A generation. That's how long Laura Frigenti had waited for the Italian Development Cooperation Agency to be launched. In 1987, Italy passed a law on international cooperation that remained in force for 27 years. An eternity, during which time Frigenti left Italy and had a highly successful international career spent mostly at the World Bank. January 1st, 2016 marks her return to her birthplace where she has been appointed to lead the new Italian Development Cooperation Agency, officially established by the Italian parliament with the approval of a new bill on development cooperation in August 2014 (law125/2014). It came into force on January 1st, 2015 and provided for the establishment of a new development agency as well as the creation of a development financial institution. In this interview, Laura Frigenti discusses the many challenges she faces in her new role.
What made you decide to apply for the position of director of the Agency?
When I left Italy in 1993, I was part of a group that was trying to create a convergence of ideas to provide Italy with an agency. Twenty years later, which I spent living abroad, this bill has finally been approved. My return as director means I can close a circle in my professional career.
What are your ambitions in this role?
I want to use the experience I have gained in international affairs during the past twenty years in service to my country.
The most urgent of the numerous challenges you face is the launching of the Agency. How does the absence of a deputy minister affect this crucial stage?
It would definitely have been preferable to have a deputy minister in place as the key political contact during the launching phase when we are creating the foundations of the Agency. I must say that the existing political structure within the ministry has given me a great deal of support, particularly the Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni and the two under-secretaries. We are doing our best in rather unusual circumstances.
I must say that the existing political structure within the ministry has given me a great deal of support, particularly the Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni and the two under-secretaries.
What do you mean exactly?
There are two main concerns. The first is the necessity of guaranteeing continuity in the on-going activities. The Agency is new but it has, in fact, inherited a whole series of programs and projects that already exist. None of these activities must suffer a slowdown. Then there are the challenges regarding the transfer from the Directorate General of Development Cooperation (DGDC) to the Agency, and its implementation as a new organization.
How the Agency is structured?
The Agency envisages two Vice directors: one with technical duties and the other with a legal/administrative profile and they in turn will be assisted by 16 managers with functions equivalent to office supervisors at the DGDC. There are also the technical offices abroad that we are accrediting with the governments of the countries where we are present and whose efficiency has already been guaranteed. All in all there will be about 200 people in Rome and another hundred or so abroad. From now on my top priority is the recruitment of the two Vice directors, the managers and the technical staff that will complete the organizational structure of the Agency.
In 2016, the Agency should receive about 350 million euros. Don't you think that's rather a small amount?
Considering the challenges that lie ahead it's not a lot, but the point to underline is that compared to the past, the funds are increasing again and that is positive. An increase in resources goes hand in hand with the strengthening of the economy and the hope is that Italy will continue to grow. Of course we are far from the famous target of 0.7 % of GNP, but even if the OECD countries were to reach it within the next three years, as called for by Ban Ki Moon, the needs will still be greatly superior compared to that target. The question isn't the abundancy of Official Development Assistance (ODA) resources, but rather how to make private financial flows converge in the interest of development. This is the main challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), regardless of a country's level of economic growth.
The question isn't the abundancy of Official Development Assistance (ODA) resources, but rather how to make private financial flows converge in the interest of development.
All or most people agree that the private sector is a key actor in the growth of development. What are the conditions and criteria that would help this sector to access public funds on an equal footing with respect to NGOs?
I worked a great deal on the preparation of the conference in Addis Ababa on financing for development. It is now clear to everyone that ODA funds are no longer the only ones to be taken into consideration. We have an enormous amount of resources that move from the private sector to NGOs through philanthropy - the ODA should therefore have a catalytic role whereby they bring together these actors with different operating procedures and diverse objectives. The agenda with the private sector goes well beyond the simple management of ODA funds, which are limited compared to other flows. In the case of businesses, they must play a leveraging role to bring about a much greater investment.
How do you see the role of the National Council of Development Cooperation* that initially caused uncertainty among NGOs?
It is a very important forum in which to exchange views with all the stakeholders of cooperation and development with whom it's necessary to discuss fundamental questions regarding cooperation. Last week we had a meeting of the four working groups created in the framework of the National council. The groups selected their chairs and vice-chairs and started developing a plan of work. This is a very important process and I expect that the Agency will be fully engaged with the four groups.
The German KFW Development Bank has had a fundamental detonating role in broadening the objectives of development cooperation in Germany and making it possible to successfully reach their targets.
What about the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti** that according to an announcement made by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, will be the new Italian development finance institution?
Of all the existing models, it seems to me that the German KFW Development Bank has had a fundamental detonating role in broadening the objectives of development cooperation in Germany and making it possible to successfully reach their targets. I hope that we will succeed creating a similar convergence here in Italy.
What are the geographical areas and priority axes where the Agency should intervene?
The same ones defined in the three-year planning document of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Given the geographical position of our country, I can only agree with the choice of making the Mediterranean and Africa the top priorities, as well as migration. We should not neglect important issues that Italy is committed to, such as minors, job opportunities for young people etc.
What vision do you have for the future of Italian cooperation in a more global context of an international cooperation that is radically changing face?
As part of the post-2015 agenda, there has been a lot of debate on how to respond to the pressing global challenges with the tools that are available. Considerations take place in a context where it is necessary to work in a much wider circle of actors and where, above all, decisions on the actions to be implemented and the management of the various cash flows move from the capital cities of the northern countries to the capital cities of the beneficiary countries. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, in the post-2015 agenda, each country is responsible for implementing the aims of sustainable development. The beneficiary countries should do what is necessary to provide their own institutional capabilities to manage these resources and monitor the way they are used, by strengthening their data management ability in order to share it with public opinion so that the results are appreciated. It is therefore equally fundamental to create a strong local civil society capable of checking that these funds are used to benefit development. The transparency of the aid given depends on this challenge and the Agency will be committed to this following what has already been done by the DGCS and in line with the policy document of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
What more can and should Italy do to influence the decisions on international cooperation that are made in Brussels?
I believe that having a strong technical body, capable of bringing international best practices and adapting them to the specificity of our national priorities and development goals will definitely enhance our position in multilateral and other international fora.
The African Development Bank has a new, highly competent and charismatic president, Akinwumi Adesina, with whom a dialogue on subjects of mutual interest can be very useful.
There is an actor that the law 125 intends to assign an important role to, but little is mentioned about it: the diaspora. What importance do you intend to give to the community of immigrants present in Italy?
I have worked before on the contribution that the diaspora can give to their countries of origin. In light of this experience, I realized that one of the most effective approaches occurs during the months that a migrant provides his service to a public body, an NGO or the private sector of his country of origin. I remember that after the fall of Mengistu in Ethiopia in 1991, many members of the Ethiopian diaspora wanted to return to their homeland to rebuild their country - but this is easier said than done. An immigrant is always torn between the land he left, and what he has managed to build in the new country or continent where he was accepted.
There are other lesser known actors in our country such as the African Development Bank to which Italy is an important contributor. What importance can a contact like this be for the Agency?
Strategic, also because in recent years development banks have experienced strong, high quality growth, both in terms of products as well as the policies they have succeeded in implementing to contribute to the development of poor countries. The African Development Bank has a new, highly competent and charismatic president, Akinwumi Adesina, with whom a dialogue on subjects of mutual interest can be very useful.
In light of the challenges the Agency faces and your personal vision of international cooperation, how important is it for you to communicate these aspects?
If the role of development aid is to create a convergence among the actors involved in the field of cooperation, then it is beneficial that this convergence is communicated in a clear way, sharing objectives, allowing a space for discussion and the expression of individual contributions. In short, in my opinion communication has a role of primary importance.
* The National Council of Development Cooperation is a permanent body (CSOs, private sector, diaspora) consultation and coordination on Italian development strategy and policies.
** Cassa Depositi e Prestiti is is a joint-stock company under public control, with the Italian government holding 80.1% and a broad group of bank foundations holding 18.4%, the remaining 1.5% in treasury shares manages a major share of the savings of Italians – postal savings – which represent its main source of funding.