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About the Author

Tiziana Cauli
Journalist (London, UK)

I am a London-based Italian journalist currently covering the property market in Europe, but with a strong background and interest in development issues. I graduated in a post-degree school of journalism in Milan (Italy) and hold a Ph.D. in African Studies. I worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, France and Spain and am fluent in Italian, English, Spanish and French.


Italy’s foreign aid: government’s stinginess Vs. people’s generosity

Published 26th March 2010 - 5 comments - 6415 views -

When in mid-2008 I started focusing mainly on development topics in my reporting activity, I didn't think I would write much about my home country. Back then, Italy was about to cut its foreign aid budget by over 55 per cent, reaching a 20 year low in its development and cooperation funding.

Italy was and still is behind its equally industrialized counterparts within Europe when it comes to aid and it was even labelled as "uniquely stingy" by Bill Gates earlier this year.

In the same occasion, the founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said something else I can now agree on: he still believed that the Italian public would want to be as generous as people in other countries.

In the past two years, I have spoken to several Italian NGO officials and development workers who struggle to see their projects running due to the overwhelming financial obstacles they have to face. Every time I talked to them I would ask the same questions about us, Italians, not being really familiar with a culture of generosity and cooperation which seems to be more and better developed in other  European countries.

I thought I had even found some sort of scientific support for this theory when Maurizio Carbone - an Italian academic who taught politics at the University of Glasgow and specialized in EU foreign aid and development policies - told me in an interview that aid is the safest thing to cut for goverments in times of crisis. In other words, when governments reduce their effort in international cooperation, voters tend not to get as angry as they do when cuts affect sectors such as health and education.

This is why, Carbone said, Italy also cut foreign aid in the early Nineties, when an economic effort was needed for the country to meet the Maastricht parameters and enter the Euro zone.

I expected professionals in the development sector to have terrible things to say about raising funds in Italy, but, to my surprise - whilst their criticism against the government was sharp - they all praised Italian people's generosity.

Teresa Sarti, who died in September after volunteering for several years as the president of medical non-governmental Emergency  - working in conflict zones such as  Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan - said Italians remained very generous although scandals over corruption and waste had often let them down. "If you tell them they can help and show them you work well, they will support you," Sarti said.

I had to reconsider my position on Italians' generosity towards the developing world and thought this was just another example of how the country leadership can sometimes afford to ignore a great part of the population's political will.

In the coming days, the same government will be facing a crucial test as the March 28 - 29 regional elections threaten to further destabilize political balances and alliances. Whatever the outcome of the elections will be, cooperation and development are probably not the main arena in which candidates from both sides are fighting their battle.

This time, though, Italians' generosity when it comes to foreing aid may - for a change - be taken into consideration by Italy's soon-to-be-elected regional political leaders, as they accepted to publicly answer questions on how their programmes will address cooperation and development.

The Italian Coordination of International Networks (CINI) - gathering the national representatives of non-profits such as ActionAid, Save the Children, Terre des Hommes, World Vision, WWF, the International Volunteer Service (VIS) and AMREF - published answers by 18 candidates running for the presidency of ten Italian regions.

While only nine of the candidates said international development and cooperation were directly included in their programmes, all of them said they would promote international solidarity and the fight against poverty. They would all support the Millennium Development Goals and push for a reform of Italy's legislation on development and coperation . Eleven candidates even committed to assigning at least 0.7 per cent of their region's budget to international development and cooperation.

While whatever is said or promised by candidates before the elections traditionally tends to be forgotten and ignored in Italy, at least this time foreign aid made it to the political campaign, only days before the elections, and not even national ones.

Italians probably have stingy  leaders who do not think twice before cutting funds to development and cooperation. Generosity, though, may soon enter Italy's political debate.



Category: Aid | Tags: europe, europe, development, eu,


  • Hussam Hussein on 26th March 2010:

    Ciao Tiziana!

    Nice to read your article. I completely agree with Prof. Carbone, in Italy (as abroad) it’s always more simple for the government to cut in the International Cooperation and Development sectoris instead of in the Education or Health sectors. In fact, if you’d cut in the latter two areas, you’ll have for sure a huge demonstration of students and teachers in Rome and in all the main cities, like during the Moratti or Berlinguer reforms in Italy.
    In Italy, in the last years the government decided to cut the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in general, including in particular the budget of cooperation and development, but also the cultural sector abroad as well as the recruitment of new diplomats.

    However, as you said, something seems to be changing.. the last month the diplomatic councour in Italy has been published, while the regions are becoming more involved in the decentrated cooperation. In fact, regions such as Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, and the Province of Trento are engaged in important development projects in particular in the Balkans. For this reason, I am optimistic, like you, because I believe that the regions and the political candidates could really make the difference in representing the genuine generosity of the Italians.

  • Larisa Rankovic on 26th March 2010:

    I have read you post with interest, Tiziana. Very nicely presented all the complexity of the issue. Plus, I am personally interested in reading about Italian experiences and stories

  • Tiziana Cauli on 26th March 2010:

    Thank you Hussam and Larisa. I do think Italy is a pretty peculiar place. This is not the right place to discuss my political positions, but whenever I’m about to lose faith in my people, I end up changing my mind.

  • Bruce on 30th March 2010:

    One thing Italians have is commitment. Personal commitment, irrespective of whether there is a political will or long-term stability. When you don’t have the support of the government, you end up finding other ways of doing things which you are committed to. La Cooperazione Italiana in South Africa is tiny, staffed by very few individuals, but these are individuals who have spent lifetimes in this region, working on what they are committed to. It says a lot about the generosity of these people when you hear their stories of Mozambique in the ‘70s, of South Africa in the ‘90s, of Namibia and Angola in the ‘80s… I don’t think generosity is the defining characteristic of Italians, but rather ingenuity. The ability to find a way to get something done, without power, without funds, without trumpets and red carpets, but with conviction. Italians are perhaps the people who have suffered most of all Europeans, since thousands of years, and perhaps it is for this reason that they - individuals, not some abstraction pizza and torre di Pisa - recognise it in other parts of the world. Generosity is in the popular culture of Italians, and it is cultural strenght which they yield, not political or financial power. Down here, sometimes, that is far more important.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 30th March 2010:

    Thank you Bruce. I only hope the cultural strength you mentioned won’t end up being irreparably undermined by the dynamics of those political and financial powers. Apparently though, this is not yet the case.

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