Mapping 'civic deserts'


What are ‘civic deserts’ and what are the challenges that civic actors there are facing? What is civic cohesion and what can philanthropies and civil society do to foster it? In this video, we explain how we came across the topic, the key terms, and our approach after digging deeper.

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Civil society in peripheral areas is facing a set of challenges, different in nature from those in urban centers and differing in scale from country to country, that receive little attention and research.

Explore our new report “From ‘civic deserts’ to civic cohesion. How exploring Europe’s peripheries can inspire ways of improving civic life.”  It presents the mapping of four ‘civic desert’ regions in Central and Eastern Europe and offers recommendations and examples of promising practices for improving civic cohesion in peripheral areas with low civic engagement. The report is a call to civil society, philanthropies, policy-makers, and media to engage with the civic realities on the ground outside the capitals and large urban centers.

Case Studies

Explore the regional data for the four mapped regions in Central and Eastern Europe: Bulgaria’s Northwest, Hungary’s North and Northeast, Poland’s Northeast, and Romania’s South. The first source that pointed us to these regions was a dozen expert interviews.


Mapping methodology

Mapping ‘civic deserts’ took four so-called civic desert regions as case studies and analyzed the work of civic actors there, as well as the challenges they face, using various methods such as desk research, online questionnaire survey, semi-structured expert interviews, and a validation workshop. The four regions were selected based on semi-structured expert interviews and are: Bulgaria’s Northwest (Severozapaden), Hungary’s North and Northeast (Észak-Magyarország and Észak-Alföld), Poland’s Northeast (Podlasie), and Romania’s South (Sud-Muntenia).

Survey design

The online survey was based on the snowball data sampling method and consisted of four parts and thirty-eight questions in total. The first part served to understand the general characteristics of respondents and their activities. The second asked for an assessment of their organizational capacities. The third part asked for an assessment of the local environment. The last section of the survey asked respondents to refer other civic actors from the region. As part of the snowballing survey method, this is used to identify new potential participants who will be invited to fill out the survey. See the full questionnaire survey here.

Data collection

The data was collected between May and the mid-July 2021. Five local actors per NUTS 3 region (one for each type of local actor defined in the survey: non-governmental organizations, informal groups, religious institutions, public institutions, and private businesses) were proposed by local cooperation partners in each of the mapped countries. The actors received an invitation to participate in the survey via email and if necessary, local phone operators contacted them to invite them to fill out the form and to refer new actors to participate. The entire process was repeated for each newly referred actor. Due to the low referral rate, the snowballing method was supplemented with the addition of new contacts in all regions. The findings are not representative of the mapped regions but speak to the perceptions of the local civic actors we were able to reach.

Data analysis

The data analysis was done in two phases. The first phase took place between July and August 2021. It encompassed translating data from local languages and aggregating it in English. This phase was implemented by the data collection and visualization agency in Romania, Studio Interrobang. The second phase took place between September and December 2021, and consisted of an analysis of tendencies for the different types of actors, first for each region individually and then comparatively.

Data validation

Feedback on the preliminary findings was collected in eight semi-structured interviews with a total of eleven civic actors between mid-July and mid-August 2021. A validation workshop with six civil society actors active in the mapped regions was held to discuss and validate the preliminary findings in September 2021.

The term 'civic deserts' does not comprise a judgment but rather flags a problem not on the radar of researchers, media, and politicians.