ECDPM talks to Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emma Bonino, on Food Security in Africa and 'Economic Diplomacy' in her Country

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    What is the meaning of the United Nations (UN) Year of Family Farming for a G8 country like Italy? Are agricultural sustainability and protection of biodiversity still possible in European agriculture?

    Italy is a country where smallholders still constitute an important portion of the agricultural sector. Our agricultural comparative advantages are based on quality rather than on quantity. Therefore smallholders are an asset for our agriculture. We therefore do attach great relevance on the need to support family farming, both within national boundaries and in international fora and activities, and to encourage youth to engage in the agricultural sector. The latest G8 Comprehensive Accountability Report shows that 70% of our international development initiatives related to agriculture include activities in support of smallholders, with a major emphasis on the role of women as main contributors to family feeding and food security of their communities. Moreover the Italian agro-food sector is mostly family-based with strong consortiums and cooperatives which ensure assistance to farmers including finance and training, research and marketing. The awareness of the importance of preserving and promoting agricultural traditions and biodiversity is deeply rooted in our country. Italy’s experience clearly shows that protection of biodiversity is not only possible in advanced and intensive agriculture but it is the best way to diversify and add value to products, thus ensuring the economical and environmental sustainability of the agricultural value chain. Biodiversity is an economic asset for us: as a matter of fact, the Italian agro-food sector is known worldwide for the diversity, high quality and traceability of its products and the attention paid to policies and processes sensitive to environment and human health. Let me add that the EU financial plan for 2014-2020 indicates ambitious goals as far as environmental sustainability is concerned. The so-called “greening of direct payments” is one of the major innovations of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform proposals. 

    In the future, will ‘economic diplomacy’ in Italy include linking the Italian private sector to the growing African economies? Does the Italian government have a coherent position on this matter? Are Italian entrepreneurs ready to expand into the African markets (e.g. some African entrepreneurs would like to buy more Italian equipment but often do not succeed in entering business relations with Italian companies)? 

    First of all, I would rather use the present tense. Linking our private sector to African economies is the present, and for sure the future, of our economic diplomacy. Italian economic diplomacy is already working to foster links between Italian businessmen and those of our neighbours in the southern shores of the Mediterranean and in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Italian entrepreneurs are eager to find new opportunities in the African markets. We have a coherent strategy based on two major goals. First of all building on the experience and knowledge of local realities accumulated by our Development Cooperation to stimulate partnerships between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private sector. Second, increasing awareness on both sides: Italians still don’t fully know the range and depth of opportunities of the African market, while Africans are not fully aware of the Italian leadership in many sectors. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs encourages such reciprocal interest by supporting business delegations, for instance in the framework of outgoing missions: in the last two years, we took selected delegations of Italian CEOs to Ethiopia, Mozambique, Libya, Egypt and Algeria. Moreover, every time we host a political delegation we organise a Country Presentation and a Business Forum in order to increase awareness of such markets. 

    Do you think such business relations could include launching joint ventures between Italian agricultural small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and African farmers, using Italian expertise and/or technology to improve quality and add value to agriculture and water management? 

    African and Italian farmers are fully complementary: Africa has got the resources, particularly when it comes to soil and young people. We can offer know-how, technology and a special, unique sensitivity and respect for the land and its products, which is a distinctive aspect of the Italian culture. The Italian triennial cooperation guidelines include agriculture as a priority sector and the Sub-Sahara and North Africa regions amongst the priority areas. In this context, the Italian Cooperation has financed several projects both in the form of direct investment (joint venture) and in the form of Italian exports directed to African SMEs, active in the agro-industry sector. As an example, it is worthwhile mentioning that more than 30% of concessional credit lines granted by the Italian government in Tunisia are in favor of local SMEs operating in the agro-industry field. The Italian Cooperation has also financed several infrastructure projects in Africa (recently in Kenya and in Senegal) related to irrigation and water. Moreover, recent amendments of the law regulating our Development Cooperation encourage Italian companies to create joint ventures for the development of the private sector in beneficiary countries. 

    What do you think about linking extractive industries with Italian foreign direct investment (FDI) to the promotion of agricultural growth in Africa?

    High cash flows generated by FDI by extractive industries can give a boost also to public investment in the agricultural sector, which is pivotal for the well-being of people considering the high percentage of African working population involved in agricultural activities. But such investment is beneficial to local communities only if it is managed with the highest standard of transparency. For these reasons Italy promotes transparency in the extractive sector and the fair use of its revenues through the support of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).

    How could you connect the African Union (AU) Year of African Agriculture in 2014 to the Italian EU Presidency 2014 as well as to the Expo2015 focusing on “feeding the planet”?

    We will closely link the Italian Presidency to the Expo 2015, whose theme is “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life”. To do so, we identified Milan as the centre of gravity of those events related to the semester that will take place in Italy. The theme of the Expo may, in fact, become the leitmotif for many European Union Councils, e.g. in the agriculture, energy or the environment fields, thus forging the European position on such matters. During the presidency, we look forward to working with our African partners on these crucial issues, building on the fruitful on-going dialogue we have with them at all levels. Africa has a great potential to become an agricultural power and is today a priority region for Italian Development Cooperation activities in sectors such as rural development, food security, microcredit, water and sanitation, sustainable economic growth, combating desertification. The Italian presidency is an opportunity to turn such national priorities into European priorities.

    How important it is to promote policy coherence for development (PCD) given the growing discourse in Europe on ‘economic diplomacy’ (to the possible detriment of development cooperation objectives)? How can PCD help improve global food security?

    Food and nutrition security rests on four pillars: food availability, accessibility, proper utilisation – which underpins good nutrition - and stability. In addition, nutrition is greatly impacted by non-food factors like health, gender equality, and sanitation. There is a clear consensus around the fact that eradicating hunger and malnutrition requires integrated and coherent strategies. We are confident that Expo 2015 will contribute to furthering PCD for Food Security since it will provide a unique platform for sharing experiences, knowledge, products and production processes. In our efforts for ensuring food security we must combine both approaches: the people-centred one and the market-oriented one. On one side, we do need functioning markets in developing countries in order to increase food production, distribution and conservation. On the other side, the main target must remain the well-being and economic sustainability of the small rural producers and the people in general. This balance could be ensured by microfinance, capacity building, and integration of smallholders in medium-scale enterprises or cooperatives. But I want to make this clear: I firmly believe that in most developing countries one of the most effective development cooperation tools has been to give women the means to become entrepreneurs. I think that this could be seen as the perfect link between aid and trade. Exactly for this reason, in view of the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan, we launched last October “WE-Women for Expo”, a global network of women that in the next two years will work together to improve the universal right to food and to push forward the post-2015 development goals. 

    Emma Bonino is an Italian politician, who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs in Italy since April 2013. She is a former European Commissioner for Consumer Policy, Fisheries and the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO).

    This interview was conducted by Francesco Rampa, Manager Food Security Programme at ECDPM.


    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 3, Issue 1

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