How would you like to live in a new, three-bedroom, two-story home with a yard large enough to subsist-farm as well as a barn/utility building and acreage to grow a production crop? Sound good? Did I mention it was free?
This is the allure of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko’s Village Development Program which began in 2005. Responding to the increasing flight of younger adults from villages to the cities, Lukashenko ordered an expensive and controversial government program to reverse the flow of labor from the villages. According to statistics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the Belarussian population living in villages was 56% in 1970 but has atrophied to 25% in 2010.
Though not a problem limited to Europe, without exception, all central and eastern European countries have experienced similar declines in rural populations. According to LSE, “Rural out-migration leaves behind the retired, those on sick pensions, those whose only work is on their household plot, and those whose education stopped after primary school. There is a common impression that moving away for education or work is a first, permanent step taken by younger people who are turning their back on village life.”(link here)
So what’s the problem with moving to the city for education and work opportunities? Chiefly, the problem is a catastrophic reduction in foodstuffs. If everyone leaves the countryside, there are no farmers to feed the nation. To entice younger adults back to the farming life, President Lukashenko has spent 21 billion US dollars building houses and improving infrastructure in 1,481 villages officially designated as Agritowns.
Not just 24,472+ houses, the plan has created thousands of miles of roads; hundreds of clinics, gymnasiums, cultural centers, craft centers, retail shops and schools; and technology assistance supported by applied research programs focused on animal husbandry, food cultivation, and land-use techniques. Impressive in its breadth and intensity, the state is also investing in agriecotourism by enticing Westerners to experience the village life as a form of total-immersion entertainment. The intent behind the urgent action is to create food, and lots of it. Lukeshenko wants to not only feed his country, but use food exports to buttress the GNP as Belarus is a country of little natural resources besides forests and farmland.
This government initiative was originally designed as a five-year experiment. Now entering its final year of funding, how has it fared? Initial government reports herald the material expenditures as expressed in terms of numbers of structures completed (i.e. 24K+ homes, 199 clinics, 412 kindergardens, 14 craft centers etc.). Although approximately 2,000 houses remain unoccupied, it can be inferred that 22,000 families have been placed in the Agritowns and are enjoying the fruits of significantly improved infrastructure. One eye-opener, is that the measures of success have proven to be difficult to design, implement, and validate and are now the focus of an intense activity by the National Academy of Science.
So why do 2,000 free houses remain empty? One chief complaint of those who have moved into the homes is that they were forced into them. There is a pervasive sentiment among the citizenry that receiving one of these free homes is no less than the kiss of death. Thus, the government has had to resort to lawfully forcing people into the villages. In such cases, a refusal to relocate is a criminal act.
Still, what are the reasons for the dissatisfaction? When polled for their opinion, recipients of the hand-outs complain of land too small to sustain the family (and shed-sized “barns” so small they only fit a cow on the diagonal); those relocated after completing advanced degrees tend to feel they are the smartest people in the village and lack intellectual stimulation; and that the villages are “Labyrinths” with an easy way in and no way out due to lack of economic opportunities. Though most are able to provide their own food and dairy, the problem is undoubtedly the lack of means to sustain the family economically. Further, for the land areas that might be workable to produce surplus crop yields, the methods are inefficient and the markets anemic.
With no meaningful industry in many of these agritowns, there are no jobs that earn real money. Though entrepreneurial endeavors are encouraged by the communist-turned-free market economy, few people have the basic knowledge necessary to start a business and if they do, are often exasperated by the lack of government cooperation and the extremely high business taxes that castrate most start-ups. Whereas the future well-being of the country is dependent on more food production, the well-being of the village is dependent on industry to create income opportunities. Until people can make money, an undeniable necessity in the global market economy, there will be difficulty attracting young urban-lust families back to the village way of life.
However, one design opportunity the Belarussian officials might consider is a targeted information campaign. If the young urban families receive the message that market forces in the urban centers will continue to drive-up the prices of food to the point where it is impossible for the average family to generate enough money to buy food, and that the value of farm-produced food will thus skyrocket, the highest quality of life might soon be found at the front of this inevitability and a move to the village could prove to be VERY lucrative.
If all or even most countries will have to deal with the approaching problem of diminishing food supplies, Belarus is leading other countries in thinking about how to provide for its people in such a future. I can say one thing with certainty: I’m glad I have my Belarus visa stamped! However, as with everything, nothing is perfect. To move to south-eastern Belarus where my wife is from, even if to accept a free government farm, is to move to the place where some 60% of the fall-out from Chernobyl landed.
But hey, its a small world. And fallout doesn’t recognize international borders…