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11 May May 2021 1149 11 May 2021

Africa and Europe, the end of illusions

The April issue of the Italian magazine Vita begins with the editorial that Giampaolo Silvestri, AVSI’s secretary-general, dedicated to Italian NGOs working in Africa

The assassination of the Italian ambassador and two men of his convoy in Congo brought Africa back on the first page for days. Such media attention underlined, by contrast, the fact that people seem to remember such forgotten areas of the world only when a major figure dies tragically, and that there aren’t many direct sources to get first-hand news, except for those NGOs operators who stubbornly remain on-site. Africa is still intermittently considered as being “elsewhere”.

But Africa is here, it is not "the other".

And the pandemic wiped out any residual stereotype on the apparent separation between a North and a South of the world, on the juxtaposition between a developed “us” and a desperate “them”. It definitely sped up the acknowledgment that development, health and welfare cannot be thought of as exclusive, and that they become possible only if accessible at all latitudes at the same time.

In addition to this, the pandemic also pointed out another fact: the gap between the needs of the most vulnerable populations and the available resources has deepened, even if we are not always willing to recognize it, and this does not constitute a pledge for our near future to be taken lightly. Our destinies, which are now permanently connected, draw a new map that must guide our actions.

We need to think of us as part of a strategic European-African partnership, able to involve the whole Mediterranean, so that we can build together the answers to our common problems. We should not only aim at defending the role of cooperation or at improving it, but at establishing a form of cooperation among peers, equally interested in investing economic and human resources in fields such as new trade routes, new factories, new energy sources, research and technology, health care development, along with the key sectors of education and job training.

But withpeers”, we mean that every research has to be carried out together, for example in Euro-Med-African labs.

If we take new technologies into consideration, we see that the pandemic has exposed our addiction to the Net. Had we not had our communication platforms and digital technologies, we would have been disarmed, and isolated. Instead, we had the possibility to work, to stay in touch, to replace meetings in presence with virtual ones. This allowed us to carry on with most of our projects, even though many activities had to be reshaped.

But in this very situation, a disproportion has emerged: there are too many areas of the world that are still cut off from guaranteed digital coverage, and this exacerbates inequalities. New technologies have to be available to all, while nonetheless respecting the ties between rights, data protection and users.

These challenges are of global relevance, and they will be approachable only through strategic sharing.

Are they too complex compared to the past? Are we lacking the resources, considering the pressure time puts on us? The answer is no: we just need to develop the principles of cooperation on a new set of bases, taking into consideration the lessons we have learnt, what the reality of need is, and the faces of the real people involved.

Here is a practical example: due to the pandemic, we had to transfer educational and training projects online. Where possible, we transferred entire classes from the physical classroom to the virtual one, through webinars and the like, and we distributed tablets and other suitable devices.

We also bought bikes to try to reach and reassure the kids who live in areas without Internet coverage, in order not to risk a definitive detachment from school.

We can only overcome the obsolete theorem that links development, humanitarian assistance, and safety through a method that combines the observation of reality, the recognition of specific needs and the awareness that Europe and Africa are bound by a single destiny. This will allow us to put into practice sustainable solutions, whose development starts from existing data, and whose horizon is only the whole world.

Is the digital evolution of the economy and services in the African continent still inadequate? The demand does exist, it is strong and thus the offer needs to be promoted with strategical determination.

The African economic system is already beginning to become a huge digital market, which the European leading companies could contribute in a decisive way to expand and unify, at last.

The African culture has talents that could become a common source of economic growth if they could interact with organizations of the civil society and with the dynamic private sector.

The energetic transition is an international challenge bound to transform the principles of global economic development; it might be a unique chance to redefine the economic dialogue between Africa and the rest of the world.

This might seem a list written by ambitious visionaries. But on the contrary, it is only the acknowledgment of already existing socio-economic dynamics.Europe is already one of Africa’s first commercial partners and this economic closeness has to be reinforced for the benefit of both continents, for example by developing Inter-African trade. The growth of Inter-African commerce is the most effective factor of social stability and economic growth in the region. It can open markets that could attract Italian and European companies. Promoting African competitiveness and productivity is the main precondition to create new jobs, which is in turn the first way out from poverty and the most effective deterrent against irregular emigration, which is a big concern for European countries.

This new map of human geography and economic, cultural, environmental relationships in which we are so close and interdependent has already been drawn. We need to learn how to read it. The only risk is that we could all benefit from it.

Giampaolo Silvestri