The Milan Charter: What’s in it for West Africa?

By Donatella GnisciSahel and West Africa Club Advisor – Expo Milano 2015

The Milan Charter

If you agree that a lack of access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, clean water and energy goes against human dignity, will you join Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in signing the Milan Charter? The Charter, which is available in 19 languages, emphasises that one of the greatest ongoing challenges for humanity is feeding an ever-growing population, and doing so in participatory and inclusive ways, without harming the environment. To tackle this challenge, citizens, members of civil society, businesses, and local, national and international institutions, are invited to commit to safeguarding everyone’s right to food as a fundamental human right.

The Milan Charter is Expo Milano’s contribution to the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Through it, the Expo aspires to establish its central legacy. The Charter summarises a process of reflection that involved global experts and leaders. Together, they examined the linkages between development, equity and sustainability, urbanisation and agriculture, natural resources and biodiversity, health, waste and energy, and stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities. On the Charter’s website this complexity is broken down by topic, and by actor, so that readers can filter content and visualise the issues at hand, the rights that they refer to and the changes that the Charter argues are needed. These changes relate to prevailing production and consumption models, economic activities, political and citizen engagement and individual behaviours.

But what does the Milan Charter mean for West Africa? In my view, the Charter stresses three useful points.

1. In an increasingly urbanised world, agriculture is still of paramount importance.

The Charter reminds us that agriculture goes far beyond food production, involving landscape design, environmental and territorial protection, the sound management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation. As the West African regional agricultural policy adopted by ECOWAS in 2005 recognises, the transformation of agriculture in West Africa has important regional dimensions. This regional approach to agriculture is based on the complementarities between agro-ecological zones, the importance of intra-regional trade, the interest in creating larger markets for agricultural products and the desire to stabilise prices in a context of demographic and socioeconomic change. According to an OECD/SWAC study, agricultural producers accounted for 90% of the region’s population in 1950. By 2010, they made up only 50% of the population. Meanwhile, total agricultural production has increased fourfold over the last 30 years, while the importance of urban and peri-urban agriculture have both risen. For the Climate & Development Knowledge Network, urban and peri-urban agriculture have had positive effects on food security and resilience to climate shocks in West African cities, although their environmental impacts need more analysis. The production of primary commodities (e.g. cocoa, cotton, groundnuts and fishery products) coexists with a vibrant horticultural sector, reaching from Mauritania to Chad. However, challenges, capacities, market connectivity and opportunities vary across countries. So, signing the Charter will remind regional actors and partners that agriculture is crucial to West Africa’s sustainable development and food security, and that this makes the regional/national co-ordination of agriculture-related strategies, policies and programmes all the more important. The Charter rightly considers these within a broader context, where interventions in agriculture need to be linked to efforts to promote rural and urban development, improved natural resource management, and environmental protection.

2. Women’s empowerment and gender equality, and food and nutrition security are two sides of the same coin.

The Charter notes the lack of universal recognition of the fundamental role of women, especially in agricultural production and nutrition, and the unjustifiable inequalities in the possibilities, capabilities and opportunities of women and men in many spheres of life. West African countries rank poorly in the Gender Inequality Index calculated by the United Nations Development Programme: ranging from 119th for Ghana to 151st for Chad, out of 187 countries. Regional reduction of maternal mortality only reached 46% in 2014, meaning that the Millennium Development Goal 5’s target of  a 75% reduction by 2015 is beyond reach. Women’s empowerment is often a hot topic. It is presently high on the political agenda at the international level (2015 European Year for Development, the Sustainable Development Goals), on the continent (African Women’s Decade 2010-2020) and in West African countries (Beijing Platform for Action +20 implementation monitoring process). By signing the Charter, regional actors and partners will make their engagement in this complex agenda visible once more. What specific aspects should be prioritised in the West African context? How do we step up efforts to learn from experiences elsewhere?

3. Who is responsible, who is accountable?

The Charter gives a straightforward answer: We all have distinct but shared responsibilities to adopt sustainable behaviours, models of production and consumption, ways of using resources and approaches to waste disposal. Actions are proposed for individuals, economic actors and community members. The Charter points out that we are collectively responsible for holding political institutions that represent us accountable for inclusive decision-making, which must both benefit people and the planet. Institutions should commit to the adequate co-ordination of policies, programmes and efforts for resource mobilisation. This approach resonates well with the Global Alliance for Resilience (AGIR) – Sahel and West Africa. Under the political leadership of ECOWAS and UEMOA, AGIR has nurtured multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and multi-level approaches and partnerships, strengthening the resilience of West African people.

Amartya Sen signing the Milan CharterIn adding his signature to the Charter, Professor Sen reminded us that hunger “is above all an economic, political, cultural and health care problem”. That raises a compelling question: What is each and every one of us doing to solve it?

Donatella Gnisci, SWAC Advisor – Expo Milano 2015

26 May 2015

2 thoughts on “The Milan Charter: What’s in it for West Africa?

  1. The Charter was again presented at the International Agricultural Forum on 4-5 June 2015. “From Expo 2015 and Beyond: Agriculture to Feed the Planet” was attended by over 50 ministers and 370 delegates from 115 countries. President Mattarella (Italy) and Luiz Inàcio da Silva (former President of Brazil, now President of the Lula Institute) signed the Charter, along with many Ministers and other participants. More information on this event is available here (in Italian):–l-international-agricultural-forum-a-expo-milano-2015

Leave a Reply