Interview with Romano Prodi, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Sahel

Romano Prodi, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Sahel. UN Photo/Ryan Brown

27 June 2013 – In October, 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi as his Special Envoy for Africa's Sahel, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and includes Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and parts of Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria. The region faces a complex of problems that include not only political instability, most notably in Mali, but also endemic poverty, lack of resources and infrastructure, porous borders that allow trafficking of all kinds, and multiple human rights issues.

To help the region emerge from such severe challenges, Mr. Prodi, who in addition to serving twice as Prime Minister was President of the European Commission from 1999 to 2005, has been working closely across the UN system to develop an Integrated Regional Strategy for the Sahel. For that purpose, he has also been consulting widely with countries in the region, regional and sub-regional bodies and international partners. We spoke to Mr. Prodi yesterday ahead of his briefing to the UN Security Council on the strategy, as annexed to the latest report of the Secretary-General on the Sahel.

UN News Centre: For the people wVery simply, without a regional strategy there is no hope of development. With the regional strategy there is hope to link the Sahel to the new, promising Africa.ho have not followed the issue closely, why is it so important for the Sahel’s problems to be addressed right now?

Romano Prodi: Because this is a great area, geographically enormous, the poorest of Africa with different countries that have not always been not in connection with each other but that have porous borders. The borders are out in the desert. It is time to make a plan of cooperation of all the five entirely Sahel countries. Otherwise, they will never have the economical scale, the connection or the strength to develop.

UN News Centre: How do the problems of Mali fit into those of the larger region?

Romano Prodi: They fit, because if we don’t solve them, the whole region will be uneasy. It will be impossible to have a sound economic development if there is a war. The refugees are everywhere, the fear is everywhere and the movement of terrorists are everywhere, so we better understand that this is not just Mali, this effects the wider area.

UN News Centre: Endemic poverty, terrorism, illicit trafficking and other threats have been described as some of the factors that have put the region in danger. What are the most difficult demographic and hard physical problems that exacerbate these?

Young girls eat a mid-day meal at a WFP school feeding centre in Guidam Makadam, Niger. Photo: WFP/P. Behan

Romano Prodi: Well, demographically, you know that the median age of these countries is the lowest in the world. The rate of birth is very, very high and so the ratio between population and resources is always in tension. There is always the possibility to have some people who would be unable to be fed or in other ways have tragic moments. So we have to change completely the economic structure of the area – how food and natural resources are distributed and how with increased cooperation we can have the dimension to start some industrial activity. Not only poor agricultural and mining, but modern agriculture and also some manufacturing.

UN News Centre: But realistically are the problems surmountable?

Romano Prodi: Yes, they are because we find skilled intelligent people there. There is water, if well-managed with the most modern technologies. We have started a plan for distributing electrical power to all the houses with solar energy. Of course, for all this you need international resources. The centre of our plan is, let us say, some sort of revolution.

I went travelling all over the world asking for engagement. There were those that were not openly committed, but interested and I found that there was a preference for indirect engagement, let’s say. So we’ve proposed to the Security Council to try to raise a fund, a special fund that would not only be money, as always, but also in kind.

Let’s say if the Chinese decide, because they have an overproduction of solar energy, of solar machinery, to take responsibility for a wide solar energy plan for the Sahel, they will do it. If the Germans want to build seven hospitals, they will do it. So you create some sort of virtuous competition. You decrease the cost of management on these projects and you speed up the projects.

UN News Centre: Over the years various United Nations organs have spoken of the need to integrate security, development and human rights concerns. What are some of the greatest obstacles to such integration?

A mother with her severely malnourished child in the Sahel region. Photo: UNICEF/Chad/2012/C Tidey

Romano Prodi: Well, the greatest obstacle is the war at this moment. When you have the war, you have first of all violence. Second, you have refugees and so the burden on the humanitarian people is beyond any expectation. I have to say that my mandate has nothing to do with the military aspect of that, but I suffer the consequences of the war. The work of the humanitarian people is more and more difficult and the furthest security is not guaranteed even if the most part of the North has been made free. People don’t go back. Very few people go back because we need political agreements to make people accept to go home or safe to go home.

UN News Centre: Well, as you mentioned politics, in the area of governance, how can a regional strategy help?

Romano Prodi: First of all because it gives hope. Very simply, without a regional strategy there is no hope of development. With the regional strategy there is a hope to link the Sahel to the new, promising Africa. Somebody is talking about renaissance; I don’t dare to use this word. But there is something new in the continent, and I want to link the Sahel with the development of the continent. And then this will be pushed automatically.

UN News Centre: How does the exploitation and management of natural resources fit into the effort?

Mothers wait to have their children assessed and weighed at the Bargadja theraputic feeding centre in Niger's Maradai Region. Photo: WFP/Phil Behan

Romano Prodi: Well, natural resources help, but please let us not think that a country can live on them. You can live on them only shortly. My hope for Africa is when I see countries like Ethiopia that have grown 7 per cent for many years without oil, without substantial natural resources. Clearly natural resources in the beginning are very useful. But in the space of few years, they need to be complemented by some other economic industry, such as modern agriculture and manufacturing. But this can happen only if you start now with technical school programmes preparing people for that. Otherwise, there is no hope, because the competition is too strong.

UN News Centre: In the area of security, will the borders always remain porous to some extent?

Romano Prodi: The borders? How can you say borders when you have a desert? You have one country on one side of a dune and another country on the other side, and you can’t distinguish them. This is why you need a common policy. These are areas in which not only the borders are mobile, but people are mobile too. When you talk with many of them, they don’t define themselves as Malians or Chadians, but as men of the desert. Some live for 20 years in Egypt or in Mali or vice-versa. You have to take account of this peculiar area. This is why you have to also increase economic relations. If you look at inter-Sahelian trade now, it is absolutely miserable.

UN News Centre: How much of your work in this effort uses your diplomatic skills as opposed to your management skills of getting agencies to work together?

Romano Prodi: I have to divide them both. Without diplomacy, without very difficult and complicated diplomatic work, I won’t find any money and if I don’t find money, no way! The other part of the job is to try to put people together. But the big obstacle is a lack of confidence. I am insisting that the international community must guarantee that agreements that are made must be implemented. We have too many cases of agreements made and not implemented. And so confidence is very low.

UN News Centre: In that context, how has your experience on the Sahel differed from your work at the national level in Italy and at the regional level in the European Union?

Mr. Prodi briefs the Security Council on on the situation in the Sahel region (26 Jun '13). Credit: UNTV

Romano Prodi: The difference is enormous. Apart from the literal level of personal income, wealth and economic activity, if you look at intra-European trade in spite of the existence of China, Brazil and so on, it’s very, very high. The integration among European countries is high and the integration among Sahelian countries is low. When you want to go quickly from one country in the Sahel to another and you have to go through Paris, there is something wrong.

UN News Centre: Finally, what efforts should be priority in Mali to most strongly support regional development?

Romano Prodi: Well, in Mali we must have presidential elections. But then, we must have all other elections, what we call political elections, because we need to have elected representatives of the different areas so that they can live together. We must create and maintain a very delicate equilibrium and this cannot be done by the presidential election. The presidential election is the first step because you need a responsible and strong interlocutor. But then we must have the provincial and local elections, in which we define all the local rights and nuances that are necessary to have peaceful coexistence among peoples.

UN News Centre: Mr. Prodi, thank you very much.