Italy aligns itself with the statement made by the European Union and wishes to add a few remarks in a national capacity.
We welcome the Commission’s focus this year on empowerment as an instrument of social development. As the Secretary-General points out, empowerment is also closely related to poverty eradication, full employment and decent work, and social integration. These are the three issues we wish to address, with an emphasis on poverty eradication, an area where Italy has addressed growing challenges with innovative responses.
Let us begin with the way the financial and economic crisis affected Europe. The sovereign debt crisis in the Euro area that followed forced many countries – including Italy – to adopt austerity measures to win back the confidence of the financial markets. While these measures were needed, they left a very limited room for increased social spending.
In Italy there was a 2.5 million increase in 2011 of cases of severely materially deprived people, climbing from 6.9% to 11.2% of the population – the largest such increase in the European Union. The relative risk of poverty increased from 18.2% to 19.6%. The long-term unemployment rate, after years of downward trends, jumped from 2.9% in 2007 to 4.4% in 2011. Youthful unemployment is at a historical high.
In the Italian context, two very important components of our social safety net are the family and charitable organizations, but our welfare state is ill-equipped to address the needs of the most vulnerable. Italy has no national form of income support of last resort once unemployment benefits have expired. There are measures at the local level, but social services vary widely from region to region and have limited resources. Traditionally, our services do not focus on the empowerment of the poor.
The current Government was installed on a short-term basis to address the sovereign debt crisis, and was thus unable to launch a large-scale national anti-poverty program. Nevertheless, it is preparing to test an innovative program to redesign the so-called “social card” in the 12 largest cities of the country. The social card, first introduced in late 2008, is a prepaid debit card for the purchase of food and the payment of utility bills. In the new program, income support will be increased as part of a more general personalized project to empower the recipients.
Through a network of local services, the program will offer access to resources as well as help in finding jobs, training opportunities, school activities for children, and healthy lifestyle counseling. The personalized project will address various dimensions of the well-being of the subject, who will be required to commit to the agreed-on actions. It is a conditional transfer program that will start out as a one-year pilot program subject to evidence-based evaluation.
Our efforts also include smaller-scale projects, for example, to help children at risk of separation from their families by empowering the parents. We realize that the best way to help people in need is to give them the opportunity to permanently leave their condition behind. A fresh approach and an integrated effort by public services, involving local communities, can prevent the poor from becoming long-term clients and help them find their own way in society.
Employment and decent work are critical instruments of empowerment, especially of groups that have traditionally faced discrimination and marginalization. Italy is a strong supporter of the International Labour Organization (ILO) efforts to advance the decent work agenda worldwide. The training of key stakeholders – such as policy makers, representatives of the private sector, and social partners – plays a key role in this strategy. With the support of Italy, the International Training Center, the training arm of the ILO, is implementing programmes in North Africa, Somalia, and Myanmar.
Social protection policies are fundamental means of empowering people. In times of crisis, they also play a pivotal role in stabilizing aggregate demand and increasing resilience to economic shock, and in promoting social integration in the long term. This is why Italy is a traditional sponsor of the United Nations’ Social Protection Floor Initiative. Last June we supported the ILO’s adoption of a recommendation to establish and maintain social protection floors as a fundamental element of national social security systems. We call upon member States to give follow-up to this recommendation at the domestic level.
Italian Development Cooperation is taking an approach that is also focused on empowerment, as exemplified in the 2011 “Guidelines against poverty.” The Guidelines call for the participation of marginalized groups in the planning, implementation and monitoring of poverty reduction programmes, especially at the local level. They also recommend the participation of women’s organizations in the planning of programmes, and also the promotion of programmes to redress gender inequality, thus recognizing the extraordinary potential of women in the fight against poverty.
Observation of these principles will help development cooperation programmes to significantly strengthen social cohesion and, in the long term, break the cycle of poverty, as confirmed by our cooperation experience in Sub-Saharan African, particularly in Senegal.
To build an environment in which people can express their full potential and actively participate in the development of their societies, human rights and fundamental freedoms must be promoted and respected. This is why Italy is such a strong supporter of a rights-based approach to empowerment.