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Meet the new Chairholder: Lorenzo Fioramonti

In June 2014 Prof. Lorenzo Fioramonti was awarded the UNESCO-UNU Chair in Regional Integration, Migration and the free movement of people. He succeeds Prof. Bob Deacon, Professor of International Social Policy at the University of Sheffield, UK, and senior visiting research fellow at UNU-CRIS.

Fioramonti is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Pretoria (South Africa) and he is the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation. He is also and the author several books, such as “Gross domestic problem” and “How numbers rule the world“, on how statistics, and GDP in particular, ended up shaping (and damaging) public policies.

Fioramonti was the South African reference point for the activity of the Chair since its beginnings. That’s why we decided to turn directly to him to understand the meaning of this Chair and, more importantly, what we can expect from his work.

Prof. Fioramonti, let’s start with the basics: what is this Chair in Regional Integration, Migration and the Free Movement of People for?
It is a joint initiative by the UNESCO and the United Nations University to support innovative research in the field of regional governance of migration. Both institutions have a strong track record in pushing for intensive and collaborative research in new fields and this is something that makes us particularly proud, especially as our focus will be on South Africa and Southern Africa.

 How does the system work? How does one get awarded a UNESCO-UNU Chair?
At the University of Pretoria we have a longstanding partnership with the UN University Institute for Comparative and Regional Integration Studies (UNU/CRIS), with which we have applied for a UNESCO Chair back in 2011. Initially, the Chair was based in Europe and was held by Prof. Bob Deacon for a transitional period. The view from the very beginning was that the Chair would move to Africa as soon as the institutional conditions were in place. With the creation of GovInn (Centre for the study of Governance Innovation) in 2013, this possibility finally became a reality. UNESCO supports inter-university partnerships and the Chair is a clear demonstration of high-level international and inter-disciplinary research.

Ok, but, why you? What has been your contribution to this area of studies so far?
Our main work in this field is the analysis of ‘regionalism from below’, that is, studying how people build supranational or transnational regions from the bottom up. Traditionally, regionalism has been studied as a top-down highly formalized phenomenon: it has been more preoccupied with summit meetings than with people crossing borders.  We have decided to complement this ‘traditional’ approach with a particular focus on people (e.g. migrants, informal traders, civil society and small companies), which are critical actors in creating those governance innovations that make it possible for regionalism to grow and deal with challenges even when the institutional systems are not functioning or absent.

Moving from that, which trends should academics investigate in this area?
Our take is that academic research should break new ground. There are multiple governance innovations being produced by individuals and groups on a daily basis. Academic research should be able to capture that and analyze it with the appropriate tools. This leads to new scientific discoveries and the possibility to influence policies in ways that are unconventional. The challenges we face in the 21st century require new thinking.

In concrete terms, what do you and your staff plan to do with the Chair? 
We are building new research in the field of informal traders, small-business-driven integration, civil society-driven integration and regionalism from below. We dispute that regionalism is an end in itself. By contrast, we argue that regionalism is worth pursuing if it enhances human well-being. Thus innovations are required to make it work for real people. We now have a full-time research fellow working on these issues, plus a senior researcher will join us by end of 2014 with a view to pursuing research on the intersection between labour migration, agriculture and regional governance in Southern Africa. A new field of research will also include how alternative currencies built by civil society network and small businesses can support regional integration in Southern Africa, regardless of whether this is incorporated or not into an official institutional strategy.

You investigate regionalism in a moment when scepticism toward regional integration is growing: where do you stand?
Regionalism must work for the people. When it doesn’t, it is by no means an institutional system worth pursuing. This is something the ‘Euro-crisis’ has highlighted. It makes no sense to pursue governance evolutions when they take away rather than increase well-being. This is our approach. There are many reasons why regional governance is better positioned to address transnational challenges. And there are ways to designing regionalism so that it supports human development while creating opportunities for transnational cooperation. That’s what we need to investigate. Alternative regionalisms are now more important than ever.

The website hosting the activity of the Chair has a very telling name: why choosing “Regions without borders”? Do you believe that a world without borders is really desirable?
Borders are fictitious. We have a global conscience and cannot continue operating under the assumption that borders will continue separating us forever. We need to find ways of dealing with the existing complexity of the world, without resorting to short-sighted inward looking temptations. Borders will need to be reimagined. Free movement of people doesn’t mean anarchy. It simply means that we choose to govern human mobility. By contrast, nowadays our approach is often to dig our heads in the sand. There are no reasons why regional governance cannot develop innovations that allow people to integrate more successfully. In a sense, people-driven integration is the best hope we may have to resolve conflicts and build a better world. This will require thinking ‘out of the box’ and we are ready to do that.