ECONOMIC REFLECTIONS ON AFRICA Interview with Mariarosaria Iorio, political analyst

For the last couple of years Mariarosaria has been travelling all over Africa delivering
training courses. We were curious to learn more about what is happening at the grassroots
level. Our local perspective and what is happening in the field are not the same. She has also
published a lot of articles on different economic issues and we have had the pleasure and
honour of publishing them in this journal.
Q: What is your background?
I was trained as a political scientist and specialized later in economic policy. I was the head of office for a network of women organizations located here in Geneva. In this capacity, I followed in particular the talks of the World Trade Organization and economic discussions from a civil society point of view, taking into account the impact that trade and commerce could have on social policy and women’s issues. The topics were, for instance: how trade liberalization can adversely affect women’s employment. There are no definitive conclusions, but there are sectors that are more vulnerable than others, and where the job losses would mainly concern women. The textile industry is one of them.
Q: It is often said that too many women in a profession make wages stagnate.
I would rather say that it is the fact that women are often employed in labour-intensive industries requiring little or no qualifications. These jobs are not well paid. Women accept less qualified jobs, because these are the ones that provide rapid employment opportunities. They are often precarious with low wages. Since women are also in charge of managing family affairs ‒‒ pregnancy, children and the family situation ‒‒ in many cases they work in areas where wages are low and the working conditions are the least favourable.
Q: You now work as an expert for the European Union. Could you tell us about what you do?
I am a trainer on procedures for the awarding of grants by the European Development Fund for Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific. I work in an environment that was fixed by the Cotonou Agreement covering 2000 to 2020, and there is a programme that covers three- to five-year periods. Normally, funding is given to countries with respect to their performance. I would say that it is not too difficult to obtain these funds, but the planning of activities may take time. However, I do think that the EU is the institution and the organization that best structures the disbursement of funds and assistance.
Q: How does it work in practice?
There is an agreement between a country and the European Union, to which there is an overall package covering the implementation of the Cotonou Agreement. This started in 2000 and we are now entering the eleventh phase.
The Cotonou Agreement resulted from the Lomé Agreement, which defined market access for African, Caribbean and Pacific products reaching European. The first Lomé Convention (Lomé I), which came into force in April 1976, was designed to provide a new framework for cooperation between the then European Community (EC) and developing African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. It had two main aspects. Firstly, it provided for most ACP agricultural and mineral exports to enter the EC free of duty. Preferential access based on a quota system was agreed for products, such as sugar and beef, which competed with European agriculture. Secondly, the EC committed €3 billion for aid and investment in ACP countries. It is an agreement which takes place at the commercial level. The agreement was later amended.
The Cotonou Agreement is aimed to reduce and eventually eradicate poverty, while contributing to sustainable development and to the gradual integration of ACP countries into the world economy.
Q: Do you think that there is a big difference between what you see in the field and the perception we have here.
The African economies are similar to one another. They are based on agricultural products; part of the production is consumed locally while the rest is exported. There is economic growth, but it’s perhaps not strong enough to support regional trade. I think that one should not attack the rules and regulations, but rather to think outside the box. One should imagine new structures, an approach that would permit the country to think in new terms, with more emphasis on sub-regional and regional cooperation.
Obviously, you can have a lot of ideas but the reality on the ground is more nuanced, more complex, and here we have all the tools and the instruments. I think the main issue is perhaps the lack of willingness to see reality as it is, and to make projections of these realities.
Obviously, there are countries that advance. They have made progress but they cannot move alone. We must also take into consideration what is happening at the regional level. What happens in Mali, for example, has a direct effect on Mauritania and other neighbouring countries. I think it is not enough to talk about a country; it is better to speak of the region or the sub-region ‒‒ to have a holistic overview.
You definitely need to look at the regional and sub-regional perspective and then consider solutions and options that may, for instance, imply a stronger and more powerful African Union, as well as other stronger organizations. On these points there’s no discussion. One of the problems is the fact that the system is fragmented by different regional organizations.
Q: You’re saying that we should make a regional study.
In my opinion yes. It should start from a national level, then go on to the regional perspective and then achieve a logical regional overview. An in-depth analysis should determine areas that would be profitable for each country.
Q: For a country like Senegal, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) decided that the mango was a privileged product for export. What do you think about that?
The mango is an agricultural product and not a product that you can transform. In my opinion, agricultural products do not have much future. I think the future lies in innovation and the transformation of goods using a more industrial approach. The potential for agricultural production for a whole country seems a bit limited, while there are other areas, such as the service industry, which are neglected. There are countries in the region that have tremendous tourist potential, but so far this has been completely ignored. There are areas that relate to the arts, for instance, that have been neglected. I believe that there is much potential that is completely unexplored. I think that the future lies in thinking outside the box, outside the traditional debates and discussions that we have had in the past. There are other areas, such as the textile and fashion industry, and others that are also completely ignored. That is where the future lies in my humble opinion.
Q: We must create industries and enterprises?
Yes, it must be transformation in a different scale. I have not carried out any detailed case studies, but I see and strongly believe that there is much potential in many sectors. However, going back to your initial question about the difference between what is happening on the ground and our perception in Europe, there is indeed a huge difference. We do not hear about the new emerging sectors ‒‒ the debate remains the same. We do see, however, that there is a dynamic trend on the ground.
Q: What do you think is the main problem?
In my opinion, the main problem is not about creating wealth but rather about its distribution. There is a lot of wealth and there are people who know how to exploit it. What is required is to find a way to redistribute it. It’s quite clear that only a tiny minority benefit from this wealth. The question that one may ask is: Do national politics take this into account? I mean the creation of health and education services and infrastructures that benefit the whole community. Despite all this, I tend to be optimistic because there is economic growth, and things are indeed moving ‒‒ there are micro-initiatives on the ground. People are gifted and dynamic and often manage to do things without the assistance of anybody. I’m pessimistic when it comes to the fact that the growth does not benefit the whole population.