OECD Rural development and rural well-being

Policies for depopulation and service delivery in rural regions




Delivering health care, education and other services of general interest to inhabitants regardless of where they live is a mandate for OECD countries. However, meeting this mandate is becoming more challenging for many countries in recent years because of tight fiscal budgets in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, depopulation, demographic pressures of ageing societies, and rising public spending on social services and health care. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought further demand for public services in rural regions and the consequent need for investment in a context of high spending needs and reduced revenues.


The cost of service provision increases with the degree of remoteness and sparsity. Lower density means higher transportation costs, lower economies of scale, and greater difficulty in attracting and retaining professionals such as teachers and doctors. At the same time, new technological advances have opened the door to providing quality services in new ways. Many governments increasingly pursue integrated and flexible approaches to the provision of services as a way of maintaining quality and access in lower-density and remote areas.


Shrinking Smartly and Sustainably ‌

This project aims at producing a framework and associated guidelines to manage demographic change in regions experiencing strong and sustained population decline. The analytical pillar uses internationally comparable data and complementary sources for selected countries to disentangle the drivers of demographic change and produce indicators relevant to shrinking regions. The policy pillar explores the relationship between depopulation, ageing and fiscal sustainability in regions and local governments, combining cross-country and case-study evidence.

More information


Settlement Networks and Links between Population, Services and Connectivity 

This project quantifies the roles that settlements of different population sizes play in regional development. It first measures the prevalence of important services such as health and education in settlements (i.e. cities, towns and villages) and studies the relationships between settlement size and services provision. Next it analyses how travel times – including proximity and transport linkages – matter for services provided by smaller and larger settlements. In the final phase, settlement networks are identified and measures of settlement centrality and services provision are linked to growth patterns in settlements and regions.

Understanding present and future public service delivery costs 

This project provides estimates of current and future costs of education and health services provision at different regional levels and types of human settlements by using criteria such as population age structure, settlement changes, or the benefits and viability of integrated and flexible models. Based on quantitative and qualitative indicators, the project provides an effective toolkit for policymakers to understand the effects of various policy responses and design sustainable service provision solutions.

Strategic governance plan for rural depopulation in Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y León and Galicia (RESOE) 

The RESOE regions of Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y León and Galicia in Spain have a high degree of rurality and are facing challenges associated with population decline and ageing. The project aims at designing an action plan for each region and a common strategy for the four regions on relevant topics to OECD rural regions facing depopulation: quality service provision, digitalisation, entrepreneurship and social innovation, and multi-level governance.

Read the policy highlights: EN | ES

Managing population decline in Estonia through spatial interventions 

This project addresses population decline in Estonia through spatial policy interventions. It focuses on actionable measures in smaller cities and rural areas, aiming to enhance the efficiency and impact of national authorities' policies. By strengthening coordination within a multilevel governance framework and central government, as well as studying current governance models, our project contributes to improved policy outcomes. Notably, it has been recognized by the European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms and featured in Estonia's "country factsheet" as a successful reform initiative.

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Delivering Quality Services to All: Alentejo region case study 

This project develops actionable policy recommendations to manage the expected population decline in rural and peripheral urban areas in the Portuguese region of Alentejo. It facilitates the development of cross-sectoral approaches to spatial and sectoral policy interventions by the regional government with the objective of generating efficiency gains to reduce costs and improve the quality of service provision.

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Adapting Regional Policy in Korea: Preparing Regions for Demographic Change 

This project identifies effective policy responses to manage demographic pressures in Korea’s rural places and regions. It analyses Korea's demographic trends and evaluates the country’s regional and rural development policies in response to demographic and socio-economic changes.

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Support for implementation of education policies in Moldova 

In support of the implementation of the Education Development Strategy 2030, OECD proposes expanding the scope of this ongoing EU-funded project with an additional policy domain that consists of a geospatial assessment of the current and future education provision in Moldova based on geographic, demographic and economic characteristics.

The objective is to offer Moldova’s Ministry of Education and other education stakeholders with present and future policy scenarios for school network and workforce adaptation, and budget implications; aimed at utilising efficiency gains for investing in improving the quality of education.

  Strengthening governance and management of the Romanian education system 

This project aims to strengthen the coherence and alignment of Romania’s education reform agenda by informing ongoing legislative reforms related to the education governance system. It will scan key areas where changes to the governance and management of the education system can help prioritise policy actions, build a stronger understanding of the Educated Romania initiative, and embed its long-term strategy into existing and future education reforms. The project will also examine a variety of education governance topics, including the re-organisation of roles and responsibilities for institutional actors at different levels of government or adjustments to financial and human resources.



26/06/2024 and 27/06/2024 -  Getting to Services in Towns and Villages: Launch event and day-ahead workshop

14/06/2024 - Peer-to-peer knowledge exchange event: Shrinking small and medium-sized cities

15/12/2023 - Peer-to-peer knowledge exchange event: Adapting governance, finance, services and infrastructure smartly in shrinking regions

26/10/2023 - Getting to services: Transport & Accessibility

26/06/2023 - Using Degree of Urbanisation around the World

14/02/2023 - Project kick-off: Shrinking Smartly and Sustainably

15/03/2022 - Launch of the Policy Note Delivering Quality Services to All: Alentejo region case study

18/02/2022 - Launch of the report Shrinking Smartly in Estonia: Preparing regions for demographic change

03/12/2021 - Strategic governance plan for rural depopulation in Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla y León and Galicia (RESOE)

OECD (2022): Addressing territorial disparities in future infrastructure needs in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis: A G20 perspective
OECD (2021): Better Governance, Planning and Services in Local Self-Governments in Poland
OECD (2020): Rural Well-being: Geography of Opportunities, OECD Rural Studies
OECD (2020): Policy implications of Coronavirus crisis for rural development
OECD (2020): The territorial impact of COVID-19: Managing the crisis across levels of government
OECD (2018b): OECD Rural Policy Reviews: Poland 2018
OECD (2017b): OECD Territorial Reviews: Northern Sparsely Populated Areas
OECD (2017c): OECD Territorial Reviews: Sweden 2017: Monitoring Progress in Multi-level Governance and Rural Policy
OECD (2016): OECD Territorial Reviews: Japan 2016
OECD (2010): Strategies to Improve Rural Service Delivery


COGITO blog series: 

Selective service - How gaps in public provision are undermining life chances in rural communities

Counting the cost: Maintaining access to education and health services in rural areas



European Commission


Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission

 For further information, please contact [email protected]


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