Complex social issues are often more easily resolved when they are connected up with other societal problems. Habitual approaches to thinking and problem solving, as well as the ways we have divided up our academic disciplines and our governmental departments often prevent problems being approached in this way. Demographic change, urbanization, urban sprawl, migration and integration, tourism, environmental pollution, traffic congestion, unemployment, democratic participation and governance, political radicalization and populism, are examples in Brandenburg, as in many other rural areas in Germany and other European countries.
Urbanization, demographic changes
Since German unification Brandenburg lost about a third of its population. Especially the young and the better educated moved to West Germany or to Berlin. This has been coupled with an aging population. The expectation is that these processes will continue and that by 2040 the population will shrink another 10% and that in 2030 more than a third of the population will be older than 65.[i]
In addition, the majority of Brandenburg residents live close to Berlin. Half of the population lives in 15% of the areal of Brandenburg that borders Berlin, the other half lives in the remaining 85%.
As in many other European rural regions[ii], towns and villages all over Brandenburg are decaying, giving the inhabitants a feeling of being left behind, and at the mercy of social and economic processes they cannot control. This fuels political estrangement and resentment. The government of Brandenburg explicitly sees the need of fundamental answers to these profound changes:
“Der demografische Wandel zwingt vor dem Hintergrund enger werdender finanzieller Spielräume zu einem tiefgreifenden Umsteuern. Kurzfristige Aktionen können nichts bewirken. Gefordert sind neue und langfristig ausgerichtete gesellschaftliche Antworten.“[iii]
Refugees and Migrants
In 2015 roughly 1,1 million refugees hoped to find a new home in Germany. About 53% came from Syria, 13 % from Iraq and 10 % from Afghanistan. For 2016 the expectations are that that figure will be lower, but still considerable.[iv] Brandenburg expects about 80.000 people between 2015 and 2017 in total. It seems that the number of economic refugees will only increase in the upcoming years, especially from African countries.[v]
The arrival of that many newcomers creates both problems and opportunities.
As for numerous other Europeans, many Germans fear the “otherness” of the current refugees. They fear that in the end the refugees, especially people from Arabic origin, do not share fundamental Western views on, among others things, tolerance, freedom, pluralism, religion, democracy, gender or homosexuality. There is a widespread angst that, connected to this different worldview, integration will fail, “parallel societies” will develop and a trend of religious and political radicalization will begin.
At the same time, there is a widespread anxiety that the fear of immigrants leads to a radicalization among Germans and other Europeans, ending in discrimination, intolerance, violence, and support for right-wing populist political groups and parties. Both trends of radicalization feed on each other, both create an atmosphere of fear and intolerance, and endanger civic society and democracy all over Europe.
We urgently need to start an open dialogue on those values and views many of us, natives and migrants, rightly or wrongly, feel endangered. Integration-courses and projects currently concentrate on learning the language, learning the daily operations of our society, getting a house and a job. This is all very important, but considering current trends, not enough. Therefore, supported by the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, the Brandenburgische Landeszentrale für politische Bildung and the Integrationsbeauftragte des Landes Brandenburg, Social Science Works organizes round-table workshops or “deliberations” on fundamental themes like democracy, tolerance, pluralism, gender, homosexuality, and religion in which we openly and critically discuss all these topics, of fundamental importance to all involved.[vi]
Refugees and migrants also form opportunities, though. Certainly people that came to Europe for economic reasons, are very motivated to succeed. They are young, energetic and willing to adapt and to adjust. People like them made America great. Also refugees that experienced and escaped fanaticism, extremism and civil war, and under life-threatening circumstances traveled long distances to their ideal destination, are not just a burden for the countries that offer them a safe haven. “Migration .. can generate vast increases in living standards”, not just for the migrants and their relatives in the countries they left, but also for the receiving country, empirical research shows.[vii]
Refugees and migrants can certainly be a positive factor for nations with declining and aging populations, and for rural regions losing their inhabitants and vitality because of urbanization.
The experience teaches us, though, that refugees and migrants that have received the permission to choose their residence themselves often leave the countryside, where they originally have been offered shelter by governments, and move to the cities. Here they are no different than many locals.[viii] In the cities they find employment more easily, in part because of better established local networks of migrants which can offer support in finding work and homes. Cities are also more cosmopolitan and open minded, and insofar as this is not the case, they offer anonymity.
On average, in German towns with less than 20.000 inhabitants reside 12% migrants; in towns with 20.000 to 50.000 people live 20% migrants; and in towns or cities with more than 100.000 inhabitants 27% have a migrant background. With more migrants arriving, this inequality sharpens since the migrants tend to go to places where they find more people with the same background.[ix] Consequently, the chance grows that “parallel communities” develop: the bigger the migrant communities, the smaller the need to get into contact with German natives.
This “Zweite Flucht” to the city has more downsides: It is a missed opportunity for rural areas. The housing market in the cities is often tight and the situation is worsened by the arrival of so many newcomers, which again creates resentment among the locals. On the countryside, villages and towns increasingly are uninhabited and could use a revitalization of young, energetic people, certainly those with families. Besides, integration in smaller communities goes often smoother than in anonymous cities where parallel communities can easier be build and prolonged.[x] Bittner writes:
“Es braucht ein ganzes Dorf, um ein Kind großzuziehen, sagt ein afrikanisches Sprichwort. Genauso braucht es ein Dorf, braucht es die Unmittelbarkeit von sich kümmernden und anleitenden Menschen, braucht es gelegentlich auch die klare Aussprache und den direkten Konflikt, um Fremde in eine neue Gemeinschaft hineinwachsen zu lassen.“ [xi]
Furthermore, many migrants and refugees might have qualifications that are of more use and are better employable in rural than in urban environments.[xii]
Recently, the Bundestag has taken the decision to oblige refugees to stay in their initial Bundesland for three years.[xiii] The motivation behind this decision is plausible, but it will take more than legal measures to turn this forced stay in a success: opportunities need to be created to motivate newcomers to stay in less densely populated areas.
Internet has made it possible to work all over the world from everywhere. For work that is internet based, there is no need to live at a particular place. There is no need to migrate from rural to urban environments. There is no need to commute on a daily basis. One could migrate to another country, culture and language, and still continue working for people and organizations from the country, culture or language of origin. More use of internet would mean less commuting, less stress (the need to commute has been proven to diminish well-being considerably), less congestion, and less pollution. Increased use of internet could revitalize rural areas.
According to estimates of our partner Refival (www.refival.org) more than 150 million jobs in the European Union are services related. Many of these services are internet-based. Refival estimates that 5 to 10% of the current services-jobs could be migrated to rural areas via the internet, that is 7,5 to 15 million jobs. Obviously, these jobs bring other local jobs. “When jobs can be brought to lower living cost/salary areas, companies gain a competitive edge, which enhances the general prosperity and balance in Europe”, Johannes van Nieuwkerk writes. He continues:
“Current main limitation is a lack of job matching candidates in deprived or rural areas. Due to the past outflow, a fresh injection of educated refugees or unemployed is needed. Relocation of Internet based tasks offers a starting point for upward economical mobility to them. Inclusion of rural areas should be top priority both at government policy as well as at corporate social responsibility level. It addresses the disadvantage of the more than 100 million people currently living at rural locations in Europe and would assist many refugees or unemployed who face better employment and integration chances by moving there.”
Refugees from for instance Arab or Farsi speaking countries could continue to work or start working for clients in the Arab or Persian world via internet, in the same way as many people from India, Bangladesh or Pakistan are now offering internet based services to clients in the Western world. Expertise could be build up on the job, as do language skills in German and English. In time, services could more and more be offered to clients in Germany and beyond.[xiv] A whole range of internet-based services for the German native and migrant communities is imaginable. Van Nieuwkerk mentions as examples: “Rural, multi-lingual, computer-assisted schools for refugees”, “Internet based counseling and helpdesk for intercultural communication”, “Internet based spiritual guidance and education program”, and “Distance teaching network and educational content production”.
Comparable initiatives already exist. The government of Bayern for example finances the project Edorf – Bayern Digital (http://edorf.bayern/). Confronted with the very same rural problems as described above, Bayern hopes to create new possibilities for its decaying towns and villages via digitalization:
„Internethandel und neue Liefermodelle erlauben eine höhere Verfügbarkeit vor Ort, medizinische Versorgung ist über mobile und digitalisierte Angebote verbesserbar, innovative Bildungsangebote sind ohne Präsenzanforderungen realisierbar, Nachbarschaftshilfe, Pflege- und sonstige Dienstleistungen können über Internetplattformen besser koordiniert werden.“
Most of the projects that Bayern envisions, though, are defensive: better support for the remaining inhabitants, not bringing in new people and jobs.
A next policy problem or opportunity usually considered in isolation, is tourism. Tourism could be a much more important economic factor in Brandenburg than it currently is. Tourism in Berlin is booming[xv] and a vital source of revenue, but Brandenburg insufficiently profits from this. The potential seems high though, which explains why Brandenburg has defined tourism as one of four supported clusters „die für Wertschöpfung und Beschäftigung in Brandenburg besonders wichtig sind.“[xvi] In 2011 tourism already constituted 5,2% of all economic activities in Brandenburg.
It seems difficult to motivate significant numbers of tourists from abroad exclusively to visit Brandenburg. However, motivating Germans, and especially the 4,5 million people living in and directly around Berlin, is a different situation. Why don’t they visit Brandenburg in larger numbers, despite an ever-improving infrastructure (like hiking, skating, bicycle and sailing tracks)? Why do the many young, alternative, cosmopolitan, bio and eco-minded Berliners not more escape city life in tranquil Brandenburg? Long-distance tourism pollutes tremendously and disrupts local cultures and traditions. Preferably, for short outings and holidays people stay close to home. Especially for the people living in and around Berlin, Brandenburg and other eastern states could or should be a much more natural destination than they are currently. But what could they be offered other than space, quietness and the odd, accidental wolf? Maybe we should add to Brandenburg some interesting places to visit. Jentsch (2007: 7) notices,
“.. rural areas have increasingly become “multifunctional”. Non-agricultural activities such as tourism, as well as new consumption patterns linked with leisure and recreation, have created job opportunities that the native-born population has not been able to take up”.
People on the countryside often feel ignored and betrayed by social-economic structures and processes they do not fully understand and they cannot control. Their habitat is slowly falling apart. They fall victim to a “no-future” feeling of hopelessness that often translates into resentment, anxiety, xenophobia, and support for populist extremism. Especially on the countryside of provinces like Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt the support for AfD and Pegida is high. Some start to blame Muslims, Arabs, migrants or refugees for the decline of their “Abendland”. Unfortunately, these people have nothing to do with this decline, and the resentment and xenophobia does nothing to halt the decay of their homes.[xvii]
Some fundamental deliberation seems asked for, open, informed, round table exchanges about what is really going on, socially, economically, demographically, politically; deliberation about what values, ideas, views, customs unite us, about what our German or European identity is or could be, and how we can live this identity.[xviii]
Deliberation seems also asked for to develop together a new, hopeful, encouraging perspective for the villages, towns and small cities in the rural areas. Communities and cultures need this to stay vibrant and dynamic.
And deliberation is asked for to integrate the newcomers in our society and communities, and to develop together with them an understanding of what binds or could bind us together, or should bind us together.[xix]
The disintegration of local communities is often a slow, self-strengthening process with several tipping points. First the young and better educated people leave and hence tax revenues decline. The number of children goes down. Secondary and later, primary schools are closed. The swimming pool dries up. Sport clubs do not have enough members to form teams. More people leave. Local businesses cannot find employees. The retiring general practitioner cannot find a replacement. Local shops close and are replaced by chains. The bakery and butcher become too expensive for a shrinking clientele and close. Housing prices go down. People invest less and less in their environment, which becomes less and less attractive. More people leave. The people that hang on get the feeling they are betrayed by the outside world.
To stop and reverse this continuing decline structural, serious policy interventions, both from the public and private sector, are necessary. People living in big cities and contemplating to move to towns and villages in rural regions, longing for nature, tranquility and calmness, only do so when there is a sufficient social, cultural and economic infrastructure: schools, shops, health services, associations, etc. And they only do so when they know for sure that they are not the only one taking this step. People now living in rural areas only stay when they have some assurance that others stay as well, or that others come. It is a problem of collective action, a problem that can only be solved by organized action, preferably by the public and private sector combined.
Bringing together problems, and solutions
As said, sometimes solutions to problems are easier found when one thinks bigger and connect troubles and issues that so far have been addressed separately.
Brandenburg lost almost a third of its population since unification and needs to attracted young and skilled people that not only want to live around Berlin; Brandenburg wants to further economic activities, among others in the spheres of nutrition, IT, and tourism[xx]; Brandenburg needs to integrate large numbers of newcomers; and Brandenburg wants to prevent political radicalization.
What if we would combine these problems?
Some well-chosen declining towns that show interest could be reinvigorated by creating in these towns communities of newcomers (about 200 to 300 people) from, for instance, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria or Eritrea. Towns like Treuenbrietzen (down from 9 to 7 thousand inhabitants since 1989), Rathenow (down from 33 to 23 thousand) Eberswalde (down from 54 to 38 thousand) could be interested.
These communities are stimulated to develop economic activities that attract tourists (restaurants with Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan cuisine; handcrafts; bio agriculture, artistic and cultural events). Worldwide, many villages and neighborhoods promote themselves via a theme (books – Wunsdorf, Hay on Wye, Redu, Bredevoort, Montolieu; art – Glasshütten, Santa Fe, Ithaca, Stratford). “Little Syria” or “little Iraq” would be an attraction for every Berliner and Brandenburger not just interested in forests, lakes and wolves.
More importantly, parts of these communities concentrate on those economic activities in the service sector that are internet based. These services can be offered world-wide (certainly in Arab-speaking countries), in the same way as for instance Indians and Pakistani now offer internet-based services world-wide. The people involved can almost start immediately when they could also offer their services in their own language.
Parallel societies are prevented, and integration and cooperation are furthered also via processes of deliberation with the locals and the newcomers, showing both sides that they could have a better, common future. The settlement and integration of the newcomers will also be done in such ways that the locals are continuously involved and can witness the improvement of their own situation: schools stay open or are reopened, shops open, jobs are created. Integration of the newcomers is furthered because they do not get lost in the anonymity of the big city.
Not just refugees and migrants are invited to build up the new communities: also city-dwelling Germany longing to escape the city are invited to participate. Already organizations like the Stiftung Trias, Forum Gemeinschaftliches Wohnen e.V. and the Wohnbund exist, that want to help likeminded citizens to develop together new communities and new forms of living together.[xxi] Certainly Berlin has many relatively well educated eco- and bio-minded people that would be interested to join a project like this and could contribute to its success. By bringing together Germans and migrants in this way, we can prevent locals feeling overwhelmed and taken over by foreigners.
How to pay for a project like this? To an high extent, the answer has already been given above. First, it is extremely expensive to integrate migrants into a labor market like the overregulated German one, when one first obliges the migrants to learn the language fluently and to acquire all the usual German diploma’s. This takes years and often people never manage.[xxii] One saves many expenditures when one offers the opportunity to start working immediately and learn the language and the skills on the job. The migrants themselves would also extremely welcome such an opportunity. Secondly, people working pay taxes; people waiting for work, consume taxes. Thirdly, the costs of working and living in less densely populated areas are lower.
Obviously, the economic advantages for local communities are tremendous: the new comers bring and create jobs, pay taxes, spend income, help to prevent a costly decay of the entire private and public infrastructure.
In conclusion, one cannot think out an entire new community from behind a desk. It has to be an incremental, step by step process, in which problems are solved on a daily basis making use of the available insights of many involved stakeholders. The direction of the process has to be guided, though, by a long term vision.
Otherwise we might go nowhere.
* Thanks to Sarah Coughlan, Johannes Petry and Hans van Nieuwkerk for their many thoughtful comments.
[i] https://www.statistik-berlin-brandenburg.de/publikationen/stat_berichte/2015/SB_A01-08-00_2015u00_BB.pdf; http://www.stk.brandenburg.de/media/lbm1.a.4856.de/demobericht.pdf; http://www.demografie.brandenburg.de/cms/detail.php/lbm1.c.377483.de; http://www.stk.brandenburg.de/cms/detail.php/bb1.c.170067.de
[v] „Die nächste große Migrationsbewegung wird aus Afrika kommen. Doch Europa ist so ahnungslos wie vor eine Jahr, als Hunderttausende Syrer die Flüchtlingskrise auslösten“ http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2016-09/fluechtlinge-afrika-entwicklung-geburtenrate-jobs-europa.
[x] “German villages and small towns could hold the key to socially integrating a mass influx of refugees who would in turn help revitalise dwindling rural populations, experts say… The lower cost of living, cheaper rents and tight-knit communities in the countryside are main “factors of success” for integrating the newcomers… Unlike in densely populated big cities, “there can be no parallel societies in rural areas. The village community is the ideal chance for integration.” (https://www.thelocal.de/20160125/rural-germany-an-integration-laboratory-for-refugees). Writing about the southern countries of the European Union, Jentsch obeserves: “In terms of integration, it was migrant workers in the less-developed regions living permanently in one region with their families who seemed to be relatively well accepted and integrated.” (8) Just some small illustrations: http://www.maz-online.de/Lokales/Potsdam-Mittelmark/Fluechtlinge-Viel-Harmonie-in-Schmerwitz ; https://www.welt.de/newsticker/bloomberg/article152840238/Fluechtlinge-sind-Hoffnung-fuer-aussterbende-italienische-Doerfer.html
[xii] Especially in the Southern countries of the European Union, migrants found jobs and opportunities in rural areas. Research conducted between 2000 and 2006 in three rural areas in Greece showed, writes Jentsch, “that more than half of rural households and two-thirds of farm households had employed migrant workers. They were important for the survival and expansion of farms, and complemented family labour by filling seasonal labour deficits. They also allowed family members to take up employment outside agriculture (Kasimis 2005).
[xiii] https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Artikel/2016/05/2016-05-25-integrationsgesetz-beschlossen.html „Die Flüchtlinge müssen in den ersten drei Jahren in dem Bundesland bleiben, dem sie nach ihrer Ankunft zugewiesen wurden.“
[xiv] We stress that we do not advocate the poor working conditions and payments that have become all too common in the “gig economy”. Here we just look at the technical, logistical and social-economic opportunities the internet is offering.
[xv] Leshem, Asaf. 2016. The Social Dilemma Of Berlin’s Booming Tourism Industry
[xvi] Land Brandenburg, Ministerium für Wirtschaft und Europaangelegenheiten. 2014. Entwicklung und Bedeutung der Brandenburg-spezifischen Cluster Ernährungswirtschaft, Kunststoffe und Chemie, Metall und Tourismus im Land Brandenburg 2008-2012.
[xvii] As in Sachsen-Anhalt, the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland, got, out of nothing, more than 20% of the votes in the elections of September 2016 in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. 86% of these voters state they fear the refugees, 96% thinks that the influence of the Islam will increase, 97% that the welfare expenses will increase, 91% that crime will growth, 74% that prosperity is threatened (http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/wahl-in-mecklenburg-vorpommern/analyse-der-landtagswahl-afd-mobilisiert-veraengstigte-nichtwaehler-14415882.html). In June 2016 22.000 refugees were living in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which has a population of 1.600.000 people. No more than 3,7% of the total population, which is shrinking rapidly, has a migrant background. http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-08/mecklenburg-vorpommern-fluechtlinge-afd-wahlplakate-hetze.
[xviii] On deliberation see several of our blogs: Lessons from political science on political participation and democratization ; Do people know what they want? ; Debating values and cultural identity with newcomers and European natives ; How to debate values in a diverse Europe.
[xix] “.. there are reasons to believe”, Jentsch (2007: 10) observes, “that with appropriate interventions by relevant authorities, such as preparing host communities for their migrant workers, international migrants’ contributions are more likely to be recognised by rural community members than those made by many “life quality” internal migrants in the past.”
[xx] Land Brandenburg. Ministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie. 2014. Operationelles Programm des Landes Brandenburg für den Europäischen Fonds für regionale Entwicklung (EFRE) in der Förderperiode 2014 – 2020.
[xxi] „Die Stiftung trias will Initiativen fördern, die Fragestellungen des Umganges mit Grund und Boden, ökologische Verhaltensweisen und neue Formen des Wohnens aufnehmen.“ www.stiftung-trias.de; www.fgw-ev.de; www.wohnbund.de.
[xxii] Five years after arrival in the nineties, 40% of the male refugees were still unemployed. This number is about 70% for women. Salikutluk, Zerrin et al. 2016. Refugees entered the labor market later than other migrants. DIW Economic Bulletin 34 + 35, pp.407 – 413. cf. Beyer, Robert C.M. 2016. The Labor Market Performance of Immigrants in Germany. International Monetary Fund. Working Paper 16/6.