The Messina area is located in the north-east of Sicily (Italy) and lies under a context of serious socio-economic degradation: Sicily in 2018 had the highest unemployment rate in Italy of 21.5%. About 22.5% of families live below the relative poverty line and 19.2% of the economy is reported to be black and illegal, putting Sicily among the last positions in European socio-economic rankings.
The Community Foundation of Messina was created in 2010 to promote social justice and sustainable economic and human development by designing, experimenting, and promoting new socio-economic policies inspired by Amartya Sen’s “capability approach”. Given the irreducible complexity and multidimensionality of poverty and inequality, policies must necessarily be complex and must involve structural actions: the Foundation, indeed, believes that its transformative capacity within its community and beyond is deeply related to its ability to embrace at the same time all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as being strongly interconnected and interdependent.
The Foundation works therefore on creating fruitful interconnections among the welfare, culture, production, research and technology systems and today leads a wide social economy cluster made of foundations, social enterprises, associations, etc. On the one side, this cluster runs programmes capable of generating viable opportunities of knowledge, social relations, housing, income, and employment for materially and culturally disadvantaged beneficiaries and, on the other side, it deploys individual and community social support services that aim at aiding those beneficiaries to fully understand the new alternatives, thus allowing them to recognise and grasp those more suitable for their own well-being.
In ten years, the Foundation has been able to deploy:
- personalised social support programmes for over 700 people, within articulated programmes that generate for them alternatives in the main areas of human “functionings”;
- thousands of children and adolescents of all ages, many of them in educational poverty, have benefited from the Foundation’s educational programmes;
- actions for the development of a social and solidarity-based economy and the promotion of Sustainable Consumption and Production principles: it has supported and/or financed the start-up and/or consolidation phase of about 120 companies and micro-enterprises (in the renewable energy, technological innovation, design and fashion and food industry sectors), corresponding to over 400 jobs created and/or consolidated, out of which almost 100 are for highly disadvantaged people;
- technology transfer programmes (for instance, it has developed a prototype for micro-generation of energy from marine currents and a prototype of third generation photovoltaic cells for energy production from organic and non-organic dyes, etc.);
- the renovation and re-functionalisation of 6 highly valuable environmental and architectural/monumental areas, that were abandoned or had been confiscated from the Mafia;
- high quality cultural productions, attracting external creative talents and developing local ones (for instance, it has created the first contemporary art museum in Messina, renovating a historic lighthouse built during the Roman empire).
One example of a programme combining several actions is the “Capacity” programme deployed in the local slum in Messina, a highly marginalised area, created after the 1908 earthquake and where over 2,000 families still live, with an average life length which is up to 7 years lower than the one in the rest of the city. People here tend to get trapped by their need to survive and may consequently not have the courage to ask for changes and/or act on them. Their expectations are crushed, without any ambition, to the few things considered “possible” and achievable. Disillusionment distorts the imagination, the expression of desires and slows down positive behaviours aimed at exiting the condition of poverty and deprivation.
Here, the Community Foundation together with the Municipality has implemented a complex programme to take about 200 families (about 600 people, including many children) out of the slum. The programme is implementing a policy working on several axes (housing, education, job integration, etc.).
More specifically, an area of 2,500 m2 of slum is being completely renovated. The crumbling shacks have been demolished and a public park and new eco-friendly buildings are being built by the Foundation, adopting the most advanced technologies like co-housing experiences for disadvantaged people and providing common spaces and services for the local community. These buildings have also created an Energy Community, allowing local users to produce, store and self-consume solar energy. The programme designed two main housing solutions for families getting out of the slum, who could not be hosted in the new buildings: the first solution consists in the purchase of houses on the private market by the Municipality, which then assigns these to the beneficiaries through a participatory process, while keeping the ownership. The second option includes the assignment of a so-called “personalised empowerment capital”: a lump-sum amount assigned to the beneficiary as contribution for the purchase of his own house on the private market, to be often integrated with a loan. In this solution, the beneficiary becomes therefore a house owner.
As the beneficiaries come from a very deprived socio-economic background, they have been accompanied by the technical and social experts of the Foundation to fully understand the two options that were offered, in order to be fully aware of the implications of those options (for instance, all the technicalities of the loan) and allowing them to make a conscious choice according to their own personal preference.
This is the example of a participatory approach that has engaged the final beneficiaries in the co-design of the solution, by offering them more than one standardised option to choose among (expanding their capabilities, according to Amartya Sen’s approach) and supporting them in fully understanding the potential choices in order to let them take a conscious decision.
In this way they can regain decision-making power on an important variable of their life and, hopefully, this will also trigger a change in their mental approach, allowing them to regain also the ability to dream of a better future and act for it.