di Giovanni Mottini - Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma - Universitas, n. 115 - March 2010, page. 36-39

Is it really possible to teach solidarity at university? Probably if we limited ourselves to starting from the simple definition, on the surface, of the two terms: solidarity as a social virtue and university as a place and institution where knowledge is grown and transmitted, we would continue to be far from being able to give a positive answer to our question . Strictly speaking, a virtue cannot be "teached" but essentially only practiced: it is not a formulated knowledge to be increased and it is not even transmissible to others, except as a pure notion.

But what makes the answer to our question negative is not so much the meaning of solidarity; which has its own precise identity, but rather a reductive vision of the university. Humbolt's classic vision of the university as "solitude and freedom", which over time has been joined, with a distorting effect, by the scientistic drifts of modern philosophy of science, continue to heavily condition the vision of university being and acting. The result is the image of an institution that reciprocates the price of its presumed ethical neutrality with a congenital renunciation of an identity and a social role that knows how to go beyond the by now stereotyped binomial of the ever-desired university-company synergy. In other words, the university has become a workbench, albeit an intellectual one, for a rigid assembly line aimed at the production of goods for society.

In a university of this type there is no room for solidarity, neither taught nor practiced.

There is a need to restart from a different vision of the university. Above all, its dimension of "human community" must be recovered: a community of teachers and students who meet together to pursue a social goal. In other words, the institution's ethical identity is reaffirmed, which has its raison d'être in carrying out a task at the service of the common good.

Solidarity, university and globalization

In a university-community everyone knows they have a role to play in achieving a common goal. The human relationship is no longer a simple relationship of physical contiguity imposed by the organization of work and the exchange of information, but it is a relationship of meaning and mutual support directed towards an end.

From this point of view, solidarity, even before it can be taught, must be seen as the connective tissue that makes the human relationship "solid" and the way of acting of all the members of the community itself "solidarity".

At this point we can go so far as to say that, in effect, solidarity must first of all be experienced by the university itself as something that cannot be renounced for the guarantee of its identity and its mission.

Where the university truly succeeds in being a community, solidarity will not need to be taught; it will simply be "cultivated" in the members who from time to time become part of the community itself; that is to say above all the students who follow each other in the academic years. The teacher will have the task of being an imitable model of solidarity through his style of work and the orientation of service to society that she will be able to give to the content of the knowledge she transmits.

There is no doubt that a university-community with a strong ethical identity such as we have represented will have already overcome the congenital dissociation from the social context in which it finds itself; on the contrary, it will be an institution constantly oriented towards giving pertinent and effective answers to the needs of the society in which it finds itself immersed by its precise choice.

The intrinsic universal perspective (university as universality of knowledge) can only then encounter the phenomenon of globalization. Economic globalization, of knowledge, of information, but necessarily also of human needs.

The university spirit will then be attentive to the expectations and needs of a southern hemisphere that knocks on the doors of the West and seeks solutions to its problems.

University education in solidarity will therefore find a vast field of application in aid to developing countries.

The experience of the Campus Bio-Medico University (CBM) of Rome with Africa

The CBM of Rome is a university that brings the solidarity dimension of university work into its very mission. In fact, its charter of purposes states: the university wants to… promote the sense of solidarity and fraternity, which manifests itself in works, knowing how to place one's own professional prestige at the service of the common good.

This promotion of solidarity assumes the precise connotations of a training style which aims to educate to solidarity through university work itself; both research and teaching.

The verb educare is understood here in its Latin meaning of e-ducere: that is to say "to bring out" the heritage of ideality that is present in its native state in young people entering university.

This heritage must be valorised, and here lies an innovative element of the educational process, especially in the very first university years; before the student comes ingentered the professionalizing tunnel of the following years, transforming the ideals of service to others, inherent in the very vocation of the doctor, into vague aspirations that are unlikely to find more space and time in professional life.

What is really at stake, and what makes the difference in quality in university work, is the relationship that exists between skills (ie knowledge), passions and compassion.

The work of e-ducere, as a component of a university educational style, consists precisely in cultivating a passion for man, which arises from the disposition to feel compassion for others, and a passion for knowledge, which arises from the curiosity of facing the complexity and variety of reality and the horizons of knowledge, to transform them into professional skills oriented towards an authentic service.

A practical translation of this modus docendi is to always conceive and practice a socially oriented biomedical research. That is, scientific skills that ask first of all what the real and most urgent needs of humanity are, before choosing where to use their energies. Therefore consciences with a strong social conception of the professional action of the doctor.

It is also opportune to consider that if on the one hand the passion for man and for knowledge lead to the motivated acquisition of skills, the opposite is not at all true. The realities demonstrates how pure skills, self-referential and detached from an authentic attention to man, do not in themselves give rise to passions, but are more easily enslaved to the logic of self-affirmation and the commercialization of knowledge for economic purposes.

The reason for this seems to derive from the fact that passion has in itself a profound relational dimension, which competence alone does not possess, nor does it require. Passion always demands confrontation with the other, and therefore becomes the source and condition of acting in solidarity.

Gain knowledge from experience

The educational tool that acts as the backbone of this training model is the humanitarian aid course; an optional didactic activity that takes place throughout the academic year consisting of meetings with actors from the world of humanitarian aid and protagonists of development cooperation initiatives, both Italian and foreign. A formula therefore far from the model of the frontal lesson, and more oriented towards acquiring knowledge from the direct experience of witnesses of international solidarity. An open window on the real world of human underdevelopment to get to know it from the inside.

This activity is then accompanied by a more operational dimension: a training on the job represented by direct experiences of students in African developing countries with CBM partners in Africa. The formulas used are those of medical workamps with mixed teams; that is, composed of doctors and students of the CBM and of counterparts from African universities. The activity carried out is planned in epidemiological research protocols conceived as a component of health campaigns for the local population, with medical visits, diagnostic tests and free supply of drugs for current pathologies.

These activities are designed to make it possible for students in the very first years of the course to participate as well: unprepared for a clinical-assistance activity, but easily instructed in biomedical research methods; often made up of relatively simple and repetitive gestures but which require the methodological rigor and commitment that a good dose of youthful enthusiasm can guarantee. The research experience in difficult and precarious conditions (far from the comfort and aseptic nature of European laboratories), the friendly and educational contact with African colleagues, the confrontation with a reality of poverty and disease make these workcamps a training opportunity integral: human-professional of great and profound impact.

A suitable formula for students in the final years of the course is instead an internship in African hospitals in agreement with the CBM. Here the opportunity for direct learning and the possibility of increasing one's skills: practices in the operating room, outpatient clinic, diagnostic procedures and semiotics with an intensity and proximity almost unthinkable in Italian structures. But it is above all the integration of these technical-scientific components with the experience of human relationships and contact with the social reality of these countries that constitutes the true added value of similar experiences.

A team of young researchers for developing countries, with passion and experience, is being established as a permanent asset of the University and a legacy to be passed on to the generations of new students.

Another, not marginal, aspect is scientific production in terms of publications with impact factors that are accumulating as a result of university work carried out in workcamps and internships; demonstrating that university solidarity is an indispensable dimension of mature professionalism, and not a mere optional diversion, however commendable.

The local counterpart of these initiatives are the partners who make up the network of African institutions with which the university has established collaborative relationships; born as a long-term goal of the project to create a North-South research community that the CBM has been running for over 5 years. This includes university and non-university institutions from Congo, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya and Madagascar.

The goal of this community is to provide African partners: universities and healthcare institutions of excellence, with expertise in the field of biomedical research methodology to conduct together study protocols on the most urgent and widespread health problems of African populations, or to put to develop assistance and therapeutic modalities adapted to the context of developing countries. The premise for this intervention strategy is the belief that the great pathologies afflicting humanity with the highest number of victims: AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria are all present mainly in the southern hemisphere, and cannot be adequately fought only with weapons developed in aseptic western research laboratories. The direct participation of local professional figures is essential: epidemiologists, researchers, clinicians, up to the community animators, who guarantee the compliance of the population both on the research side and on the interventional and preventive side.

Without this alliance, the most effective drugs and vaccines run the risk of being blunt weapons…or more simply of not arriving at their destination in the right place and at the right time.

Carrying out biomedical research in Africa is therefore not a contradiction in relation to the enormous assistance needs that exist, but a way to make these needs less enormous, especially in prevention and public health strategies.

Epidemiological research also makes it possible to bring to the attention of the world scientific community pathological conditions and scientific data that would otherwise be unacknowledged or underestimated.tostimati, and therefore to attract the attention of international health policy makers for the allocation of resources and intervention plans on these problems. In other words, an advocacy action in favor of Africa that takes place thanks to the collaboration between Western and African universities.

Research yes, but accompanied by a humanitarian reflection

However, it is necessary to be aware that the Italian, or in any case Western, university presence in Africa really carries out this precious task if its main aim is not limited to the quality and quantity of biomedical research, but rather responds to an objective of local growth of skills for the benefit of the overall well-being of the local population.

In many cases, one gets the impression that the many Western university initiatives in Africa are conceived and conducted more to carry out Western biomedical research in Africa than to carry out biomedical research for and with Africa, that is, by increasing local skills… To scientific knowledge exported is not accompanied by a serious humanitarian reflection on the aims of these initiatives, which therefore remain sterile and ineffective for those populations that should benefit most from them. Di itselfchiaration of Helsinki, in its 2000 edition in Edinburgh, did not fail to highlight this paradox; then crystallized in a new point of the dichiaration itself, designed specifically for developing countries, which recommends the need for scientific research to primarily benefit the population in which it is conducted. 

On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that the simple transmission of technological and scientific knowledge to the local interlocutor and counterpart; that is to say of the so-called know-how, even though it is already a step forward compared to the logic of pure welfare, it is by no means a guarantee of an increase in the protection of the health and well-being of the population. Paradoxically, experience shows instead that it comes to represent a passport and the travel ticket for the brain drain to the West, or at least it favors the phenomenon of privatization of acquired knowledge, which leads to the proliferation of a local market for healthcare services private sector, which contributes very little to guaranteeing access to health for all.

The reason for this phenomenon lies in the fact that an education focused solely on technological data, on know-how: knowing how to do things, neglects the dimension of why and for whom I do them. In other words, it neglects the dimensions that correspond to conscience and social responsibility for the common good which are indispensable in the authentic training of professional figures; everywhere, but more than ever in a developing country.

And it is here that the unavoidability of a culture of solidarity makes itself felt again in those who, like Western universities, take on the task of making a contribution to human development.

One cannot give to another what one does not possess or does not live.

University: breeding ground for supportive professionals

The university that carries within its matrix a culture and teaching of solidarity as we have just described today finds itself remedying a systemic aporia whose raison d'etre seems to have not yet been fully perceived by the actors of international cooperation themselves. A recent graduate animated by a spirit of solidarity, who today wants to enrich his professional profile with an experience of development aid in a developing country, to the point of possibly making it a definitive choice of life and profession, is in fact faced with an almost insurmountable barrier . National and international organizations, governmental or otherwise, invariably require anyone proposing their availability to them that they have sufficient work experience (at least 2 or 3 years) in a developing country. This is perfectly plausible from the point of view of the efficiency criteria of these bodies. But how is it possible to have such an experience in the curriculum if therefore it itself is a pre-condition for being able to access it? Here is the meaning of the aporia.

There are no institutions dedicated to cultivating professionalism in the cooperation sector: one passes directly from the professionalizing theoretical learning of institutions, university and non-university, to bodies operating in cooperation without there being a connecting element and a synergistic interface between these two worlds.

In terms of the culture of solidarity, there is a formative void which mirrors the aforesaid aporia. In fact, we could say that the baggage of ideals and motivations with which the individual aspires to enter the world of development aid has as its only possible breeding grounds that of tradition and the family environment or, alternatively, that of non-associative networks institutional: that is to say, cultural, political or confessional circles in which the roots of volunteering are rooted. Educational and training institutions remain on the margins and scarcely sensitive to this phenomenon, and when they do they limit themselves to borrowing and replicating the logic and activities of civil networks and spontaneous associations, without therefore adding any specificity.

In conclusion: the "recruitment" of professional figures for development cooperation, especially if endowed with the motivational strength that derives from a well assimilated culture of solidarity, is not an operation of gathering the fruits of a field intentionally and rationally sown and cultivated in extensively, but the result of plants germinated and grown in semi-uncultivated land; or at most in the horti clausi of the myriad of voluntary social initiatives; fruitful, but by their nature too narrow to affect and create culture in the broadest sense. 

Volunteering and solidarity

Therefore, if volunteering and solidarity are terms in close correlation (volunteering is an expression and declination of the spirit of solidarity), it is also true that they are neither coincident nor superimposable.

The university cooperation experience of the CBM in Africa is an example of how the university can truly carry out its connatural function of filling the educational void that we have described and defusing the system aporia that prevents civil society institutions from doing truly a "system" for development cooperation.

The university community, with its institutional mission ofchiaracreated and translated into works, promotes solidarity through initiatives for developing countries that involve teaching staff and students, side by side, carried out with a university spirit and method. The socially oriented biomedical research, the operational exemplary nature of the teachers, the humanitarian passions cultivated as vis a tergo and raison d'être of the skills to be acquired make the University a "nursery" of subjects with personalities and professionalism tested in the field of cooperation development already before theirs ingin the world of work.

An institution such as the university, with a central role in the development of knowledge and knowledge, will also have the increasingly felt task of developing the cognitive tools necessary to give substance to a "science of human development" that brings together itself in an organic and effective way all the knowledge that revolves around the world of aid to developing countries: from Global Health, to the market economy, also in a globalized key, to capacity buildinging of the agri-food chain, to international law, capable of giving effective and innovative responses to the crises that our planet is experiencing and of which developing countries are often the first and innocent victims.