What's Bedeviling Africa

Interview With Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, New Apostolic Nuncio to U.N. in Geneva

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ROME, JULY 11, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The new apostolic nuncio to the United Nations in Geneva said the mass phenomenon of clandestine immigration to the West calls for reflection on its causes.



"In European newspapers over the last few days, in particular in Italy, much space is being given to boats brimming with desperate people who disembark on Italian coasts," said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi. "However, the underlying question is eluded, namely, why is this mass phenomenon taking place?"

Over the past seven years, the archbishop, 63, a Missionary of St. Charles, has been apostolic nuncio in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Previously, he carried out his ministry in the United States and worked for the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers.

In Rome, on his way to take up his new post in Geneva in September, the archbishop talked about the current debates over immigration.

Q: What is the answer to the underlying question posed by clandestine immigration?

Archbishop Tomasi: We are facing a structural phenomenon. In Africa there is hunger, political oppression, corruption, a society that impedes an acceptable quality of life, a backward agriculture and an economic development that seems an illusion. Young people, but not only them, see no reasons for hope.

I can give the example of Eritrea: At present, there is a great drought, there is hunger in the villages, potable water is lacking, and all this is taking place in a very harsh sociopolitical context. What can people hope for? Escape. They go to Sudan, cross the desert until they reach Libya, hoping to find passage to Malta or Italy, knowing that they can die on the way.

Q: Are you not describing a desperate continent?

Archbishop Tomasi: Look, the little boats that arrive on the coasts of Italy are only the tip of the iceberg of a very serious situation. And, if Africa is allowed to go under, the consequences will be paid not just by Africans, but also by Europeans.

Q: But, what can be done for Africa? Over these years hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid has been sent and the social and economic condition of Africa, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, has worsened.

Archbishop Tomasi: The situation is very complex and I don't think there are miraculous prescriptions. Undoubtedly we must reflect on the strange -- I would even say perverse -- mechanism which has been applied until now.

Developed countries and the World Bank have sent much aid to Africa. But all this has been channeled through the states, generally dominated by one ethnic group to the detriment of the others. Thus, a certain "African state ownership" has been nourished, which has impeded growth and the civil society's participation.

Although I believe that the level of solidarity must be maintained, developed countries must plan this solidarity seriously, harmonizing it with the efforts of African countries. From this point of view, it is important to value the commitment of some African governments that, through NEPAD [The New Partnership for Africa's Development], attempt to promote a process of democratization of society.

Q: Speaking of democracy, it cannot be said that there are no elections given the plurality of parties in Africa, and yet ...

Archbishop Tomasi: Democratization consists in breaking the vicious circle that impedes the participation of people and that has its foundation in power based on ethnic groups.

I stress: In Africa there is a state ownership that gives no space for the expression of civil society; there is a blockage that we ourselves experience, as Christians. Churches are seen as many NGOs which offer social assistance, but have no space as part of civil society.

In this way, they are impeded from developing their mission, which is carried out in education: education in responsibility, in the family, etc. If this cultural root is pulled up, if development is not given a soul, force ends up by justifying everything.

Q: Don't you think that in this situation many Catholic leaders, who in the last decades have reduced the mission and socio-charitable activity, have a grave responsibility?

Archbishop Tomasi: I think this is a challenge, not only for Catholics but for all Christian churches. Experience shows that the more we are Church, the more we help the African continent. When we are content to work simply as economists and sociologists, we least favor development.

Q: You will soon begin to work in U.N. organizations committed to the struggle against poverty. What will you contribute to the situation being experienced in Africa?

Archbishop Tomasi: I still don't know what specific issues I will be involved with, but the experience of these years will certainly help me to give a concrete and realistic dimension to the problems being discussed.

I have come to two conclusions. The first is that law and the economy cannot confront one another by neglecting participation.

In the second place, I have understood that special sensibility toward poor countries is closely linked to a concern for the development and peace of rich countries.

This factor finds its full explanation in the Christian experience, as the sense of solidarity stems from awareness of the human family. And this is necessarily translated in concrete decisions.