Oltremare – Interview with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emanuela Del Re

by Umberto De Giovannangeli

“The solution? The solution is cooperation. Especially in Africa. Our goal is called shared development: something that benefits everyone.” These are the words of Emanuela Del Re, Italy’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs with responsibility for International Cooperation. Her reflections clearly reveal her first-hand experience, made up not only of academic studies and teaching, but also of personal involvement in the field and in areas of conflict.

• "Among the people" the Deputy Minister explains, with pride and emotion, showing us photos with Syrian refugees or Yazid women who have fled from the hell of the Islamic State. In her office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a poster of Nelson Mandela is proudly on display. "It was an electoral manifesto – says Del Re – I was young, and I followed that historic vote in South Africa as an international observer. And I 'conquered' that poster by climbing up a street light." Even now that she has become the number two of the Ministry based in the Farnesina building, when she speaks of Africa Emanuela Del Re balances feeling and reason, when she argues that "Africa is an opportunity, not a threat".

When people talk or write about Africa, their dominant feelings seem to be those of fear, insecurity, the "we must defend ourselves” syndrome. As a scholar as well as Deputy Minister, tell me: is Africa really only this, for us as Italians, for us as Europeans?

As a scholar and as someone who has now assumed responsibility for a sector – that of international cooperation – which I consider vital for the development of both our country and the beneficiary countries, I’ll answer by reinterpreting the vision expressed by that syndrome. Africa is a continent full of resources. And this is true from so from many viewpoints, not only because it is a strategic partner on all fronts, including those of security, naturally. We must remember the negative aspects and never underestimate them... illicit trafficking, terrorism, but also climatic conditions that often trigger major crises. But Africa is not only this. It is also and above all something else. It is a continent brimming with numerous important opportunities. Because Africa is a young continent, a continent of immense innovation and creativity. It is a continent where human resources constitute a massive asset, above all because in terms of its interests and values, Africa is orientated towards Europe. At this moment, undoubtedly, the prevalent aspect for us is immigration, which we know is always deeply painful. But in perspective – if we have the ability and the determination to create real, stable and lasting development goals, on the ground, in the countries of Origin – Africa can become a continent of vast changes and new economic, social and political opportunities.

Can I take you up on this last important and ambitious affirmation? Especially after months when so much has been said, written and argued about the phrase "Let's help them at home". From your point of view, what does "help them at home” mean?

It means creating the conditions, in a positive way, for shared development, which means defining new relations between donor countries and beneficiary countries. And on this subject, let me underline a fact that Italy should be proud of...

Namely?

In the field of cooperation, we are a giant. We are the fourth country in the G7 in terms of percentage between Official Development Assistance and Gross National Income (0.30%, achieved this year, some years earlier than expected).
Helping them at home means creating a two-way donor-beneficiary relationship instead of a one-way project. And that both both the donor – in this case Italy – and the beneficiary countries (not necessarily only African nations) can both benefit from this relationship. In other words, a project that truly corresponds to the needs of the beneficiary country and at the same time offers the donor country the possibility of developing an important, privileged relationship, of shared values, of collaborative growth that over time generates long-term structural solutions.
Until now, I would say that the concept of 'helping them at home' has been a bit tangled up with a vision of the past, i.e. that the donor operates in the beneficiary country with a vaguely charitable conception of aid. This idea must and can change, especially since our current beneficiaries – I’d like to emphasise this – possess extraordinary abilities. These are countries that can offer enormous resources, to the point where the very concept of a donor-recipient relationship becomes obsolete.

And is there no risk – as often feared by volunteers, NGOs or international agencies operating in the field – that we end up financing dictatorial regimes which have all kinds of goals in mind except that of benefitting their peoples? In even more direct and rather brutal terms: in Africa, does Italy look for partners in growth (and not only economic but also civil, political and democratic growth), or Gendarmes that police – no matter how – their external borders?

This is a complex question, which deserves a political answer, but it also requires certain technical clarifications, necessary to fully explain trends in certain international developments and equilibria. Italy has always moved on numerous fronts in Africa, with a commitment that’s there for all to see: we are among the largest donors, committed to projects in many countries, and in terms of quantity and quality we have one of the most important diplomatic networks. When Africa is discussed, the focus is usually on conflicts and negativity. But in that continent of opportunities and possible changes, many events point in an opposite direction, allowing the heart to open itself to hope...

Such as?

The peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a difficult process (as demonstrated by the recent violence in Addis) but which offers a sign of far-sighted vision). But remember, those two countries are home to two large Italian schools which train their future local middle class. This is an example, just to show that Italy has contributed on this front to help establish solid organisational and political foundations from within, through the invaluable intervention of our Cooperation Agency and many NGOs. Or alternatively by financing development projects that are rigidly certified, meticulously monitored at every step and following a structured path with tightly controlled results. We know all too well that highly problematic situations exist, but even in those cases, intervening with a positive vision and supporting social growth and development is still hugely important, even from a security point of view. Do we want to talk about Libya?

Never has a talking-point been so urgently updatable...

Libya is a very difficult country at the moment: a reality that has to be confronted from various perspectives. One of them, which is particularly dear to me and in which I deeply believe, is the result of the agreement signed last Friday in Brussels between the European Union and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. This is an agreement that involves Italy as a protagonist: the EU has allocated 50 million euros, of which 28 went to the management of the UNDP but 22 were delegated by the European Union to Italy. Italy is extremely proud of this, because with these 22 millions we can help 24 municipalities in Libya not only to rebuild their infrastructure, roads and bridges, but also the very fabric of society, because we can contribute to the reconstruction of local administrations and ensure that these urban civil societies are functional. From this point of view, I believe that this is one of the best possible opportunities for Italy to take part in the reconstruction of Libya, at a time when it is one of those countries that could tempt us to think about the need for a ‘gendarme'. But our response is quite different: we accompany, we take Libyan society by the hand and we try to bring it with us towards the future.

Looking at Libya and more generally at Africa, do you think that "business diplomacy" and human rights diplomacy can not only be reconciled, but also find a virtuous synthesis?

We are in a historical moment of great intellectual ferment and, I would add, unprecedented instant information on humanity’s problems, on all fronts and at all latitudes. This makes us believe that it’s true that the business world in the past often appeared to us as arid or as impeded by major obstacles, for example in the field of security. But it’s also true that we have a large number of companies that operate well even in difficult areas, such as Ethiopia, where we have a strong entrepreneurial presence. Add to this the fact that the business world is now more aware of its impact on local societies, so I believe that it can act as a fundamental channel for transmitting values. Including Italian values such as honest, respectful, ethically acceptable working conditions. Such conditions therefore become a reference for long-term sustainable development based on respect for human rights. In this scenario, even entrepreneurs and the business world becomes – when they are honest – a reference point for public values. The more we combine various fronts – such as that of politics, that of social development, of NGOs (which are fundamental) and therefore of civil society, plus of course the world of entrepreneurship – the more we will achieve important results, concrete results.

You have an important responsibility: that of the head of International Cooperation. How do you respond to people in the world of politics who claim that spending public money in this field is "a luxury that Italy cannot afford"?

I reply that the globalised world does not isolate us. Never. We are no longer islands, but we are extremely well-connected archipelagos. This means that whatever happens in this small part of the world where we live has enormous repercussions elsewhere, and vice versa. It also shows that cooperation – as implied by the term itself – is a way of working together for something. That something is part of our future, and consequently we must have a total and convinced awareness of how important it is to invest in third-world countries as well as our own, because the reflection of this investment on our world is absolutely positive... not in the sense of division, barriers or breaking up the globalised world, but in the sense of a convinced unity. Young people, in whom I think we should invest a lot, are now globalised, without borders.
If a globalised young person has had a profitable interaction – for example through cooperation – with countries that have already travelled the road of establishing regulations, constitutions, laws that have encouraged the affirmation of the individual (especially the weak individual) with all their rights, what happens? Wherever they come from, the globalised youth becomes a flag-bearer, an ambassador of progress and stability in the world, a social agent generating social remittances. This is also a commitment that must feature the whole of Europe as a protagonist, to revive its founding values, which are those of inclusion, respect for human rights and openness towards one another. We must spread the awareness of having an extraordinary opportunity to share problems and to face them together... not least for the good of our neighbours. It is important to continue to look to the East, but certainly the priority right now is to help a continent of such huge resources as Africa to grow and continue growing. A continent bonded deeply with the Mediterranean, and which for better or for worse shares its history with the major European countries. A continent which looks favourably on European values, in which it increasingly tends to recognise itself. This is an opportunity that we simply cannot afford to lose.

Africa is also hope. On a political level, what is the most important hope at the moment?

The one I mentioned before: the agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s the most wonderful news of the year... it fills us with joy. It’s also an extraordinary signal, transmitted especially by the young Ethiopian premier, Ably Ahmed Ali: the youngest African prime minister, a person who has had the intelligence – transcending ideologies or border problems – to believe in the propulsive element that grows from making peace. His enormous courage must be recognised and supported, as must Eritrea’s belief in the possibility of the peace process. A peace to which Europe and our country can contribute: in the 2017-2018 two-year period, Italy donated over 81 million euros for development and humanitarian projects in Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, and its aid contributions to Eritrea amount to 47 million euros. These sums could grow, according to developments in the progress of the regional stabilisation process. An investment in the future. A future of peace and cooperation, featuring the young globalised generation as protagonists.