Lessons from the economic and demographic successes of the Oldenburger Münsterland
Many rural areas in Germany are feeling the effects of demographic change. They are characterised by low birth rates and an exodus of the young and educated, resulting in the rapid ageing of the population. Worse still, the lack of job opportunities and low investment levels often lead to high unemployment rates – creating a vicious circle from which many localities have no escape.
The Oldenburger Münsterland region in western Lower Saxony represents a startling exception to this rule. In this region, which consists of the two districts Cloppenburg and Vechta, the number of children born reaches its national peak. At the same time, unemployment is three percent below the national average and economic growth three times as high.
What could have prompted such a positive trend in this rural area? What underlying factors account for this success? Could there even be a pattern for improvement that might also be applied to other rural areas? The Berlin Institute has explored these questions by conducting data analyses, interviews and a population survey.
For one thing, the region's history can partly explain its success. Until the twentieth century, the region was destitute and cut off by vast areas of marshland. As a Catholic enclave in Protestant northern Germany, the people there were also isolated by their religion. For centuries, they had no choice but to support themselves and therefore became dependent on mutual solidarity. From this cooperation in small units such as families, neighbourhoods and village communities, social and economic networks evolved which still exist today.
TIts delayed transition from an agrarian to a modern society has also proven advantageous, as the Berlin Institute survey shows. Traditional values such as the family and homeland bonds, down-to-earth pragmatism and religion, charitable or unpaid work and club activities, have survived longer than elsewhere. Today, faced by demographic change, these values have again featured in the arsenal used to combat the societal deficiencies mentioned above.
Drawing on family businesses, the social and economic networks have bred an exceptionally successful and innovative middle class, with several companies operating worldwide. For this reason, employment in agriculture and agriculture-related industries accounts for about 30 percent of total employment in the region today. But the people of Oldenburger Münsterland do not subsist solely on primary agricultural production; they earn their livelihoods from hundreds of companies, forming a closed value chain. These businesses range from fodder production and cattle breeding to slaughterhouses and meat processing; from mechanical engineering and packing to fertiliser production and pharmaceutical industries. The region has recently been dubbed the "Silicon Valley of agrarian technology".
The analysis of the region offers some important conclusions on the future prospects of rural areas in a shrinking society. Sustainable demographic and economic development seems to be viable only in regions with certain endogenous potentials, such as attractive natural surroundings with opportunities for tourism, agriculture with exceptional value-added chains, and new lines of business that do not rely solely on the proximity of large populations.
First and foremost, these regions require active and creative inhabitants that possess self-confidence and new ideas. Far more than urban centres, which can provide public services more easily and cost-efficiently, rural areas depend on people who can fulfil combined social and economic interests. The insight that development in rural areas is impossible without the energetic commitment of locals might reveal which German regions are in a position to independently secure economic and demographic stability.
Click here to view the full German version of the study (PDF).
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