International networking is the one feature of the LEADER approach that is often neglected. Many Local Action Groups (LAGs) see it as something complex, time-consuming and expensive. It is common that the number of international cooperation project initiated is significantly lower than the general objective set in the country strategy. Partly this is due to the complicity of the rules regulating the international projects. Furthermore the language and cultural barriers are sometimes seen as insuperable. Nevertheless, surpassing these barriers can offer significant advantages when cooperation networks with other European rural actors are established. Languages can be learned and cultural barriers can easily be overcome when people from different countries come together. Once the networks are established, exchanging experiences and know-how with European colleagues does not seem overwhelming anymore. Thus, cooperating internationally can also enhance the other objectives of the LEADER approach e.g. capacity building of the rural citizens, promoting innovation and, of course, creating networks among other things.
The European Union emphasizes the dissemination of the European good practices in all its actions and programs. Thus, an increased cooperation between European LAGs can work as evidence of the added value of the LEADER program. On the other hand, failing in this task can question the proper functioning of the program in the eyes of the European decision-makers. This is only one of the reasons why ELARD believes that international cooperation should be an obligatory feature of every LAG’s activities. Most importantly ELARD sees that by promoting the networking and cooperation of its members it can help the LEADER methodology to reach its full potential in Europe.
The aim of the present initiative is to offer the ELARD member LAGs a possibility for reciprocal, international staff exchange in order to promote their formation and training as well as exchange of experiences, know-how and new ideas. By going on exchange to a LAG in another EU country the LAG staff can get valuable perspective to the work they do on their local territory, improve their language and intercultural skills and establish networks.
The initiative aims to offer the members of ELARD a low-threshold opportunity to cooperate and network on the international level without having to necessarily create cooperation projects of their own. Naturally, the exchange can work as the first contact with another European LAG and new cooperation projects can later be developed on this basis.
The overall objective of the program is to promote transnational cooperation between LAGs, to enhance the dissemination of the LEADER methodology, its different instruments and applications and good European practices. The lessons learnt during the exchange will later be put together and published in order to further disseminate the positive experiences of the LEADER program from different countries of Europe.
ELARD coordinates the staff exchange and works as a contact point helping LAGs with similar interests to get in contact. LAGs interested in sending their staff member to this exchange will fill a “partner identification form” in order to explain what are the specific fields of interest it hopes the exchange will focus on and what kind of expectations and objectives it has for the exchange. Suitable areas and LAGs with similar characteristics or interests are then identified in order to create pairs of potential partners who could best find joint learning opportunities during the exchange. This way the initiative aims to guarantee that the exchange addresses issues and themes important for every participating rural area. When suitable partners are found, ELARD will put them in contact with each other and a cooperation agreement defining the roles and responsibilities of each partner will be signed.
Form of the exchange
The staff exchange takes the form of educational visits arranged between two participating LAGs. The partner LAG’s are free to define the length of the exchange according to their mutual preferences, needs and situation. Nevertheless, duration of two weeks is recommended. The exchange will be reciprocal meaning that the same LAG both sends and receives a visitor. The responsabilities of the exchange partners will be defined in an agreement in advance and a program for the exchange will be provided by the receiving LAG before the exchange takes place. The objective of the exchange is, not only to offer the staff members a possibility to meet their colleagues in another EU country, but also to create more tangible results e.g. to carry out analysis of common challenges that the territories of the partner LAGs face, introducing the solutions both LAGs have found in terms of carrying out successful and innovative projects.For this purpose the staff member of the visiting LAG will be asked to keep a diary on the activities, experiences and lessons learnt and best practices identified during the exchange. The visiting staff members are also encouraged to carry out interviews of the different stakeholders they meet during the exchange and when possible, to take photographs and/or to make videos of the meetings with them. The diaries can be published on ELARD website.