Protagonists: Nino Sergi, Founder and Former President of INTERSOS

Interview to Nino Sergi, Founder and Former President of INTERSOS, By Marco Crescenzi

I really wanted to personally interview Nino Sergi, as I was sure his story would be beautiful and a pleasure to hear first-hand. I believe Nino is a concrete example for any nonprofit manager in the world, for our students and community, of how to put values “in the field”. The comments directed to what happened during 2018 to some UK Charities are intense, as well as clear and in line with my personal position and the School’s – including its students. The invitation to be “The salt of the earth” – quoting the Gospel – is enlightening. And when Nino talks about “the forest that grows”, I can’t help thinking with affection about our students and the many people who are starting to work in the sector. 

I have learnt and remembered many things thanks to this interview. I hope it will inspire you too. With everybody’s help sharing it, maybe ten thousand people will be able to read it; still not enough, but it’s the type of seed that takes roots.

Enjoy it!


Q.: Nino, how and why was INTERSOS born? What was the initial spark?

A.: INTERSOS was born little more than twenty-five years ago. During the summer of 1992 I was looking at the images of Somalia with distress and growing apprehension: war and famine, both of them together. That destruction but above all the hollow faces and bodies of starving people made me question myself, opened my eyes to an international reality that had changed, and that was also producing changes in the South of the world, destabilizing the political equilibrium, alliances and backups, and sometimes producing dramatic consequences.

The summer of 1992 was one of profound reflection. Between September and October, we gathered – we were six people – and decided we would create a humanitarian organization to answer these severe emergencies. Back then, Italy didn’t have any, because NGOs were specialized in creating partnerships and development projects.  

The six founders decided they wanted an open organization. Here’s the first characteristic. Open to humanitarian emergencies, everywhere and without preemptively limiting the field of intervention, but also open to the world around us, of which we feel a part of. The world of labour, with me representing the three Union Confederations: I was in Cisl, but we had an initial agreement to proceed united with Cgil and Uil, as we believed that humanitarian action knows no flags, it belongs to everybody. The world of international volunteering with Amedeo Piva, who back then was President of Focsiv. The world of solidarity, of pacifist movements, of conscientious objection with Licio Palazzini, President of Arci-Solidarietà. The world of human brotherhood, of dedication, with Maria Teresa Crescini, a life devoted to the education of teens. The world of social cooperation, with Felice Scalvini, at the time President of Federsolidarietà and a great social innovator. The world of politics, engaged to unite Europe and Africa, with the mourned Senator and Member of European Parliament Giovanni Bersani, the first President of INTERSOS, who started the dialogue between European parliament and the African ones.

“Homo sum. Nihil humani a me alienum puto” (Terenzio, II century B.C.) is at the beginning of our Charter of Values: “I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me”.  

Four days after INTERSOS was founded, I was already in Somalia for the first and longest mission, since we are still there, despite the difficulties, after twenty-five. And here we can see two more characteristics of INTERSOS: speed in the humanitarian response and the front line.  


Q.: What were the first professional, human and political difficulties you encountered, both internal and external?

A.: Honestly, I have never perceived difficulties as such, but as a normal part of the path that needed to be taken and that I had chosen as an ethical and human duty. The humanitarian imperative is something abstract. It takes your whole life, it becomes totalising. What really helped me a lot were my instinctive ability to express stubbornness and enthusiasm and the experience I had previously gained working at the union confederation for development cooperation (Iscos-Cisl), that I help found during the early Eighties, after some years working in the union, first in the chemical sector (with working experience at Mapei) and then in the international department of Cisl, where, among other things, I followed the new – and still limited – realities of immigration. The international union partnership led me to South America for projects about strengthening of worker organizations and democratic opposition to dictatorships, and in Africa with programs about professional and technical training, productive activities in agriculture, laboratories of railway reparation, promotion of cooperative organization.  

The first interventions, in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Chechnya, Angola, led us (and I use the plural because by that time he INTERSOS team was already formed) to better define three priorities. 1) The areas where to direct our intervention with the most effectiveness. We shook many hands, is the title of the book Sonia Grieco wrote about the first twenty years of INTERSOS (published by Carocci).  Shaking hands is still fundamental, the first and most fundamental gesture of a humanitarian operator, that should always be present, that establishes a relationship: “to be with”, which is much more than “doing for”. And yet at the same time, it’s important to answer to needs effectively, defining better and better one’s areas of intervention, even basing it one the evaluation of the results of the interventions that have already been done.  2) In contexts that have become more and more unsafe, the safety measures we need to adopt for the operators and the people we need to protect. 3) Perfecting the model of organization, management and control, as well as the related operative procedures to work at our best, ensuring the necessary support, verifying, granting transparency and being credible in front of our funders and supporters, whether they are Italian, European or international.  

The humanitarian interventions that we have gradually considered as priority – in refugees and displaced people’s camps, in destroyed areas that needed to be reconstructed, between people escaping and looking for protection and help – forced us to be better, to train better, to specialize in protection and first aid. With the same humanitarian principles: Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality, Independence – we have absorbed them deeply during the interventions, even before studying them. The fundamental challenge was, and it still is, to grow, expand, specialize, professionalize, still continuing to deeply live the values that give sense to INTERSOS, and remain faithful to humanitarian principles.


Q.: What were the two/three turning points of your professional life?

A.: During the Seventies and Eighties, the worker experience and the entry into the Cisl, firstly allowed me to find the Cesil in Milan, a centre for thinking and acting with the first immigrant communities to work on their integration, taking this interest to a confederal level as well, and then the establishment of the Iscos-Cisl for developing international cooperation activities, involving African and Latin American syndicates.

Referring to the 25th anniversary of INTERSOS, the first turning point was the strong belief that it was necessary to give life, also in Italy and with no further delays, to an organisation dedicated to humanitarian emergencies with a focus on those caused by conflicts and serious instability crisis. Another turning point was the awareness, since the early years, that humanitarian action, based on solidarity and generosity, requires analysis, thinking, insights and actions of political significance, given that the causes, management and solutions of crisis, they all have a political nature. This meant that: i) in Italy, an active commitment to comparison, proposal, insight, institutional and political collaboration or of contrast and complaint. ii) the search for meeting opportunities with the parties in conflict, sometimes taking the risk, for guaranteeing humanitarian space and the neutrality and impartiality of the aid or for laying the seeds to create occasions for dialogue and a path for peace; iii) a clearer positioning in regards to the military  forces that operate in the same countries and areas, and on the civil-military relations within the conflict contexts. The last one consisted in the generational handover. When a complex reality is established, taken ahead until an adult stage, the moment of duties’ handover can be risky. We overcame them without any trauma. I consider this a success.


Q.: Which was the most difficult moment, and have you ever been afraid of not making it? How did you overcome it?

A.: In Chechnya, I dealt with the toughest test: the kidnapping of Sandro Pocaterra, Head of Mission, and of the two surgeons Giuseppe Valenti and Augusto Lombardi, committed in the restoration of the hospital activities in Grozny and their imprisonment for 64 days, until the 29th of November 1996, by a criminal gang. Those were two months of agony for INTERSOS, with the fear for their fate and doubts arising on the work and purpose of this humanitarian commitment that puts you out on the frontline, without guaranteeing respect and safety. Negotiations were extenuating, amongst false leads and requests for exorbitant ransoms, with Russian and Chechen authorities who kept passing the buck. Mediation attempts were put into action with local interlocutors, until the contribution of Adriano Sofri, Lombardi’s friend arrived.

He generously offered to help since he had already been in the Caucasian Republic for a reporting work and he had contacts that revealed to be decisive for the release of the three operators and that allowed to avoid any surrender to the ransom requests. I was ready to interrupt or slow down any INTEROS activity to focus the attention and the resources on their salvation and freedom. Should we continue or step back?  This is the question that arises in each situation with serious security problems. On one side, to avoid exposing people on the field to excessive danger, on the other side because of the doubts arising on the feasibility of faithfully operating along the humanitarian principles, without suffering from constraints.

The killing of six volunteers of the international Red Cross, a couple of days after, and the repercussions of the kidnapping on the Chechen institutions, who were partly involved, convinced me that there were no longer the conditions to operate in the country. Throughout the organisation’s life, this was the only case of radical interruption of a humanitarian mission.


Q.: How did you manage to make INTERSOS grow this much, and on which foundations?

A.: “We have shaken many hands”, is the title of the book on the first twenty years, recalling the correspondence of operators amongst the Rwandan refugees in Burundi. In order to keep doing it, we needed to become even more effective in responding to needs.

Gradually, we had to investigate every aspect of the humanitarian intervention, to increase professionality, to establish rules, to follow precise procedures to facilitate the work and ensure the necessary neutrality and independence and to guarantee maximum transparency. All of this, without losing the solidarity and value-driven push, that is and that must remain INTERSOS’ lifeblood. We grew because the humanitarian imperative continued to be alive and deeply felt and that pushed us to be present every time: quick, effective and in the frontline responses, acting “with”. International humanitarian agencies know us. When they had the chance to appreciate us (we must admit, with humbleness, that we have not always been able to give our best, as we wanted to, even if we tried to put the failures into good use and improve ourselves), they asked us to continue with our intervention and supported the initiatives that we proposed. However, each growth, should be proportional to the abilities that you are able to express.

INTERSOS, while of course maintaining the vital solidarity-driven push alive, the one that brought it to such a significant dimension and relevance in the scope of the Non-governmental reality in Italy, will now need to consolidate, strengthen and stabilise the great path pursued during the past 25 years. All of this, also in order to gain a better understanding on how to best plan the upcoming 25 years.


Q.: How do you feel about and how do you evaluate the recent scandal of OXFAM UK that uncovered the serious contradictions of an entire sector?

A.: We are all outraged by what happened, as we are every time similar facts come to light. There is a sentence in the Gospel that I have memorized and that I believe should apply to each humanitarian operator, believer or non-believer: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  This is how I evaluate this scandal. I don’t mean to be stiff, but there are things that must never ever be accepted or hushed up, especially in a world that lays its vocation in expressing humanity, respect and solidarity.

I know the humanitarian world very well ad for me it is always a surprise to find out about delinquent behaviours or conducts that contradict the values, principles and rules adopted by the organisations. Even with limits, mistakes and weaknesses that distinguish our human condition, the humanitarian world is for the most part healthy and committed, with values that guide it and with rules, procedures and tools, included the “box of complaints and denunciations”, to prevent and strictly manage abuses. These happenings must push each NGO to improve, adapting rules of prevention and control to every context and verifying their application. Personnel selection is the first step, but it can’t be the only one. If the number of committed operators grows and if we intervene on emergencies, the risks increases, and it is necessary to face them.


Q.: Can we really be clear and coherent with values, despite being on the field and in the mud, in the humanitarian emergencies field? How?

A.: During these last days, I have often repeated how important it is not to ignore “the forest that silently grows, whilst other decaying trees loudly fall down”. Undoubtedly, we would need to understand why these trees decayed within the flourishing of the rest of the forest: it is a duty that must engage everyone, from the apical levels of organisations, to the individual operators and to those with whom and for whom we are working. I believe that yes, we can be clean and coherent with the values, whilst being on the field and in the “mud”. I would also say that the more you are in the “mud”, the closer you are to the people who experienced and are dealing with great difficulties and sorrows, sharing their troubles, and the cleaner you remain. The tension towards maximum coherence, must be and must remain a habit for each NGO and for each humanitarian operator, and it is the duty of each responsibility level to verify that this corresponds to reality.

I noticed that, during the years, we have sometimes “adapted to times” and some organisations – more at the international level that national, even if we should all look at ourselves – are maybe losing the sense of coherence between the action carried out to help the poorest against poverty and to bring help during crisis, with their own way of living, their salaries, the exaggerated ostentation of themselves and of their opinionated indispensability. Even in the personal life, lifestyle, attitude, remunerative levels (some of which appear not just incoherent but unacceptable), in the use of expensive or inopportune goods, when working close and helping people in unlucky contexts, of poverty and of great suffering, sever ethics of behaviours should guide the NGOs and their personnel, always. Non-coherence can easily lead to excesses and abuses.


Q.: What procedures (even practical or managerial ones) should NGOs adopt to get out of this? 

A.: Each NGO should have of an organisational, management and control model, that is known by everyone and whose application is verified by an internal control function. It is an ensemble of elements, from the charter of values to the ethical code (that must be able to profoundly interiorise); from the organisation to a clear definition of responsibilities, to the procedures to be followed for acting properly, in a correct way and at the same time to prevent possible delinquent actions or abuses in the management of activities in order to control, contrast or repress them. Some NGOs are also equipped with procedures to prevent sexual abuses or abuses and to equip themselves with the necessary tools to verify the fulfilment and to receive reports and claims with the aim to repress them from the very beginning.

Curricula examination, further information from NGOs or other indicated entities, selection and training are indispensable, but the possibility of unexpected delinquent behaviours it always exists. Is therefore indispensable to adopt precise procedures in order to be able to support, verify and control.


Q.: In your opinion, what are  the “gifts” and requirements for the people who want to work in the NGOs today?

A.: Rather than talking about “gifts” (that, for who chooses a humanitarian NGO, surely must comprehend the attention towards the other, especially those in need, the willingness to understand the context and the dynamics that devastated it, the availability in facing difficulties and some sacrifice to achieve the commitment taken, flexibility and humbleness that allow you to continually learn and to correct and perfect yourself), I would like to talk about requirements.

Some of them can be acquired when growing inside the NGO. No one is born knowing everything: the growth path is fundamental and each organisation should favourite it and accompany it. It is however sure that, in order to give effective answers, there is a need for knowledge, capacity and professionality. In a hospital, well prepared doctors and nurses are needed, in the same way, experts are needed to look at expenses and accounting, to organise the logistics, to manage welcoming camps and decent shelters, to ensure water, latrines, food and to protect and organise emergency schools and so on. The discussion cannot be limited to some brief lines, but among the main requirements I would indicate:

i) The value-driven push, that is not enough but it helps, it guides you, it allows you to question yourself, to make you feel part of the NGO’s body that lives it and transmits it also through you;

ii) an adequate level of education;

iii) the knowledge of an international language used in the country and the desire of learning the essential of the local one to establish direct personal relationships;

iv) the ability to plan and manage your own time, being also able to engage and to work in a team to solve, for as much as possible, every problem regarding the people in aid;

v) the use of IT tools;

vi) the ability to synthetize the reports with the precision required by the subject.


Q.: Nino, one last question: three suggestions that you feel you should give to our students and to those who want to be useful following their own dream, by setting their own life in the international cooperation?

A.: Give your best, with passion, generosity and openness towards the other, because it is proportioned to how much you will receive in terms of human growth, satisfaction, knowledge and professionality.

Don’t be afraid of difficulties but understand where to find help, to deal with them and overcome them, without ever stopping in front of the obstacles.

If then international cooperation and humanitarian aid will become a life-long profession, always keep alive the coherence with the high values that have guided your first steps and the upcoming ones, until this becomes a mature choice.


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