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Aspen Italia Initiative on Africa

  • Rome
  • 29 November 2023

        Since the 1960s, several European and African countries have been working to redress the colonial legacy through economic partnerships. Italy has played an active part in this process. It is worth focusing on such proposals at this time, in an effort to correct and update some of their original features. Today’s version, for example, must involve the private business sector in forging ties with counterparts on the African continent – a less than foregone conclusion in decades past.

        It is important to note that social tensions – in the form of ethnic, political, religious and nationalistic conflicts – are on the rise in Africa, not only in low-income areas, but also in mid-level ones in reaction to the influx of immigrants. The private enterprise sector could join with sovereign investment funds in assisting efforts to mitigate the impact of conflicts and, on the other hand, prevent flareups that could pervade the social fabric and political structure of the countries in question. Private international investments incorporated into a local public/private network could therefore transfer and facilitate the development of such instruments in African countries as well as those pivotal skills that already exist in the more dynamic spheres of 20th century economies: the energy transition, agrifood innovation, the climate change fight, digitalization and healthcare treatment and assistance.

        Encouraging the maximum interest and involvement in such processes should be a strategic, far-sighted and natural choice for Italy, given its geographic placement and the changing geopolitical urgencies following the rupture with Russia. Located at the center of the Mediterranean as a bridge between two continents whose dialogue on many fronts – from security to energy, and from geopolitics to climate – has never been as intense as it is now. Italy should hasten to make up for prolonged delays and uncertainties and begin to outline a comprehensive map of its international interests, which must include an African policy.

        To date Italy has foregrounded economic interests in its relations with African countries, particularly in the field of energy, made concrete through the involvement of ENI.  An undoubtedly successful endeavor, but a sector-bound and disorganized one vis à vis the nation’s broader needs. Migration has heightened the attention of the political class to what is happening in southern Italy, nevertheless with no precise definition of what national interests to pursue and defend, but rather maintaining an emergency approach to the issue. The structure of the European Union has failed to function as a political catalyst for Italy’s position, nor has Rome ever espoused a global approach inclusive of the African dimension of the problem.

        The Mattei Plan announced by the Meloni government could fill Italy’s current void in national vision and planning, making it possible to link the principal national operators – Ministries of Culture and Defense and the Confindustria – within the sort of unified system that has thus far been absent.

        Nevertheless, the best approach to strategic planning should be political instead of the, albeit understandably, economic one that has prevailed thus far. In other words, an overall vision coordinated and integrated on a vaster horizon on which the national economy, inclusive of businesses, large and small, can be a protagonist. 

        The necessary corrections include narrowing the field of action and eventual intervention; indeed, continental ambitions are excessive. “Africa” is a concept that cannot be artificially distilled; an immense territory made up of dozens of different contexts and situations where it would be difficult even for a player much larger than Italy to move with agility. Needed are realistic and pursuable goals targeted to more specific areas such as the Sahel, for example, but not only.

        The Mediterranean would be the most immediate framework, not least because it is geographically contiguous, yet errors in judgement have been made even here. Italy has a presence in Lebanon, but not in Libya where actors of various provenance are managing to influence the local dynamics more effectively than Rome has been able to do. Instead, Italy’s decades-long presence in the eastern Mediterranean runs the risk of being merely symbolic in the face of the deteriorating regional stability exemplified by the latest crisis in Gaza.

        Besides, Italy’s soft power is historically rather weak, and new developments highlight even more clearly its limitations and lack of resources. Italian culture in Africa has not been sufficiently promoted, not even in areas where Italy has had a historic presence, but where Turkey is by now seeing more tangible results. 

        Renewed Italian efforts could work, but only if coordinated at European and international level; even though at times not even these dimensions are enough, as borne out by the example of the Sahel, where Europeans have been almost entirely left out. Meanwhile, 50 million people are on the move in Africa as refugees or migrants, though only 10 million are determined to reach Europe. And yet new crises – together with a dire African economic picture that sees a still exploding demographic combined with economic growth insufficient to absorb the enormous demand for jobs – could potentially change those data, thus aggravating the situation along the southern flanks of the Old World.

        The critical mass of resources needed to confront such dynamics must come through new and multiple diplomatic, financial and cultural instruments, not least with a view to harmonizing the triad consisting of national strategic priorities, the needs of economic operators and local development. Moreover, sweeping phenomena call for synergies and broad-based cooperation in order to be absorbed, managed and governed.