Reducing rural isolation in Europe will take more than improving infrastructure: we need active citizenship and a volunteering culture


The refugee crisis striking Europe has been a hot political topic in recent months, but there is also a quieter problem that needs addressing. Rural isolation may receive little media attention, but its impact on communities and individuals across Europe can be devastating.

Those of us who live in urban areas face significant social challenges, but we may take for granted key services, such as the ability to access the internet to apply for jobs and communicate with family and friends, or the proximity of a GP surgery or local school.

Rural isolation in Europe is a complex problem, one that requires patience and creative problem-solving. Government and organisations across Europe need to find ways to empower citizens in rural areas to overcome obstacles and begin to build strong, supportive communities that act as a safety net for individuals.

Volonteurope have published a new report to explore the causes of rural isolation and discuss how European organisations and individuals can help address this problem.

Esmé Clifford Astbury, Communication, Events and Network Development Coordinator, gave us an insight into the key themes:

“The first point to make about rural isolation across Europe is that rural regions do not represent a uniform group. This means that any responses or solutions across the board must be targeted toward a particular area.

The main outcome of our report was that rural isolation is a multi-dimensional problem requiring a multi-dimensional response. Wider systems perpetuate rural poverty and social exclusion, such as remoteness and low population density. Poor access to education and inadequate infrastructure exacerbate these problems.

To address this multi-dimensional problem, we need co-operation from a range of key players across Europe. European and national governments need to join forces with civil society organisations and local communities to identify challenges and formulate a joint response. Together, these key players have the expertise required to reduce rural isolation, but co-operation is a crucial ingredient here.

Rural areas have unique environments that can exacerbate the social isolation, particularly for older residents. The Scottish Islands, which can only be accessed by boat or plane, are an example of this. These environments can lead to poor health, loss of independence and a lower quality of life. We discussed these circumstances in the report in the hope of opening up a conversation for a solution.

Improving access to services and infrastructure should be the cornerstone to development of rural areas. By improving access to education, transport, healthcare and even broadband internet, we can target problems like remoteness, population decline and low population density. The key goal should be building a rural community with improved conditions that encourages people to stay and attracts inward migration. We also need to provide young people with more opportunities in their local area.

Volunteering and active citizenship should play a central role in building stronger, more inclusive communities in rural areas throughout Europe. Volunteering can bring about positive and sustainable changes for the volunteers, the recipients and the wider community in terms of practical support and enhanced health and wellbeing. Volunteering and active citizenship can be cost-effective remedies for social exclusion.

Norfolk Knitters, a UK-based Volunteering Matters project featured in our report, tackles this problem head on. The project is aimed at older people who may not have family or do not have the means to visit them. The project is simple in that older people meet and knit together. The finished knitted products are given to local and international charities. The project provides a real sense of purpose for the older volunteers, and an opportunity to socialise and make new friends. This project is a fantastic example of how volunteering can help to reduce social isolation, and is just one of many included in our report.

Our report does not and cannot give a definitive answer to the problem of rural isolation. However, we hope that it at least creates awareness of the issues and opens up a debate that can help us work towards a possible solution.”