Nepotism alive and kicking in Italy

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Young people raising hands

The family may be central to Italian business life, but many economists believe that nepotism - the practice of giving jobs to family members - is preventing talented young people from finding work, and holding the country back.

To get a job in Italy, is it what you know or who you know that counts? It's a commonly asked question here - and one with an obvious answer, if you believe most young graduates milling around the university campuses. In fact many wonder why I've even bothered to ask.

"If you have connections, you know the right people, you can have the job that you like," shrugs Giorgio at the University of Genoa, who told me he planned to go overseas to pursue his studies. "Yes, it's crucial to know someone, to be recommended," adds another.

None of the young people I met seemed to think their own family connections would amount to much, and all said they found this tough and demotivating as their final exams approached.

Tens of thousands of young graduates are believed to be leaving Italy each year in pursuit of better opportunities abroad.

The presumption that connections matter dates back a long way. The very term nepotism - the favouring of your own family members over others - originates in this country, derived from the custom of medieval Popes handing out senior clerical jobs to their nephews - "nipote" in Italian.

Much has changed since medieval times, of course, but critics say not enough, even though finding a solution may be crucial if Italy is to pull itself out of the economic mire. The country is currently suffering one of its longest recessions in post-war history.

"You find it in many professions," says economist Professor Roberto Perotti, who's written a book on Italy's nepotism culture called The Rigged University. "Most notaries are sons of notaries. It's easier for relatives of magistrates to pass the necessary examinations, and doctors as well."

Prof Perotti, along with others, has published revealing studies of university teachers, showing the extraordinary concentration of surnames in many departments.

"There is a scarcity of last-names that's inexplicable," says fellow academic, Stefano Allesina. "The odds of getting such population densities across so many departments is a million to one."

Take the University of Bari, where five families have for years dominated the dozens of senior positions in Business and Economics there. Or consider the University of Palermo, where more than half the entire academic population has at least one relative working within the institution.

Since the studies don't reveal all forms of favouritism - towards romantic partners or in-laws, for instance (who may carry a different surname) - researchers say the study of surnames certainly under-represents the problem.

Luigi Frati, the Rector of La Sapienza University in Rome, has become one of the most notorious figures in the scandal, which local media have dubbed "Parentopoli" - or "Relative-gate".

A doctor by training, Professor Frati has, both as rector and formerly as head of the university's medical faculty, overseen the promotion of his wife, a former local high school history teacher, to the post of Professor of Medical History.

His daughter also gained a post as Professor of Legal Medicine - without any specific medical education. And his son was made an associate professor in cardiology aged just 31, one of the youngest Italians to gain such an appointment.

He has denied claims of nepotism, insisting that all his loved-ones just happen to be the best qualified. Responding to the allegations, he told Italian television, "In Italy we are not used to being meritocratic through strictly objective criteria. We are used to doing it our own way."

It's hard to disagree. The high court has made nepotistic appointments technically illegal in Italy's public sector, though no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for them.

Most alarming, perhaps, are the indications that since the financial crisis began, the problem has actually got worse among private companies as well. A survey by the Ministry of Labour recently suggested that 61% of firms rely on personal introductions for recruitment, up from 50% a year earlier.

And there have also been a series of well-publicised deals with unions where, in return for employees taking early retirement, companies have granted their children preferential treatment for entry-level jobs.

Prof Perotti despairs, comparing it to the time of Nero, when the notoriously mad Roman Emperor decreed that no citizen could ever leave his family's allotted profession. "How can our greatest asset, our intellectual capital, develop in this country when talent and merit are not allowed to flourish?" he asks.

As Italy goes to the polls, there appears little prospect of any new government directly addressing the issue. Critics argue that the political class itself is tainted, thanks in part to an electoral system where voters choose parties, not candidates. This allows party barons to select relatives or personal favourites for parliamentary seats.

Roberto Giacchetti, a Democrat Party deputy, is one of the few high-profile politicians to have raised this as a campaign issue. He went on hunger strike last year to demand that parliament approved electoral reform - to no avail.

"Among the public there is a desire for change," he says, "But among the political class, it's not there yet - even within my own party… That's just how things are.

"I don't expect anything to change soon."

Ed Butler's Assignment on nepotism in Italy, was broadcast on the BBC World Service on Thursday 21 February. Listen BBC iPlayer or browse the podcast documentary archive.

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Correction 27 February 2013: This story has been amended to clarify that Luigi Frati's wife held other academic posts between being a high school teacher and a professor at La Sapienza University in Rome.