Fast Company

The Poverty Problem: Field Notes From a Global Summit in Rimini, Italy

Rimini, Italy is the site each fall of a conference that is a kind of Clinton Global Initiative for Europe, without Bill Clinton -- a meeting that tackles a single urgent topic over four days. This year’s topic is "le ragioni de penia," the reasons for poverty.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in Rimini, Italy, although I’d come a quarter the way around the globe to get there; my puzzlement aside, it’s a lovely spot to spend the weekend.

Rimini is the kind of small, surprising Italian city that most Americans never hear of, but that feels instantly comfortable. It’s a resort town on Italy’s east coast, with a wide flat beach running for miles, the gray Adriatic Sea on one side, and dozens of hotels, bars and restaurants on the other. It’s like a lot of east coast beach towns in the U.S., with signs in Italian.

In October, Rimini is a ghost town — the cabanas and clubs that give it a reputation as one of Italy’s all-night summer party towns have closed for the winter, and many of the hotels are literally shuttered.

Rimini is also the site each fall of a conference that is a kind of Clinton Global Initiative for Europe, without Bill Clinton — a meeting that tackles a single urgent topic over four days from lots of different perspectives.

The conference — this is the 34th year — gets a fair amount of attention in Italy and Europe (parts of it are broadcast live on Italian national TV), but almost none in the U.S. It’s put on by the Pio Manzu Centre, whose current leadership includes Mikhail Gorbachev, Gary Hart, and nuclear physicist and Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia (with CERN). Pio Manzu attracts an eclectic range of personalities — Sharon Stone came a few years ago, Angelina Jolie famously cancelled last year because she was pregnant, and there are always a few Nobel Laureates and senior European officials wandering the spectacular lobby of Rimini’s Grand Hotel, plus a seasoning of journalists and passionate European intellectuals.

This year’s topic is “le ragioni de penia,” the reasons for poverty. Four days of public sessions on “the conscience of prosperity,” and the need for “a new moral economy.”

There will be more discussion about the faces, causes, costs and solutions to poverty in this four days than there has been in a year of nonstop U.S. presidential campaigning.

The conference is also an occasion on which the Italian government and Pio Manzu confer medals from the Italian government on people they think are deserving. How each year’s medal winners are chosen is mysterious; the choices are, to use an old-fashioned word, catholic.

This year, the medalists include Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Asma al-Assad, and James Heckman. Rasmussen is the prime minister of Denmark, al-Assad is the first lady of Syria, Heckman is a University of Chicago economist who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2000. And then there’s me. This year, I too am a Pio Manzu medalist — editor-at-large of Fast Company, author of a single, pretty-good book about Wal-Mart, but not in the same league as, say, Jim Heckman.

So you can understand my puzzlement. In fact, when the Pio Manzu Centre first sent me an email back in April, I told them I would be delighted to come to Rimini in October to receive my medal from the Italian Parliament but, um, were they quite sure they had the right Charles Fishman?

They were sure. And there I was.

* * * *

It’s an unusual moment to be talking about poverty. The global financial unraveling has literally wiped away something like half the world’s wealth — in stock market and real estate terms. The truly poor — people who live on less than $1 or $2 a day, plus what their farming and animals provide — can be forgiven some bemusement at the wailing as rich people become less rich every passing day.

With the major nations of the world obsessed with preventing the money economy from deflating completely, how much attention and assistance is there left for the truly poor? At the same time, according to one speech at this year’s Pio Manzu conference, the number of truly poor has increased by 100 million — one-third the population of the U.S. — in just the last year. Just as the needs leap, the resources to meet them shrivel.

There was little optimism in Rimini, even from a group of people who wrestle with the problems of poverty all the time.

Marcela Villarreal, an expert on food production in poor regions who works for the UN, pointed out that rising food prices should help poor farmers — giving them better prices for the crops they grow. Then she displayed a graph showing two inflation rates over the last 18 months: the price of food, and the price of the commodities like fertilizer and fuel that you need to grow food. The price of the “inputs” is growing three or four times faster than the price of food is rising.

Miguel Benasayag, an Argentine philosopher and psychoanalyst now based in Paris, was the model of the Latin-American-Parisian intellectual. He was beyond pessimistic into grim. “We are creating a fractal society,” he said. “We are building fortresses, walled off, inhabited by the well-off. They are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the opportunity to continue consuming. ... These are simply concentration camps for rich people, a kind of social apartheid that is self-establishing itself.”

That, of course, was true even before the downturn. The real change, said Benasayag, is that “once, our future was an object of love. We’ve lost that. ... If you think of ‘tomorrow’ now, you think of uncertainty, of problems. ... Now our future has turned into a threat. ... We are living in a dark time.”

Francesco Delzio is external relations manager for the Italian motorbike and motorcycle conglomerate Piaggio, whose best-known brand is Vespa. From the world of Italian commerce, he joined Benasayag’s assessment. “We do live in a dark time,” he said. “We are witnessing the first generation that knows it will not be better off than the last.”

The blunt pessimism at one of the Day Two sessions at Pio Manzu went on for more than two hours, and it was in striking contrast to anything you’d hear in the U.S., even in private, even today. Americans have a faith in tomorrow, whether today is sunny or stormy. Americans may view intangibles and institutions as in bad shape — the economy, Congress, the presidency, Wall Street, the path of the nation. But we have confidence in our own ability to do better, by the application of hard work, if nothing else.

I was so astonished at the unrelenting blanket of pessimism at the session featuring Benasayag and Delzio, that during the questions, I rose to point out the difference in perspective I was hearing between Europe and the U.S. Americans, I said, don’t underestimate the seriousness of the problems — we can see our retirement receding every day. But we also don’t regard the future as “a threat.” And the financial crisis cannot un-do the technology revolution of the last 15 years, that still opens up vistas of opportunity, opportunities that are more democratic than ever before.

My reaction was met with silence from the panelists and the audience of 200. Then the moderator, Francesco Morace, director of Italy’s “Future Concept Lab,”  a Fast-Company-style consumer research outfit, tossed me a rhetorical life-ring. “Optimism too is a form of intelligence,” he said.

I think he’s right. But in the context, Morace’s comment had the air of an adult reassuring a child that yes, mud pies too are cuisine.

Stay tuned for more updates from Rimini in the days to come...

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