooted in the reality of the town and its priorities.

Working on this project, it was fascinating to see how different regions responded to the challenges brought about by depopulation in different ways. At the roundtable event, Laurie Brinklow (Chair of the Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island) discussed the competing interests of top-down and bottom-up initiatives on Prince Edward Island and how these dynamics interact in local policy making (listen here). Similarly, within our second case study, the Canadian Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP), the selection criteria for newcomers are shaped by the communities themselves and these vary from place to place. Looking at Empenta Artieda, Vincente Pinilla (Director, University of Zaragoza Chair on Depopulation and Creativity) emphasised the challenges of bringing together community-based initiatives and different levels of Spanish government in order to respond to longer term issues of sustainability and capacity building (listen here).

Local priorities and the causes of depopulation vary greatly from place to place, and it was made abundantly clear during our research, and our roundtable discussions, that there is no one-size fits all approach. It resonated with me that good multi-level policy making enables communities to develop approaches and interventions appropriate to their own needs and priorities. It starts from a shared vision, placing value not only on growth, but the quality of life and wellbeing of the people affected, and the evaluation criteria must be able to reflect that.