Cassa per il Mezzogiorno

(Southern Development Fund)
   The creation of the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno was the outcome of growing unrest in southern Italy over rural poverty, and together with the land reform of 1950 was an attempt to raise living standards for the South. Under the land reform, idle farmlands were expropriated and distributed among farm workers. In areas ridden by malaria for centuries, over 2,000,000 acres were apportioned among 45,000 families in the first dozen years of the reform. The Cassa also paid up to 20 percent of the costs incurred by municipalities that built enterprise zones for small and medium industries in depressed areas of fewer than 200,000 inhabitants.
   The Cassa was to be accountable to Parliament through a minister without portfolio (elevated to cabinet rank in 1965 as minister for the Mezzogiorno). Projects were approved by the Comitato Interministeriale per la Programmazione Economica/Interministerial Committee for Economic Planning (CIPE), giving rise to additional rivalries, tensions, and delays. Moreover, the local agencies established to coordinate infrastructure investments and land allocations and to administer the state’s largesse became fiefdoms of local political leaders, who were often accused of waste, favoritism, and inflated administrative overhead. The early Cassa was guided by three coherent goals in dealing with the gap between North and South. The first objective was to address the land-tenure problem by a system of expropriation (paying the owners with 30-year, interest-bearing bonds) and redistribution among those who actually worked the land. Most continued to reside in their home village.
   The second phase was the building of the infrastructure needed not only for industrialization but to enhance the productivity of southern agriculture. This meant all-weather roadways, irrigation, flood control, electrification, modern port facilities, improved railways (most south of Rome were single track), and quality control in storage and processing facilities, together with such essential social overhead expenditures as schools, clinics, and public housing. The third stage meant luring the assignees from the mountain villages, which they had shown themselves reluctant to leave. The Cassa not only built houses on the assigned plots but made moving into them a condition of retaining assigned land. They also built community centers comprising a church, a meeting hall, a clinic, and a pharmacy (not always staffed), and—in most cases—an elementary school. Yet people remained attached to their villages despite the relative absence of amenities of any sort. New, isolated, lowland houses, therefore, often were used as toolsheds by those who trudged daily between hilltop villages and newly acquired land.
   Efforts were also made to encourage southern entrepreneurs and small industry. Industrial parks were set aside from expropriated lands and subdivision lots sold at subsidized prices with mortgage payments deferred. Local youth with no prospects beyond duplicating their fathers’ lives were recruited into industrial training programs paid for by the Cassa, FIAT, and other private-sector firms, both domestic and foreign. Many previously unemployed individuals—both male and female (in a setting where women were still expected to stay at home with the children)—were introduced to factory discipline and to a totally new role for women outside the home. Of the many women who became the family’s chief breadwinner, few were willing to continue playing the subordinate role to which tradition had accustomed them. Locating a few large industries in the South—“cathedrals in the desert” as northern journalists dubbed them—produced cement factories (a necessary initial step for the building trades), oil refineries and petrochemical plants, vastly improved port facilities to ship both imported crude oil and the refined product, fertilizer plants, the Taranto steel mills of Italsider, asphalted highways, improved railways and airports, as well as the aforementioned infrastructure in elementary schools and modest housing. Recent statistics, however, indicate how unsuccessful these efforts have been in closing the North–South gap. Southern Italians enjoy today a far higher standard of living and level of consumption than was conceivable just one generation ago. However, it is equally true that life in the North and Center has improved even more rapidly, thus widening the separation of the country’s regions. That conditions might have been worse without the efforts of the Southern Development Fund is not an easily testable proposition. What is clear is that many southerners continue to feel that life has not been fair to them. Per capita incomes in the richest cities of north-central Italy average around C––25,000–C–– 30,000, while the poorest cities of the South average about C––15,000. The former is 40 percent over the national average; the latter, 40 percent below that average. It is too soon to say whether the 1986 devolution of the Cassa’s functions to regional and local institutions will have the desired effect.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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