The “Last Mile”

In an article first published by Ilsussidiario.net, Secretary General of AVSI Alberto Piatti reveals a potential gap between international cooperation systems and the persons they hope to reach.

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The international community—following a path marked by the series of international conferences in the 1990s: Rio de Janeiro on Environment and Development, 1992, the twentieth anniversary of which was celebrated this year with the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development; Cairo on Population and Development, 1994; Beijing on Women, 1995; Copenhagen on Social Development, 1995; Istanbul on Human Settlements (Habitat II), 1996—has pledged to create a “better world”. That commitment has been translated synthetically and symbolically into the eight Millennium Goals to be achieved by 2015: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV / AIDS, malaria and other diseases; guarantee environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development. This is the “social infrastructure” that the international community has defined for itself.

However, it has become clear that these goals will not be met by the deadline, due to both immediate economic reasons – the recent financial and food crises—as well as to the larger structural problem in the current conception of aid. Even if these goals had been met, experience tells us that social infrastructure in itself is not enough: a further link is needed between the individual and the infrastructure (an access point, a gateway, a hub). As this link inevitably depends upon personal initiative, it proves to be the point of weakness for those people who are most vulnerable and those living in informal areas, cut off from the system.

The task of creating relationships with the most fragile people has historically been taken up by the community to which they belong. Still, to make this social infrastructure solid it is necessary that the relationship becomes systematic: the community organizes its own utilities and services, intermediate bodies and civil society organizations (CSOs). These allow each person, even the most fragile, to “latch on” to a community and thus to the social infrastructure. In other words, the “last mile” in the road of social infrastructure is built and maintained by civil society organizations.

Note: this inclusive relationship brings an added richness to society and to the community: that of the persons who would otherwise be excluded. Generally perceived as a “social cost” or “burden”, the fragile classes of society—developing populations and minorities—become instead a true resource for the future, especially for our world in the midst of a crisis and in search of new paradigms to move forward again. In order for this to happen, there must be an inclusive growth which strengthens intermediate bodies and does not discount their fundamental role of being the last mile to reach each person.

Four critical points direct the way on this path:

  1. CSOs must continue to be an expression of a constituency, a community. Today they are often seen as social mechanisms, but this would only add more pieces to the infrastructure, separating it all the more from the person. A CSO truly serves the role of a hub only if it belongs to the community, sharing its values and serving as an expression of the community. Depersonalizing the organizations would mean reducing it to a part in a mechanism.

  2. CSOs must remain in their role as a link between the person and society. If they step away from this task, instead identifying themselves with the roles of ‘policy-maker’ or ‘watchdog’ (patrolling social infrastructure), they distance themselves from the community and from the person. They become something else. Even if this kind of conceptual contribution from CSOs were able to improve the social infrastructure, the price of detaching themselves from the community and from the role of being the link between the person and society will be the self-collapse of the CSO.

  3. CSOs must become more and more qualified in the provision of real services to the person and continually improve their management capacity.

  4. The policies and programs that make up the social infrastructure must acknowledge that, in order to accomplish their fundamental mission, they cannot neglect the “last mile”, which, however, cannot be fulfilled by the infrastructure itself. If this recognition is lacking, the last mile remains untraveled.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the inborn and innate dignity of every human being, which can be at most veiled by poverty, disease, or hunger. Without the rediscovery of this innate dignity that makes each person a unique protagonist in front of the mystery of life, real social development cannot begin. For this, we do not need a kind of Statalist system at the international level, claiming to resolve all of our problems. We must, instead, promote the different forms of free association, locally-motivated problem solving, and organizations that provide services for the person and for the common good. These organizations should be valued because they are an expression of the mystery of human existence. The tendency of the current system of delivering development aid through mere budget support—the direct funding of governments—does not support those civil society organizations that have been operating effectively on the ground before the government, as it is conceived of today, existed.

This is especially true for the African continent. An approach of subsidiarity would call for the international community to recognize that the purpose of their presence is to be that last mile necessary to ensure that the person is the origin and purpose of all actual social infrastructures. As mentioned in the Pope’s recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need”.

Pope John Paul II, in the 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, cited Father Orione, writing: “Now is the time for a new creativity in charity”. Attempting to exercise this “creativity”, international cooperation for development can no longer be segmented into different sectors and organizations, but should be an integrated, systematic cooperation in which institutions, non-profits, companies and researchers all work together within their distinct roles. These are the four pillars that must support the platform of cooperation for the third millennium.