By Gabriele Sutera writing from Copenhagen, Denmark
The preparation of the 4th Congress of South-North Mediterranean Dialogue (4-6 October) took more than 15 months, and to some extent, is the result of a process started in 1995 with the Declaration of Barcelona. The discussion was built on statements related to the development of rural regions based on four regional studies held in four different locations of the Mediterranean basin (Volos, Greece; Alexandria, Egypt; Montpellier, France; Rabat, Morocco). The congress was held in two locations: the magnificent and exclusive Palace Grand Hotel in Varese and the over-crowded EXPO in Milan. The two different locations set the ground for a congress marked by similarly contrasting opinions and visions.
What was the congress about and who was there?
The congress titled, “Rural Communities, No Longer Left Behind – Rural and Regional Development in the South and North Mediterranean and the New Neighborhood Policy” was organised by Fondation du Dialogue Sud-Nord Mediterranée and GFAR, in partnership with Bibliotheca Alexandrina and CIHEAM. The aim was to give voice, in an inclusive dialogue, to all stakeholders operating in the rural sector and contributing to the development of rural communities, at the national, regional and local levels within the Mediterranean area. A well balanced mix of stakeholders took part in the congress, including: representatives of intergovernmental organisations and NGOs, youth and women’s organisations, university lecturers and researchers, government representatives, and economists. The GFAR secretariat played a crucial role in supporting the participation of an active group of young professionals. The biggest Italian organisation representing farmers, Confagricoltura (CIA), was also present. Unfortunately, small organisations and the non-formal sector were not represented. For instance, during discussions the need of regulating the informal sector was pointed out. The presence of a representative from this category would have brought insights regarding the problematic faced by the informal sector and the reasons which drive actors to operate outside of policy frameworks. I saw this as a missed opportunity – an inclusive dialogue should first of all be a bottom up process, giving space to the smallest amidst the bigger actors.
How the discussion developed?
Madame Fatima Bensoltane, founder and president of Méditerravenir and Dr Mark Holderness, executive secretary of GFAR opened the conference. The first day was a preparatory step, an occasion to meet again, which developed into an intense day of formal meetings with Italian and euro-Mediterranean authorities. On the second day, after a quick round of presentation during a plenary session, the participants were sub-divided in four round tables: i) agriculture, natural resources and food security ii) investment, infrastructure and governance iii) opportunities for women and last but not least iv) opportunities for youth. The round tables provided an easier way to get to know each other and to proceed into a constructive dialogue which gave all the participants a voice within the discussion. Challenges and opportunities within each of the four tables were identified in the morning and translated into concrete actions during the afternoon session.
Which were the final outputs?
Each of the four tables synthesized their ideas and reported on their collaborative work at a plenary session. All the actors expressed the need to move forward toward systems which are more sustainable, inclusive and resilient, echoing a warning which has already been sounded by scientists – our lifestyles and values are causing the over-exploitation of our natural resources. Despite being designated different topics, the challenges and opportunities identified by all four tables converged toward similar statements, highlighting the multifunctionality of the agricultural sector, emphasizing that – it influences the management of natural resources, represents a source of revenue, and is a great depository of local knowledge and practices. On the other hand, the output showed the diversity of processes happening on the two shores of the Mediterranean basin; from one side, a tendency of young people to naturally move back to rural areas, and on the other side, a desire of abandoning rural areas, moving toward lifestyles which are consequential to the well established (and developing) consumption society. Ana Huertas, representative YPARD Spain, strongly expressed what young generations are looking for: a more sustainable society attentive to quality rather than quantity. However, the report of the youth session was almost forgotten when the moderation committee brought the attention back to the participants.
How to move forward?
I found the event a valuable occasion for integration and dialogue, however, the quick parade of meetings and discussions seemed to be too brief to settle a common ground for action. During the congress, terms such as “investment”, “growth”, “bilateral agreements” were often used to define actions for finding a way forward. However, these terms embody a paradigm which over the past decades seems to have failed to work. I believe that it is now the time to settle a new language. If we want to move forward, toward a new and revised paradigm of development, we need a vocabulary which embody the new ideas of young generations – one that is understood by the wide net of stakeholders who may still be constrained by the philosophy that underscores business as usual. Only with a new vocabulary will it be possible to move into action, finding synergies between those who have a new vision, decision makers and civil society. Furthermore, in order to avoid leaving behind communities, policy makers should accent communities’ potentials rather than their weaknesses and emphasize making differences and diversity an added value rather than an obstacle to collaboration. Trusting in dialogue and mutual understanding can provide a basis for moving forward. Marginalised groups, such as youth, women and small, remote communities need more space in such discussions to enable them to walk together toward new paradigms without leaving anybody behind.