The first item Emanuela C. Del Re hung up in her office as deputy foreign ministry of Italy was a poster of Nelson Mandela, which she got when she was working as an election monitor in South Africa as apartheid was coming to an end.
After a lifetime of book-writing, academia, and on-the-ground humanitarian work, Del Re is bringing an expert’s and insider’s knowledge to Italy’s international development after assuming the role last year.
“I think that after so many years of endless engagement and great passion and vocation, if a country like Italy calls you and asks you to take responsibility at a national level, I think you have to accept,” she told a crowd of Global Citizens at the organization’s New York City headquarters on Monday.
Foreign aid is often described as a form of transnational charity — a way to prevent starvation and other calamities — but that narrow framing ignores the enormous benefits donor nations receive from the countries they invest in, Del Re said.
Donor nations benefit from increased trade, access to skilled workers, improved security, cooperation on global issues such as climate change and migration, and much more, she explained. Accordingly, countries should strive to reach the OECD target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance (ODA), a goal Italy plans to reach by 2030.
“We’re really dictating a new philosophical and ethical agenda for the world,” Del Re said. “The concept of development, what does it mean? How much is it a sincere will to help countries to develop, and how much is it, instead, a secret will of exploiting a situation because of the way we can dictate the specific model we can enact in a place?”
Fresh off of #Mandela100, @micksheldrick said he was delighted to hear @ecdelre still keeps a poster of Nelson Mandela being released from prison that she received when she was an election monitor in South Africa. pic.twitter.com/5bqwEnqTVd— Global Citizen Impact (@GlblCtznImpact) January 28, 2019
Del Re described how Italy is undergoing a “revolution” of international development as it seeks to better incorporate the input of people affected by foreign aid, invest in long-term development programs that prevent emergencies, and prioritize youth and women around the world.
To that end, Italy has been convening groups of “special actors” in countries that it sends foreign aid to in an effort to better understand the needs of different areas and how Italy can be most useful.
For example, Del Re was recently in Libya and brought together various ministries to improve cross-government cooperation.
"We don’t have recipients, we have have partners,” she said. “We are getting a lot in return."
Del Re said that the spigot of foreign aid is too often only turned on when emergencies such as conflicts or natural disasters occur, rather than in times when the allocation of foreign aid can mitigate the causes that lead to emergencies.
“We have to focus on the potential, not only the problem,” she said. “Every day there is an epidemic, every day there is a climate disaster, every day there is a population suffering from discrimination and fleeing their country.
“We have to be prepared for emergencies, rather than act on the basis of emergencies,” she added.
For example, climate change is altering environments around the world in ways that primarily harm people living in extreme poverty. Rather than waiting for coastlines to be submerged or droughts to ravage agricultural belts, foreign aid should be spent on building up climate resilience and adaptation measures in vulnerable areas.
Similarly, Italy has been a strong champion of efforts to promote global health and prevent future epidemics. For example, the country has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to global vaccination efforts.
Although Italy often gets criticized for a hardline approach to migration, Del Re said that the country has saved hundreds of thousands of people in the Mediterranean Sea and is working on ways to resolve the underlying structural issues that force a person to migrate under perilous circumstances.
She also spoke about the need to improve global education programs for people in emergency settings, especially for girls and for people who are older than 18.
“There’s entire generations of young people who don’t study anymore and do not have access to universities,” she said. “This is something we have to take into close consideration, otherwise we don’t favor real growth for populations.”
Del Re has spent her career promoting peaceful transfers of power, robust education programs, and gender equality, and is confident that foreign aid around the world is undergoing a transformation beyond just Italy.
At the root of this, she said, is the increasingly interconnected nature of the world.
“In my view, one of the foundations of what we want to achieve in the future is to give everyone in the world an opportunity to be a global citizen,” she said.