Rural development is the process by which sparsely populated areas improve their standing on socioeconomic measures. Political leaders try to hasten the pace of rural development through a wide array of policies. Concern about rural development arises because most rural areas lag behind metropolitan areas on basic indicators such as income, employment rates, and health outcomes. Rural development includes infrastructure, economic capacities, and the ability of local institutions to adapt to change in positive ways.
In the United States prior to the 1860s, action to foster rural development was focused on facilitating the westward movement of people. The emphasis shifted in 1862, when the Morrill Act granted land to states to create colleges with a mission to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes. In 1887 the Hatch Act bolstered the capacities of these colleges, known as “land grants,” to conduct research on improving agricultural practices. In 1914 the Smith-Lever Act established cooperative extension. The cooperative extension system is managed jointly by the land grants and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and its mission is to teach the public how to apply land-grant research to improve their lives. Cooperative extension initially focused on agriculture and home economics, but evolved with the changing times and broadened its scope to include rural development functions such as leadership development, small-town development, management of human and natural resources, education of youth, and improving the competitiveness of rural manufacturing. The land grants and the USDA partner in supporting four regional rural development centers, based at land-grant institutions, each focusing on rural development issues in multistate regions.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935, which brought electricity to most farms within fifteen years of its inception. Electrification greatly improved the quality of rural life and accelerated the industrialization of agriculture. As farming became more industrialized, rural labor was released, creating demands to create other kinds of rural enterprises to occupy the workforce. The New Deal also created the Farmer’s Home Administration (FmHA) to provide loans for farms and rural infrastructure projects. In the mid-1990s the FmHA changed its name to USDA Rural Development to better reflect the full portfolio of its activities.
Although various rural development programs enjoyed some success in developing nonfarm jobs, they could not produce enough jobs to employ all the people leaving agriculture, and rural people began to move to cities. From the 1950s onward, major rural issues have been how to adjust to population decline in rural areas located far from metropolitan areas, and how to mitigate sprawl and the accompanying loss of the land base in metro-adjacent areas. These issues sparked activism and generated grants from organizations such as the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Farm Foundation, the Rural School and Community Trust, the American Farmland Trust, and the National Association of Towns and Townships. State and local governments also responded by supporting creation of local economic-development authorities and land-use planning authorities.
Although some concerns about the rural areas of the United States remain, the rural quality of life is far better in the United States than in many other areas of the world. Since the late 1940s there have been attempts to apply the lessons learned in the United States to less-developed countries. The movement began after World War II (1939-1945), when the successful reconstruction of war zones through the Marshall Plan convinced U.S. policy makers and others that foreign development assistance could be effective. At the same time, policy makers began to notice the impact that Norman Borlaug (with support from the Rockefeller Foundation) was having in reducing famine in Latin America and Asia through improved varieties of cereals, in what came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” (Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work.) The internationally funded World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, and similar agencies from other wealthy countries began to fund agricultural and rural development projects in many low-income countries. The projects included long-term support for internationally distributed basic agricultural research through the fifteen centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and associated projects to mitigate the negative impacts of increased technology in agriculture, such as increased dependence on purchased inputs, a higher rate of social inequality due to faster adoption rates among wealthier households, and the environmental consquences of increased cropping areas and pesticide use.
The decolonization of countries in sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 1980 made many of them more open to multilateral trade and assistance, so international aid agencies, along with foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, responded with substantial investments. Rural development programs in Africa have not had the same level of success enjoyed in other parts of the world. The reasons for this are the focus of scholarly debate.
SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Decolonization; Development Economics; Foundations, Charitable; Gender and Development; Green Revolution; Inequality, Wealth; Microfinance; Migration, Rural to Urban; New Deal, The; Peasantry; Poverty; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Urbanization; World Bank, The
Byerlee, Derek, and Akmal Siddiq. 1994. Has the Green Revolution Been Sustained? The Quantitative Impact of the Seed Fertilizer Revolution in Pakistan Revisited. World Development 22 (9): 1345–1361.
Castle, Emery, ed. 1995. The Changing American Countryside: Rural People and Places. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Flora, Cornelia Butler, Jan L. Flora, with Susan Fey. 2004. Rural Communities: Legacy and Change. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.