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Civil Society

Voluntary associations play a particularly important role in the smallest rural areas

Danes who are active in associations in rural areas contribute significantly to local communities through voluntary efforts. However, there are also challenges in rural areas that civil society finds difficult to address, according to research from the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).

SDU's Center for Research in Sports, Health, and Civil Society (CISC) has just published a comprehensive study on how civil society (associations, voluntary organizations, and citizen initiatives) can play a role in supporting development in rural areas.

The study consists of investigations into the willingness of associations and citizens to contribute to local development, as well as case studies of eight local areas in four selected municipalities.

The research project primarily shows that both citizens and associations contribute significantly to local development. Civil society provides activities that bring citizens together, and the study also includes good examples of how civil society engages in supporting meeting places and businesses successfully.

For example, in Visby in Tønder Municipality and Thise in Skive Municipality, significant efforts from civil society have succeeded in keeping local stores alive. Local meeting places have been established. In Jordløse in Assens Municipality, a 'Village House' has been established in a closed school, and in Mern in Vordingborg Municipality, a 'Community House' has been established.

Interesting differences between the smallest and slightly larger cities in rural areas

- However, the results from the project show that there is a significant difference in the willingness to contribute to community development in the smallest communities with 1,000-3,000 inhabitants and the slightly larger cities with 5,000-10,000 inhabitants, says Evald Bundgaard Iversen, center leader at CISC.

Among the associations in the smaller rural areas, for example, 33% of the associations completely agree that the association will always engage in tasks that are important for the preservation and development of the community. The corresponding figure for the slightly larger cities is only 17%.

- It is important to emphasize that civil society plays a significant role in the development of rural areas. However, the case studies also show a continued trend of an aging population and declining population, making it difficult to maintain institutions and businesses across local areas, says Evald Bundgaard Iversen.

Can create more life and activity - but not reverse demographic trends

The study shows that civil society contributes especially to projects that make local areas better places to live for those already living there. However, the various voluntary initiatives contribute to a lesser extent to solving the underlying demographic and structural challenges.

- For example, among the case studies, there are no examples of successfully attracting enough families with children to change the trend of a declining and aging population. Based on this, there is a need to be realistic about the tasks that civil society can and should be able to solve, says Evald Bundgaard Iversen.

Give more influence and freedom to local voluntary forces

- One reason why it is difficult for civil society to take on collective tasks may be that they are involved too late and do not have sufficient influence on how they should be involved and on which tasks civil society can solve, says Evald Bundgaard Iversen.

- Therefore, it is also our recommendation that local experiments be conducted to give civil society more say - and that associations have the opportunity to contribute before the extent of institution and business closures and depopulation becomes so extensive that development becomes too difficult to counteract, he explains.

CISC's study focuses on what it takes for municipalities, associations, and citizens to further support collective task solving with contributions from civil society in rural areas.

The recommendations include:

  • It is necessary to prioritize efforts
  • Both municipalities, associations, and citizens should invest time and resources in developing and implementing sustainable solutions
  • It is crucial that municipalities, associations, and citizens support local meeting places.

About the study

The research project "The Significance of Civil Society for Development in Rural Areas" was conducted by researchers from the Center for Research in Sports, Health, and Civil Society (CISC) at SDU's Institute of Sports and Biomechanics.

  • The study examines the assumption that civil society can have a positive impact on local development in rural areas.
  • The overarching research question of the project is: Under what forms and conditions can civil society - under new societal conditions - promote local development in rural areas?
  • Data was collected through surveys in Assens, Skive, Tønder, and Vordingborg municipalities.
  • 537 associations and a total of 6295 individuals participated in the survey. In addition, case studies were conducted in 8 local areas.

The project is supported by research funds (a total of DKK 719,495.00) from the rural development fund granted by the Danish Agency for Spatial and Environmental Planning, as well as DKK 50,000 from each of the four participating municipalities (Assens, Skive, Vordingborg, and Tønder).

Read more about the study here. (Danish version).

A 'brief summary' of the results can be downloaded as a PDF here. (Danish version)



Evald Bundgaard Iversen
Associate Professor and Center Leader, CISC
Institute of Sports and Biomechanics
University of Southern Denmark
Mobile: +45 61 66 48 66

Bjarne Ibsen
Professor Emeritus, CISC
Institute of Sports and Biomechanics
University of Southern Denmark
Mobile: +45 27 28 99 04
Editing was completed: 18.01.2024