Monday, October 5, 2009

"Rural" as synonymous with "undeveloped"

Two international news items today caught my attention in relation to the use of the word "rural" as essentially synonymous with "undeveloped" in the sense of lacking infrastructure. The stories reported on the war in Afghanistan and the recent earthquake in Indonesia. In both cases, reports implicitly recognized that the counties have both urban and rural parts. They depicted what they referred to as the "rural" parts as especially undeveloped, though the nations in their entirety might also be so characterized.

I realize that the concepts "undeveloped" and "developing" vary by degrees, but as someone who studies rurality, I found it interesting that the meanings of "rural" and "developing" got so collapsed. Unlike in the developed world, where we tend to define rurality according to metrics like size of population cluster, population density, and proximity to an urban area, in the developed world, to be rural is to be undeveloped, and vice versa.

I find the first example in this and other stories about the Indonesian earthquake.
[I]n Padang Pariaman, a rural district closest to the quake’s epicenter in the Indian Ocean, the most devastated area was centered around a cluster of villages built on the flanks of surrounding mountains, overlooking rice paddies and a river that snaked across a valley. The villages, and the single narrow road that connected them, now lay destroyed under the mountains’ collapsed facades.
Later the story notes that this "rural district" is about 50 miles from the city of Padang, population 900,000. We don't really get a sense of what makes Padang Pariaman "rural" except that it is undeveloped, and perhaps because it is primarily agricultural. Other stories about the same place, like this one, repeatedly use the term "village," but not the word "rural." (A theme of both stories is how slow aid has been to reach these rural areas compared to urban ones; see an earlier post on this topic here).

Recent reports (see here, for example) about Afghanistan are similar in the sense that they refer to the nation as primarily "rural" and then explain or expand upon that term by reference to lack of electricity and infrastructure outside Kabul. It seems they might as well describe the places as undeveloped, but the word "rural" is invoked, too. (An earlier post observed rural Afghanistan's alignment or association with custom and local sources of authority).

Among other observations, it strikes me that this merging of the meanings of "rural" and "undeveloped" or "developing" renders the term "rural development" an oxymoron. As I have queried elsewhere, does "rural development" necessarily require or involve urbanization? Or, can rural places be developed while remaining rural?

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