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IFAD’s Near East and North Africa Division (NEN) ended its annual “Reteat” in Tuscany yesterday with an endorsement of its draft Divisional Management Plan 2011 and a debate on the bottlenecks facing the division in various areas. Divided into five groups, the participants discussed the most pressing needs in areas extending from project design and supervision to COSOPs, grants policy, knowledge management and staffing issues as well as possible solutions.

The discussions, which were orchestrated by the Regional Economist, Mylene Kheralla, touched upon some key issues that require more in-house interaction, particularly within the Project Management Department. Such internal exchanges and dialogue would help ensure that the views of NEN are taken into consideration when decisions are taken on key initiatives such as the new COSOP guidelines. The Division Director, Nadim Khouri, explained that some of these questions and suggested course of action required further post-retreat discussions, underlining the importance of internal communication to foster a greater understanding of such issues within both the division and the department.

Following this early morning debate, the participants moved on to visit the commune of Cetona, a few kilometres south of Chianciano Terme, where they were received by Mayor Fabio di Meo at the town hall. The Mayor welcomed IFAD’s visitors and briefed them on the various territorial development activities that his municipality has undertaken with the support of EU’s LEADER programme and with the involvement of LAGs. Municipality experts gave PowerPoint presentations on some of these development activities, including the establishment of an infant day nursery, Il Cucciolo, and implementation of an extraordinary maintenance scheme at the public Library of Cetona.

In his statement, the NEN Director Nadim Khouri briefed the Mayor and his staff on the purpose of IFAD’s interventions and investments in support of socio-economic development activities in the NENA and CEN regions. He underlined the importance of learning form the various territorial development experiences undertaken by local authorities, public institutions, communes and the private sector in the Tuscan “regione”.

A practical example of the success of public-private partnerships in territorial development was given by the 800 hectars (2500 acres) Spineto farm estate, Abbazia di Spineto. The estate combines agricultural development, environmental protection and biodiversity conservation activities with tourism, conferences, cultural initiatives, promotion of better nutrition, research and aid programmes. The Retreat participants visited the Abbazia di Spineto, where they were received by representatives of the Siena Province and the owner and General Manager of the Abbazia, Dr Marilisa Cuccia. Dr Cuccia is an investor from Milan who had purchased the Abbazia while in a state of decay and began renovation works in 1994 with a view to bringing the farm estate back to its former glory in the middle ages.

The Abbazia di Spineto was founded in 1085 and represents a fine example of Italian and Tuscan monasticism. It was first placed under the dominion of the town of Orvieto (1120); but later became a protectorate of the Republic of Siena until it became part of the New State ruled by the Florentine duke Cosimo de’ Medici. In 1627 Pope Urbano VIII took it over and entrusted it to the Cistercian Order. It remained under the control of the Order until the abolition of the smaller monasteries in 1783. From that date onward it survived as a farm taken care of by Cistercian lay brothers and became a private property and has had a succession of owners since then.

Besides the productive activities, such as the production of olive oil, legumes, vegetables and fruits, Dr Cuccia explained the various projects she initiated as an expression of social commitment and for which the estate received the support of the EU and the public institutions of the Tuscan “regione”. These include, among others, the Nutritional Education project, which aims to combat child obesity; the Theatre Workshops programme for young people with psychological problems; the Stem Cell Research project for scientific research in the transplant of umbilical cord blood stem cells as a cure for leukaemia; and the aid programme beyond Italy in support of the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) through three main projects in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Abbazia has also established and hosts the non-profit cultural association, Associazione culturale Abbazia di Spineto incontri e studi. It also promotes biodiversity conservation by protecting fauna species such as the red fox, the wild boar, the roe deer and the common pheasant as well as flora species such as the broom, the young oak, the mountain maple, the juniper, and cornelian cherry.

In his statement, Director Khouri thanked Dr Cuccia for the briefing and hospitality and, above all, the opportunity to learn more about the ways and mechanisms used in decision making processes from Brussels to Siena via Rome, which help the emergence of working pubic-private partnerships such as this one in Spineto. He mentioned the importance of seeing how the concrete results achieved by such partnerships in terms of territorial development are helping to boost the socio-economic advancement of the region’s population.

During the lunch break at the Abbazia di Spineto, the division’s CEN Country Cluster, lead by Abdelkarim Sma, gave a presentation on its achievements in 2010 and plans for 2011. The cluster, which is responsible for one third of NEN’s lending programme in 2010-2012, reported a large number of operational results, including the delivery of US$33.5 million in new projects and highlighted the challenges laying ahead and the way it intends to meet these challenges.

The lunch break was followed by a presentation on Abbazia’s nutritional education “Mangiocando” project by its coordinator and nutritional expert, Dr Georgio Ciacci. Dr Ciacci explained how the programme helps educate some 150 participating children and their families about unhealthy eating habits and healthy alternatives found in the traditional local cuisine, with emphasis on the use of olive oil, legumes and vegetables. He said the programme also underlines the importance of rediscovery of how different crops growing in different terrains give rise to different eating and tasting habits.
At the end of the visit, Director Nadim khouri thanked Dr Ciacci for the presentation and Dr Cuccia and the representatives of the Siena Province for all the efforts they have exerted in making the visit a very fruitful learning and knowledge sharing experience for the IFAD Retreat participants. He expressed hope that such exchanges and the acquired knowledge would contribute to strengthening their capacity to initiate similar successful territorial development initiatives and public-private partnerships in their respective countries. Such innovation, he concluded, can boost efforts to help their poor rural communities grow out of poverty and achieve higher levels of progress and modernity.