Speech by Giampaolo Silvestri at the event #AVSI50 Beyond development

In the opening speech of the event for the 50th anniversary of AVSI, the Secretary General Giampaolo Silvestri took up the subtitle of the conference: “The future we want is one in which the achievements and new, continuing discoveries and breakthroughs in education, health care, technology, and environmental protection are accessible to all, serving the growth of all, from the individual to his or her family and community to expand to the world as a whole”.

Countries Italy, Haiti
Date 26.10.2022
Author Giampaolo Silvestri

A picture of the field

AVSI is proud to define itself as a grassroots, or last-mile, organization, because we are convinced that for a project to be effective, to change people's lives for the better, it must begin and end in the field, alongside our beneficiaries. It is in the field, through the encounter with real needs, that every policy proposal and every contribution to the public debate, such as this event, is born.

We believe that our work makes sense due to our continuous interaction with reality.

And so, my intervention starts from the field.

I choose to paint a picture from Haiti, which is one among the 39 countries in which we operate, but it could a similar scene could be found in Kenya, South Sudan, Congo or Syria. This snapshot summarizes what we mean by our approach to emergency and development, which for us are always connected.

Our staff in Haiti continues to work even now, when many international NGOs and agencies have chosen to leave the country.

This is daily life looks like in these weeks: gangs control several districts, streets are closed off by barricades.

Our staff move around by Jeep. But at one point, barricades prevent the car from moving. So do they stop? No, they don't.

Our staff get out of the car, mount motorcycles and ride another stretch of the road, overcoming the barriers, to reach the AVSI centers.

Then they find the streets flooded by rain because mountains of garbage have clogged the drains. Do they stop at this point? No, they pull on their boots and continue on foot.

They cross canals, step by step, and finally make it to the children and their families who are waiting for them.

This scene recalls us to the title of our meeting, which is AVSI's ordinary work: Beyond Development.

We push ourselves further and further, not stopped by barriers, but crossing them. The barriers of gangs, inequality, poverty, war.

This is what we would like to focus on today in this ‘learning event’, as we have called it: on the occasion of our anniversary, an event for us all to learn where the field of international cooperation is going and must go in order to be effective.

The question of the future

In addressing the question about the future, which we can no longer avoid, we must take into account multiple factors, complex and interconnected ecosystems moving at different speeds. We face different crises, such as food, climate, economic and other forgotten crises, which all require global action and responses.

No one is saved alone. That is, no one will build his or her future alone. There are no (winning) "projects" that do not require partnerships or alliances, the involvement of a plurality of stakeholders. There are no more answers that are not a contribution to a wider "system," which bring innovation and unconventional solutions.

Aid to isolated individuals no longer exists, but must be thought of as reaching the individual while touching the whole community and system within which they live.

Each of us can play a role in building concrete and viable solutions that serve the common good, that can put the dignity of every human being at the center and thus make development achievable (from field experiences to institution building).

It is crucial to involve the new generations in this.

Passion for the person

Protracted crises in countries, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and its worldwide impact have changed the hierarchy of values and imposed a new urgency for action: we have verified that we must be responsive to change and value those behaviors that promote the achievement of organizational goals in this context without losing sight of the well-being of all involved.

We believe that people are our primary asset. The complexity in which we operate requires up-to-date, cross-cutting and technical skills, but most of all  those soft skills which foster positive human relationships and personal growth of all. To do this job well, to be professionals who make a difference, we are invited to use all our humanity because the person is the primary resource of our work.

The story of our 50 years is a story of human encounters.

In the encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers), Pope Francis calls for “an acknowledgement of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere. If each individual is of such great worth, it must be stated clearly and firmly that the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity”.

The absolute value of the human person is central to our origin, and is the source from which we continue to draw the energy to keep moving forward.

Integrated and systemic approach

From this origin we need to approach our work in an integrated and systemic manner: there can be no separation of the person, likewise, responses to his or her need cannot be fragmented. This requires integration and collaboration of all actors involved in development, including the governments of the countries in which we operate; it requires subsidiarity, co-planning, co-design, co-implementation, accompaniment. Never paternalism, but an invitation to be protagonists.

As the climate and health crises have highlighted, the effectiveness of development cooperation and emergency interventions strongly depends on the application of a truly systemic approach to needs, problems and solutions. Although sectoral approaches persist, even among international agencies, one-dimensional analyses describe an issue only partially, and therefore ineffectively.

The end of us/them

The contribution we can all make is first of all to promote a common awareness that the "us/them" divide is dead and buried.

The experience and skills that an NGO has gained in Africa and elsewhere are also useful in  countries of origin, as we see in Italy where we carry out projects similar to those in Africa or the Middle East; this implies a change for NGOs, but also in politics and opens up immense possibilities.

While reality continually communicates this to us, the approaches, funding and a lot of rhetoric still in use are conceived of as helping one side versus the other.

The field of international cooperation is already moving to change this direction, but much more needs to be done. Many organizations and donors, under the pretext of having "specific mandates", do little to "build" a solid response to problems in different situations. Too often they focus on a small piece and then leave the situation essentially unchanged. The consequence is that crises become cyclical and repeat themselves.

The private sector

There is a need to support private sector actors who want to invest in high-risk countries. They should be sensitized and supported, with appropriate measures. The importance of their role should also be recognized and promoted within the world of cooperation.

The future we want

So, taking up the subtitle of our event, what is the future we want? It is one where everyone can live in cohesive societies, in communities where the strong protect the weak, where citizens work with governments for the good of all, where people care about each other. Where there is no apathy, individualism and indifference.

The future we want is one in which the achievements and new, continuing discoveries and breakthroughs in education, health care, technology, and environmental protection are accessible to all, serving the growth of all, from the individual to his or her family and community to expand to the world as a whole.

We are here to learn how to move forward together.