The work that the OECD Rural Working Party has carried out in the last years has converged towards the acceptance that traditional top-down approaches and sectoral subsidies to rural areas have not given the expected results and that there is a need for place-based policies which can capture the diversity of rural areas and respond timely to their new challenges. Developments in a fast changing international scenario continue to throw into stark relief the necessity to re-think rural development policies. Globalisation, changes in the public financing of the agriculture sector and the emergence of important non-farm niche markets put rural regions in direct competition confronting them with threats and opportunities that require new policy instruments and skills at the national and sub-national level. Changes do not affect only markets and economic actors but question the role of institutions, private actors and the civil society in rural development. Moreover, processes of administrative, political and fiscal decentralisation put more emphasis on the capacity of local actors and renewed horizontal and vertical relations.
Against this background, policy makers increasingly recognise that traditional rural development policies need to be upgraded and, in many cases, phased out and substituted with more appropriate instruments capable to deal with externalities, to valorise local amenities and, in a context of asymmetric information, to make good use of the knowledge shared by different actors. To adapt to such a scenario several countries have begun to design new policies and to introduce innovative forms of vertical and/or horizontal co-ordination.
A particularly interesting and innovative experience is represented by the Mexican Micro-regions Strategy. Introduced in 2001, the strategy marks a breakthrough in the traditional top-down, sectoral approach that has long characterised rural development policies in the Country. It adopts a holistic approach to integrate scattered policy initiatives into a comprehensive framework and works for a shift towards a "new rural governance" based on negotiation, consultation and commitment from various government levels and the civil society. With the introduction of the Micro-regions Strategy, the Mexican Government puts a new focus on places instead of sectors and on investments instead of subsidies. It is relatively early to judge the strategy, however the factors that will be critical for its success or failure are already emerging and are analysed in this paper.
This paper is divided into three sections. Section 1 provides an overview of policy and governance trends affecting Mexican rural areas. This part highlights the current shift from a purely sectoral towards a place-based approach to rural development. Section 2 outlines the most defining characteristics of the Micro-regions Strategy, from its functioning to its financing. Section 3 sets out the most critical issues related to the conception and implementation of the strategy and discusses possible directions for improvement.