In Conversation: Gerry Higgins
26 February 2020 at 5:40 pm
For the last two decades, Gerry Higgins, the founder of the Social Enterprise World Forum, has led initiatives to bring struggling rural communities back to life. Now he’s come to Australia to share his insights.
This year’s catastrophic bushfire season inflicted untold environmental and economic damage across much of rural Australia.
With many rural communities already battling declining and aging populations, decade long droughts, and industries in decline, the need for community-led regeneration is greater than ever. Local social enterprises could be the answer.
One regional centre that is leading the way is Beechworth, in northwest Victoria. Its thriving social enterprise community is supported by the intermediary organisation, the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship (ACRE), which recently hosted an event on the resilience of rural communities.
Higgins, who spoke at the event, believes it’s these intermediary organisations – which sit between the community and government – that are the key to rural communities supporting their own growth, from the ground up.
After seeing great success with similar programs in his home country of Scotland, he has returned to Australia to share his learnings and thoughts on what the roles of social enterprise and governments are in seeing rural communities thrive.
Here, he discusses what Australia can learn from communities around the world, why intermediaries are so important and his hope for the future.
What needs to happen to strengthen rural communities after events such as the bushfires?
Some of what I’ve seen in other countries is that there are these systems that invest in rural communities and their intermediaries to make it easier to get things done. I can’t comment on how hard or how difficult it is, or the reasons why Australia is not as familiar with the system, but I don’t see the investments for instance in specialist intermediaries that can help communities to build assets.
These intermediaries have all of the data and all of the findings from stuff that happens in other parts of the country and the world. Any time a community is addressing a challenge it looks for best practice with the models, and it has to start a new journey every time. It’s just a lot of hard work and actually saps the capacity of communities. Whereas if you’ve got a source of expertise such as an intermediary where they can draw from what’s happened previously, it just makes life a lot easier.
In a Scottish context, over the last 15 years there’s been some investment in intermediaries with the sole purpose of increasing rural resilience and addressing those issues.
What sort of success have you seen in Scotland with intermediaries?
One of the groups I mentioned at the event in Beechworth is Community Shares in Scotland. It’s an intermediary that doesn’t get funding from the communities it’s in and supports, because that’s a barrier immediately. It’s resourced primarily by the government to be in the space and to have access to data that they can share promptly with communities to shorten the journey and the learning curve for their communities. And they do that through our Development Trust Association, which is an organisation that helps groups to acquire assets without using community assets. And it can be a building, a forest, some islands, or something that will help the community to have more economic independence and more control over those communities.
What are you hoping Australian rural communities are able to achieve by looking to this model of intermediaries supporting social enterprises?
I guess it’s about achieving more, it’s about supporting economic development in rural areas by making the journey less hazardous and less onerous.
You need support in the right places, and in some cases that may be a change to the government approach, which requires complex funding and an assumption that there needs to be huge regulation around the support and reporting of the benefits, when in fact if you’re dealing with the right people [intermediaries], they’re completely and absolutely focused on ensuring that their communities have the right outcomes.
Why is it important that Australia is connected to other rural communities?
My role is partly an international role and we want to connect Australian rural social enterprises and policymakers with others from rural areas around the world to bring real impact to communities.
I think what’s happening in Beechworth is a really good example of transferable solutions. Matt Pfahlert, the founder of ACRE, was inspired by some of the models that he observed in Canada and the UK in terms of how you actually change the dial for rural communities. We are also learning from some of the best practice in Australia.
Australia has a lot to deal with in the next 12 months – the economic damage caused by bushfires, as well as all the other things that other communities deal with on a daily basis such as industries shutting down and so forth.
We need to be thinking about how communities rebound and rebuild those types of solutions and strategies. How do they retain young people in their communities, what does sustainable tourism look like into the future? These are the really practical issues that we intend to continue to share with our colleagues in Australia.