Del Re to SIR: Italian cooperation in Africa continues despite COVID-19

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ROME, APRIL 15 – The activity in the field of Italian development cooperation in Africa continues despite the slow but steady spread of Covid-19 through old and new projects. SIR, a Catholic news agency, spoke with Emanuela Del Re, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, who in the last few days has held a series of video conferences with the main components of the Italian system, in order to discuss the main problems that cooperation activities are facing, due to the pandemic emergency. Here is the text of the interview published on the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Covid-19 and African Continent: are there up-to-date statistics that give a picture of the situation?

Africa is also facing Covid-19. So far, the official cases in the continent are over 13,000, 60% of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa and more or less 25% in South Africa. But data are constantly evolving. African states are taking increasingly drastic measures to deal with the emergency. In Egypt, for instance, a night curfew has been imposed. In most African countries, markets are closed, sporting and cultural events are suspended, religious and political meetings are banned. The army is sometimes used to ensure compliance with the measures. Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been isolated from the rest of the country to slow down the spread of the virus. A state of emergency has been declared everywhere, for more or less long periods of time; for example, in Sierra Leone, which has not yet confirmed any cases of Covid-19, the state of emergency is one year.

Is there an economic plan to stem the damage caused by Covid-19 in Africa?

Two weeks ago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimated the economic impact of the emergency on the continent at 30 billion dollars. I must say, however, that this amount does not seem sufficient. Suffice it to say that Prime Minister Aby of Ethiopia – also the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2019 – appealed to the G20 to implement a 150 billion dollars emergency plan for Africa, as well as debt cancellation or restructuring measures, given that Covid-19 represents a very serious existential threat to the economies of all African countries.

What consequences is the pandemic having on the Italian cooperation system (in Africa and beyond)?

We are experiencing an exceptional moment, one of a kind for the contemporary era, the biggest health emergency since the post-war period. We are all involved, from north to south, from east to west, and all together we must work synergistically to provide effective responses. At the Ministry, work continues unceasingly. In the last few days, I have held a series of video conferences with the main components of the Italian system of international cooperation, and we have discussed the main problems that cooperation activities are facing because of the pandemic emergency.

How are you acting?

Complicated months will follow and be likely to involve a redefinition of the initiatives and of the entire programming of Development Cooperation activities, in light of the current emergency. Everything will be adjusted according to the changing circumstances. We are currently discussing with the Directorate General for Development Cooperation of the Foreign Ministry, with AICS and all the actors of the cooperation system, collecting needs and proposals. Among the new priorities is certainly the fight against Covid-19 and all that this entails: even more targeted programmes in the field of health and prevention, specific awareness initiatives especially for the most vulnerable groups and, therefore, more exposed to contagion, and greater support for local communities. These are areas of intervention in which we have already been engaged for some time but which, with the emergency we are experiencing, need rethinking in order to maximize resources, efforts and needs, always listening to what comes to us “from the field”, in cooperation and partnership with local communities and always with the same great “Italian” values that inspire us and guide our action.

How is the situation at the moment?

Very fluid and not homogenous. In some parts of Africa, for example, there are very few infections, but there is concern that they will accelerate, while other countries on the continent have already closed their borders. Also, the situation in Central America is rapidly evolving, as in the Middle East, where, in some countries, restrictions on internal mobility and gatherings have already been in force since the end of February. Forecasts of how the activities of the NGOs will evolve in the coming months are difficult. The AICS has granted to those who request it (civil society organizations, local authorities, universities, companies) extra-contractual extensions for 4 months, in order to give everyone the opportunity and time to understand which direction to move in, how to reorganize activities in the future. This will depend very much on the partner country implementing the initiatives and on how Covid-19 will have spread in the country itself.

Concretely, in the field, what initiatives have been put in place to stem the negative effects of Covid-19 on the work of our Cooperation?

Since the beginning of the pandemic a “Covid-19 Emergency Technical Table” has been active with the aim of guaranteeing all the necessary support and to “write” together with all the actors of the Italian Cooperation system some necessary rules to face this moment in the best way. We have constant contact with all the actors in the field. First of all, we are working to face the emergency and avoid that the “cooperation machine” stops. Our main objective is to guarantee the continuation of as many activities and projects as possible, trying to meet their needs and requests both on the bureaucratic-administrative and “financial support” level.

For example?

We are working, for example, on the extension of extra-contractual postponements and on the exceptional management of initiatives financed/co-financed by the Italian Cooperation. CSOs have asked for additional funds to support projects: a deep and precise reflection is underway, together with the other ministries, the Ministry of Economy and Finance and Labour and social policies in the first place. The “Cura-Italia” Decree already provides for actions for the Third Sector that, in the amending phase, can be improved in order to be more incisive and efficient.

How is the Foreign Ministry moving to assist our co-workers abroad? There are those who want to return but also those who want to stay…

The Foreign Ministry has already repatriated over 30,000 compatriots from abroad. Many more will be repatriated in the next few days and weeks because special flights are still being organised and all those who expressly request it will be assisted on site. With my Secretariat we are committed, in close coordination with the Crisis Unit, the Directorate General for Development Cooperation of the Foreign Ministry, AICS, AICS field offices worldwide and our diplomatic representations, and constantly in contact with CSOs’ networks, to provide all the assistance to our cooperation partners abroad and to all cooperation operators. Each CSO in coordination with CSOs’ networks have already drawn up lists with the contacts of all the collaborators who are abroad and these lists, which constitute a census of the Italian operators of the Cooperation abroad, have already been shared with the relevant diplomatic representations. Many co-operators have decided to stay and continue, as far as possible, to work. Many co-operators who were in particularly remote and difficult to reach areas have returned to the main cities because the rules on curfew and lockdown have now become frequent.

The Covid-19 pandemic with its effects (on health, economy, finance, society, development…) is also raising questions about the future (in medium-long term) of Cooperation, new programmes and priorities, new urgencies and investments and closer synergies, for example with UN agencies. Is this likely to happen?

Certainly. The global architecture of development cooperation is moving, on the international level, on two levels: on the one hand, the immediate response, on the health level, to deal with the pandemic; on the other, the economic, social and development response to deal with its consequences, and each actor must play its part. Italy has already expressed the need, in this new context, for maximum coordination. The Covid-19 pandemic is spreading on a global scale and is affecting not only the West and the most well-equipped countries from a health and socio-economic point of view, but also entire areas of the world with more fragile health structures and populations living in situations of constant humanitarian emergency, especially for the perpetuation of armed conflicts (Syria, Yemen, Libya just to name a few examples), extreme weather events (droughts and floods, or the cyclones that hit the African continent last year), epidemics (e.g. Ebola). The spread of Covid-19 in these areas would represent an “emergency within an emergency”, and a very difficult challenge to overcome.

I mean, it’s like saying “it never rains but it pours”…

That’s right. In these areas of the world, access to water, food, hygiene, healthcare, or basic education is possible in large part only thanks to the solidarity and support of the international community. The humanitarian needs in the world, before the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, were already enormous and the international community was already strongly mobilized to continue to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to people in situations of particular vulnerability, starting with refugees and displaced people, especially women and children. Refugee camps and informal settlements in different areas of the world are situations of particular concern to the humanitarian community, precisely because of the difficulty in adopting measures to prevent and contain the virus that many countries, starting with Italy, have long since begun to adopt.

What kind of response is being prepared?

In this regard, the United Nations and the International Red Cross Movement have recently presented two humanitarian response plans, worth 2 billion dollars the first and 800 million Swiss francs the second, identifying specific objectives and areas of intervention. It is important at this time, when international appeals are multiplying, to concentrate and coordinate available forces and resources. Although Italy is among the most affected countries, we must not forget that being a member of the European Union, of G7 and of G20, as well as an important actor of cooperation, we cannot fail to make our contribution to the global response. We have contributed to the response plan implemented by the WHO and we also count on contributing to the global humanitarian appeal launched by UN Secretary General Guterres with all the agencies. This pandemic represents a huge risk to sustainable development and growth. Certainly, cooperation programmes will be adapted to deal with its consequences, but we must also act to be better prepared for the next crises.

Does health protection take priority?

Today we are all more aware of the centrality of health and the strengthening of health systems, which is one of the traditional priority areas of Italian cooperation, where we have always achieved excellent results. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to express my deepest and most sincere thanks to all the health and humanitarian workers operating in Italy and around the world, to the humanitarian component of the United Nations, to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to the many workers of the Civil Society organisations, who are engaged in the front line with professionalism and a spirit of self-denial. I would like to tell them that Italy, despite the terrible moment we are going through, will continue to be at their side in the name of the principle of solidarity that has always characterized the history of our country. Pope Francis reminded us that “no one saves oneself”: I would like to express a feeling of deep gratitude for all those in the world – and in our own country – who are making tangible and concrete gestures of empathy and solidarity.

Italy has always been one of the leading countries in the field of international cooperation. Currently, how many Italian Cooperation projects in developing countries, how many co-operators are involved and with how much funding?

I can tell you that last year we had more than 1,000 active projects and we have provided funding for more than 300 million euros for direct interventions in partner countries. Civil Society organizations play a fundamental role in this demanding activity: according to a rough estimate of the Networks of Civil Society organizations themselves, today there are about 1,500 co-operators involved in the implementation of projects in various parts of the world and especially in Africa.

In the light of your long experience in the field, how could you describe all those people of the Italian co-operators dispersed around the world, and in particular those who have decided to remain close to the populations also affected by the virus that has been added to other chronic difficulties?

I feel I must praise our co-operators who are continuing their valuable work despite the conditions imposed by the emergency we are experiencing: this is a noble and generous choice. This contributes once again to bear witness to Italy’s empathy with the world, in the full awareness that this war against the virus must be tackled with a global approach, in different places, on different fronts but with the same effectiveness. There are many strategies that we can put into practice with individual gestures and targeted policies to enlarge this community that belongs to us. But we cannot do it alone, because we have the responsibility to act for ourselves but also for all those who look at us with hope. Many people who are in the most fragile countries and live in the most terrible living conditions (refugees, Syrians, Yemenites and others) have expressed solidarity with the Italians, and this really honours us. It makes us understand that it is necessary, eventually, to adopt an all-round global vision, starting from fundamental values such as solidarity.