The Experience of ‘Local Action Groups’ as Quality Participation in Rural Areas

Carmen Navarro (coord), Mónica Domínguez, Moneyba González and Alfonso Egea, Instituto de Derecho Local, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Relevance of the Practice

In the 1990s, the European Union launched the LEADER initiative to respond to the social, economic and demographic problems of rural Europe: unemployment, aging and emigration, low levels of income and the weakness of its production systems. This rural development policy inaugurated an innovative model of public financing management that relies on the endogenous resources of the territories in question. Its method is to actively involve actors from civil society and making them design and manage development plans to be funded by LEADER. Local Action Groups (LAGs) represent, in rural areas, institutionalized governance networks in which local state and citizens – represented by their organizations – interact.

Their main function is the implementation of European rural development strategies, through the design, implementation and management of their local development strategies, which are the result of their own analysis of the needs of their territory and the consensus achieved between the different parties and interests. LAGs are agents for revitalizing the social and economic fabric of their area by promoting, among other things, the involvement of the population in their own development process and governance. They help to create municipal infrastructures, generate businesses, provide services for the population and generate employment. In this way, they give support to their respective rural areas especially through the implementation of small-scale projects. Their activities do not replace municipal action. They rather represent a form of local state – society relations, as consortia. They are non-profit associations which put public and private members together having as incentive the EU LEADER funds.  According to the EU LEADER strategy. Through this approach, LAGs can target better the particular needs and priorities of their territory since they are part of the territory itself. This is the assumption of the EU LEADER strategy; but to the extent that it has been implemented for 20 years in all EU countries with this approach it might also be a conclusion.

Description of the Practice

At the beginning of each LEADER programming period, the LAGs are selected through a public call for proposals by the autonomous communities. Once in place, the LAGs work to stimulate the social and economic activity of their area, favoring, among other things, the involvement of the population in its own development process and governance. There are currently 3,098 LAGs[1] spread over all European members; 252 in Spain also known as Rural Development Groups.[2]

LAGS are legally established as non-profit associations in most of the cases, following the principles and obligations of the Spanish law regulating the right of association.[3] As such, they have their own by-laws establishing their governing institutions and their functioning rules. LAGs are in parallel to the local political institutions and organized around two types of institutional bodies where public-private interactions occur: the general assembly and the executive board. The general assembly is the main body of these networks, comprised of representatives of the public, social and economic sectors of each municipality associated with the LAG and partners from upper-level government. It also includes managers, technicians, administrative staff and other employees of the association who can influence decisions by ‘voice’ but not by ‘vote’. The average number of assembly members in Spain is 103, but the variation is very high; six assemblies have fewer than 10 members and 53 have more than 150. The executive committee – elected by the general assembly – is the governing, management and representative body of the association. In addition, sector-specific working groups serve as consultative bodies for debates and the analysis of problems and solutions.

Public[4] and private actors agree in getting associated in LAGs. On the side of actors coming from the civil society they can be classified in three groups:[5]

  • members from the productive economic sector: companies, agricultural cooperatives and business associations. It is the most numerous and influential group among the private members. LAGs membership is not set from above. As associations, actors either agree in setting up a LAG or ask for joining it once it has been created;
  • members representing the interests of certain groups: women’s associations; youth associations; trade unions and professional agricultural organizations; and other associations and foundations;
  • members linked to the educational and the financial sectors and others.

The program requires a balanced participation of public and private spheres in the assemblies (public actors may not exceed 50 per cent). However, despite this compulsory provision, not all the LAGs meet this standard.[6] In addition, studies point to an underrepresentation of both youth associations and women’s associations. This reflects the rural state of affairs (an aging population) in which there does not seem to be a critical mass of certain groups from which associations might emerge.[7]

Assessment of the Practice

This so-called LEADER method has had a major impact in Spain in terms of geographical coverage and mobilization of funds.[8] Most of LAGs in Spain have significant accumulated experience, having already been present during previous programming periods (2/3 are from LEADER I or II, and another 20 per cent joined LEADER +).[9] In total, the LEADER initiative has been managed by 264 Local Action Groups that have acted in 7,047 municipalities, covering a total area of 448,207 km2 – 88.8 per cent of Spain’s territory – and affecting a population of 12.4 million inhabitants (26.8 per cent of the national total).[10] In some regions, these percentages are even higher: in Extremadura region, in the period 2007-2013, LAGs covered 98.9 per cent of municipalities, and 70.9 per cent of the population, this meant that all the municipalities in Extremadura apart from the four urban ones were covered. In terms of budget allocation (total expenses) LAGs vary greatly, from the less financed with between EUR 1.5 and 2 million, to those of EUR 10 million.

There is evidence that LAGs, at least to a certain extent and in some territories, have become the driving force behind economic development processes, and that they are tools that serve to improve the resilience and adaptability of the rural areas.[11] Evaluation reports based on surveys of LAG members also make a very positive assessment of the experience of LAGs, but point to the need to reinforce the active participation of societal actors, considering that the social fabric in many cases does not emerge autonomously but is rather ‘created’.[12]

For the Spanish case, the involvement of local society in decision-making means a complete change as compared with traditional top-down strategies of rural development, and has constituted a way to empower local society.[13] In the academic classification of ways of addressing societal problems (hierarchies, markets and networks) this would be an illustration of network. The most important innovation of this approach to rural development has involved putting in the hands of local actors a large part of the decisions and management of their own development. The extent to which real partnerships emerge can be initially analyzed by assessing how balanced and diverse LAGs actually are, which implies a brief look at the composition of the LAG governing bodies and the diversity among the private actors.

An approach to the autonomy, stability and relevance of the network will throw the following preliminary assessment:

First, in terms of autonomy, the setting-up of LAGs is incentive driven rather than completely voluntary or imposed by the public authorities; these networks probably would not exist without the support of EU funds and the LEADER approach which demands that networks for defining and implementing common goals for rural economic development be established before funds are transferred. The initiative relies on public actors – the municipality – but internal coordination is the result of a joint action both by the assembly and by the executive committee, and the decisions are taken by majority vote. Rules are not strictly pre-defined, but LAGs have to meet certain broad criteria, such as the requirement of a limit (maximum 50 per cent) of public actors in the governing bodies.

Second, in terms of stability, the several institutions comprising LAGs (assembly, executive committee, working groups) are stable in character and meet periodically. They have accumulated experience after four rounds of LEADER programs, from which it can be inferred that they have developed common ground regarding the aims and forms of interaction even if those aims and forms are likely to be defined fairly broadly due to the diversity of actors in the network.

Finally, LAGs are among the most relevant participatory experience in Spain measured by the degree of impact of citizens’ will in public decisions. According to the Arnstein ladder of participation, they will be placed at the level of ‘partnership’ [14] due to their theoretical capacity to design and implement the strategies of rural development jointly decided by their members. Indeed, it seems to involve a distribution of power among public and private groups, which form partnerships and share decision-making responsibilities, particularly in the executive committee. However, this trait should be verified through empirical methods.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Arnstein SR, ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation (1969) 35 Journal of the American Institute of Planners 216

Esparcia J and Mesa R, ‘Leader en España: cambios recientes, situación actual y orientaciones para su mejora’ (Universidad de Valencia 2018)         <>

Esparcia J, Escribano J and Serrano J, ‘From Development to Power Relations and Territorial Governance: Increasing the Leadership Role of LEADER Local Action Groups in Spain’ (2015) 42 Journal of Rural Studies 29

Masot AN and Alonso GC, ‘Los Grupos de Acción Local en el período de programación FEADER (2007-2013) en Extremadura’ (2015) 71 Revista de estudios extremeños 605

Moyano Pesquera PB, ‘La implicación de los agentes sociales y económicos en el desarrollo rural: una necesidad insatisfecha’ (2018) 17 Economia Agraria y Recursos Naturales 55 Navarro C and Medir L, ‘Local State-Society Relations in Spain ‘ in Filipe Teles and others (eds), Close Ties in European Local Governance. Linking Local State and Society (Palgrave Macmillan 2020)

[1] ‘LAG Database‘ (European Network for Rural Development) <>.

[2] ‘Grupos de Acción Local’ (Red Rural Nacional, last updated 19 August 2020)      <>.

[3] Organic Law no 1/2002, 22th of March, reguladora del Derecho de Asociación.

[4] Local governments and sometimes representatives of other levels of government like provincial or regional authorities

[5] Pedro B Moyano Pesquera, ‘La implicación de los agentes sociales y económicos en el desarrollo rural: una necesidad insatisfecha’ (2018) 17 Economia Agraria y Recursos Naturales 55.

[6] ibid.

[7] See Javier Esparcia and Rafael Mesa, ‘Leader en España: cambios recientes, situación actual y orientaciones para su mejora’ (Universidad de Valencia 2018)     < Conclusiones_Propuestas_Evaluacion_LEADER_Esparcia_Mesa.pdf/5c5b29e6-54de-4dd5-b688-689a92cdb2de>.

[8] See Javier Esparcia, Jaime Escribano and J JavierSerrano, ‘From Development to Power Relations and Territorial Governance: Increasing the Leadership Role of LEADER Local Action Groups in Spain’ (2015) 42 Journal of Rural Studies 29.

[9] See Esparcia and Mesa, ‘Leader en España’, above.

[10] See Moyano Pesquera, ‘La implicación de los agentes sociales y económicos en el desarrollo rural’, above.

[11] Hugo S Lopez, Francisco M Arroyo and Jose LY Blanco, ‘Los órganos de decisión de los grupos de acción local en el periodo 2007-2013 en España: relaciones entre los actores del medio rural’ (2016) 245 Revista Española de Estudios Agrosociales y Pesqueros 47.

[12] Esparcia and Mesa, ‘Leader en España’, above.

[13] Moyano Pesquera, ‘La implicación de los agentes sociales y económicos en el desarrollo rural’, above.

[14] Arnstein’s ‘ladder of participation’ differentiates from more citizen power to less citizen power between: i) ‘delegated power’, i.e. potentially high impact on policy; ii) ‘partnership’; iii) ‘placation’; iv) ‘consultation’ (= 1.25) and v) ‘information’, i.e. participations, but no ensured impact on policy. See Sherry R Arnstein, ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation (1969) 35 Journal of the American Institute of Planners 216.