Silvia Romano is the symbol of Italy’s international development cooperation: often forgotten and criticized, but of immense social value
By Paolo Sasdelli
As I rejoiced for the liberation of my Silvia Romano on Sunday afternoon, I was astonished by the different reactions to her release. From pure joy, to crude anger, from genuine interest to total indifference, her liberation split the nation into two parts.
Yet, Silvia is not only a common Italian citizen. She represents the face of Italian development cooperation abroad. When at the age of 23 you decide to embark on a journey in the poorest continent on earth to help the most vulnerable, you become the link between what your country does and spends in terms of international cooperation and the people it decides to help. Without aid workers like Silvia, many of our nation’s efforts to provide assistance abroad would be in vain.
Who is Silvia Romano?
Silvia Romano is a 25-year-old aid worker. She was captured in 2018 in Kenya, near the city of Malindi, and was freed in the night of May 9 by the Italian and Turkish secret services. She worked for an Italian NGO, Africa Milele, which — like many others — has programmes in Africa,Italy’s key priority when it comes to international development cooperation. She is the fourth hostage freed by Italian secret services between 2019 and 2020.
Her liberation sparked a ferocious debate, due to her conversion to Islam and the high ransom fee payed by the Italian government (between 2 to 4 million euros). However, such a dispute not only occurred within the traditional communication channels, such as news agencies, TV networks and social media, but also among the highest halls of government.
Italy’s development cooperation
However, no one has put the focus on the crucial contribution that aid workers like Silvia provide to people in need thanks to Italy’s development cooperation efforts.
In 2018, for instance, Italy ranked as the eighth-largest donor country among OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members, spending around 5 billion dollars. If we take a deeper look at the the numbers and analyze the situation of Italian NGOs operating in the sector, the share of Italian bilateral ODA channeled through NGOs between 2017 and 2018 was between 7% and 9%. This is public money that we annually provide to countries in need of assistance through organizations which translate these sums into concrete projects. In fact, a development cooperation programme which solely envisions top-down financing mechanisms with no actual collaboration with local communities or local ownership, does not merely evade the desired effects, but could actually worsen the situation on the ground. Organizations and aid workers often facilitate the efforts of state development agencies and become the missing link between donors and recipients, especially in those countries where the local governments are unable to fulfil their traditional role.
However, when we talk about Italy’s international development cooperation, and especially in terms of what aid workers like Silvia do, the Italian public opinion’s understanding of the matter is not crystal clear. According to an IPSOS survey taken before the 2017 Italian G7 summit, for instance, almost 80% of interviewees had no clue about Italy’s international assistance. The public perception of NGOs operating in international cooperation contexts is even more distorted. NGOs are portrayed at both the political and media levels, as low-accountability organizations being further cause of confict, if not directly linked to terrorist groups.
Yet, according to Open Cooperazione, Italian humanitarian NGOs lead the way in terms of accountability and transparency at the EU level. In 2018, as many as 49 organizations achieved a transparency rank of more than 95%, while in 2015 they were less than half. Today, 90% of NGOs with a budget of more than 1 million euros have a certified budget. Thus, numbers debunk such defamatory accusations and bring to light, once again, the state of the Italian social and political debate when it comes to international development cooperation.
A liberation of great significance
Every year, around 2 million Italians decide to take part to humanitarian projects overseas, either as volunteers or aid workers, putting their time and skills at the service of non-governmental organizations. In areas of conflict or high terrorist presence, kidnapping may occur, as it has become a regular pratice for terrorist organizations. This is, of course, something which some NGOs are not always prepared for, and for which they should seek more collaboration with government authorities. However, in general terms, their impact on international cooperation is and will continue to be enormous.
For this reason, Silvia Romano is the symbol of Italy’s international development cooperation: often forgotten and criticized, but of immense social value.
So we have to thank Silvia and, for the same reason, we should rejoice for her liberation, no matter the different, all legitimate perceptions we might have about her personal decisions. She has represented us silently around the world providing aid to those in need. Therefore, her return to Italy is of utmost significance and Silvia should only be welcomed with a sense of gratitude for her international civil service.
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