Architect of EU investment plan moves to FAO

Roberto Ridolfi, former director for sustainable growth and development at the European Commission Directorate General for Development and Cooperation. Photo by: Jake Naughton / IFPRI / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — Roberto Ridolfi, the self-described “father” of the European Union’s External Investment Plan, left his post as a director at the European Commission’s development arm at the end of last year, moving to an advisory role at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

He’s still focused on the EIP, however, telling Devex his new job is the perfect chance to allay NGOs’ concerns about corporate “sharks” taking advantage of investment guarantees backed by EU taxpayers.

The two-year secondment to his native Rome, which began in January, was partly driven by personal reasons. Still, Ridolfi has big ideas for the FAO under his new title of “Special Advisor on Strategy and Financing Development.”

Ridolfi joined the Commission in 1994 and was the EU’s ambassador in the Pacific region and then Uganda, before returning to Brussels in 2013.

Most recently, as a director at the Commission’s development department, DEVCO, Ridolfi was responsible for setting up the EIP, in addition to about 200 staff and 2 billion euros ($2.47 billion) worth of development programs under the heading of “Planet and Prosperity.”

The Italian is also a vocal advocate of blended finance: Using public money to help make development-related investments more attractive to private investors.

With the EIP embracing this model, the 59-year-old told the European Parliament’s development committee in November that he felt like the plan’s “natural father ... who is now handing over to adoptive parents for the EIP to go further.”

“I conceived the EIP, I wrote it, and then I got it approved,” he told Devex. “I’m very, very happy, so for me it is a result achieved.”

Parliament and EU member states signed off last year on the plan to stimulate private investment in Africa and the EU neighborhood with up to 4.1 billion euros of guarantees and other public support. Development banks must submit investment proposals under five thematic “investment windows” over the coming weeks.

Ridolfi said overseeing the implementation of the EIP at the Commission is “not banal”, but that he’d rather ensure its success in two other ways through his new role at the FAO.

Firstly, by helping development banks working in “sustainable agriculture, rural entrepreneurs and agroindustry.” This is one of the EIP’s investment windows, and an area in which Ridolfi says there is often a lack of know-how in European development banks.

With few exceptions, he said most proposals so far received under the EIP to work in agriculture had come from development banks more used to overseeing investments in energy or infrastructure projects.

“Tell me what the European Investment Bank knows about agriculture — nothing,” Ridolfi said. “Somebody should tell them to come to Rome at the FAO and learn about sustainability in agriculture.”

In agroindustry, “you have social issues, land tenure rights, the environment, forests, soil, water. It’s so complicated. But that is the sector where, in Africa in particular, we will deliver millions of jobs.”

And since creating jobs in the hope of stemming migration to Europe is the main thrust of the EIP, Ridolfi added, “we need a strategy for the success of my own baby in Brussels.”

Ridolfi said that given its “impressive” catalogue of 2017 publications, the FAO was well placed to do the “very complex work” of translating the Sustainable Development Goals’ 169 targets and the indicators into practical requirements.

“In four or five areas the knowledge is so detailed that it is ready to fit as a technical annex in a finance contract or a guarantee contract by a bank to a private company,” he said.

He envisages a checklist attached to guarantee contracts offered to companies under the EIP, covering their obligations on issues such as land tenure, soil management, and forest husbandry.

“Civil society through the Parliament has told the Commission, ‘look, the investment plan is a great idea of Roberto’s, but make sure the investments are producing decent and sustainable jobs,’” he said.

The message he wants development banks to convey to companies: “‘You are enjoying a guarantee from the taxpayers of the EU but the price you pay is to be compliant [with the SDGs] — and here you go, this is the way to do it.’”

“At the end of the day, these people are sharks,” Ridolfi said. Hence the importance of also rigorously monitoring to make sure the requirements are followed.

That’s where the second strand of his vision comes in: To help the FAO equip those working in the area of SDG compliance, which he predicts could become a “trillion-dollar business.”

Ridolfi foresees the organisation using its expertise to make available “tools and training to civil society organisations, private companies [and] government institutions” who would then do the monitoring on certain SDG targets.

Meanwhile, “the FAO will continue to do the policy dialogue on the same issues with the governments, in order to have enabling legislation etc.”

Ultimately, Ridolfi believes, ensuring the sustainability of the EIP requires “political vigilance.”

“The Parliament is present on the strategic board [overseeing the investment plan], and that’s where this kind of stuff must be discussed. And then of course the member states that are more friendly, like Sweden, must be vocal on the operational board.”

“The Commission knows very well what I’m talking about [because] that’s what I was saying there,” Ridolfi said. “Don’t forget, I was director for planet and prosperity: My prosperity side is the EIP. My planet side is the SDGs.”

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.