Sunday 26 September 2010

Flaming Garbage Cans: Greece’s Transition to the Second World

One of the strangest sights I’ve seen were the flaming garbage cans of the new Athens International Airport back in 2001-2002. AIA is a modern, efficient airport: of all the European airports I use, it’s one of the best in terms of accessibility and ease-of-use. But if it’s such a great airport, why were the garbage bins on fire?

Back in 2001 when AIA was commissioned, all flights were required to become non-smoking flights. For the average Greek traveller, this was a cruel torture. They would deplane in Athens after a four hour flight from Heathrow, shaking with impatience and suppressed rage, and light up while on the airport bus or at the foot of the escalators.

Since the terminal was also a non-smoking area (smokers’ corners were later installed), there was nowhere to put the cigarette butts, except in the garbage cans. So nearly every time I flew into Athens between 2001 and 2002, I would see smoke and flames rising from these ubiquitous receptacles.

This memory of flaming garbage cans in a shiny new airport illustrates for me where Greece finds itself now. In the 50 years after World War II and the Civil War, Greece transitioned from a Third World to a Second World country. Its ability to become a First World Country, long cherished by its political classes and the majority of its citizens, remains illusive.

Greece lost some 10% of her population and most of her industry between the Nazi occupation in 1941-1945 and the Civil War in 1946-1949. When these conflicts subsided, Greece was in ruins. The reconstruction effort, supported by the Marshall Plan, the Greek diaspora and the efforts of the government and population itself, was responsible for re-creating a country. Roads, ports, airports, and cities were re-built or, indeed, built for the first time.

The rush to rebuild, or indeed create, modern Greece on the ashes of these two conflicts has been unprecedented in Greek history. Although we tend to forget these things, the Greece of 2010 is very different from the Greece of 1960:

·         In 1960, the large-scale trend of urban migration was well underway, transforming metropolises such as Athens and Thessaloniki, which were in no way prepared for the influx. From an agrarian, rural country, Greece was transformed into an urban country in the space of less than 30 years, or about one generation. This was then exacerbated in the 1990s and into the present decade with the influx of a further 1 million illegal economic refugees and migrants from the former Soviet bloc and other less-developed countries.

·         In 1960, the ratio of early school leavers was high and university graduates was low. Although this trend has been reversed, thanks in no small part to the European Union, it’s clear that the educational system has not been able to modernise or transform itself at the same rates as the economy and society in which it is embedded. While quantitative targets may have been implemented, qualitative targets have not.

·         In 1960, the large majority of rural areas were still without electricity, indoor plumbing, running water, municipal sewerage, telephone access, or a range of other amenities. My mother, for instance, grew up in a village house where the only source of fresh water was from the village spring. Today, of course, the situation is vastly different. You can (theoretically) sign up for ADSL service in the countryside; electricity and water provision are available, and despite the odd problem, the situation is far better than it was 50 years ago.

This development has come at a financial price. Greece has had to invest high amounts to achieve a basic level of living standards. Anyone in doubt as to the actual benefits of Greece’s development should visit rural areas in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria or Romania to see the difference.

Unfortunately, Greece has chosen to implement this investment primarily through the state. If the state organisations were as efficient and transparent as, say, Singapore’s, this could have been done at a lower cost, and more rapidly. But Greek state organisations are not interested in efficiency or transparency: they are primarily mechanisms to assure political loyalty to the two main political parties. This is ironic, since both parties profess to be against clientilism, corruption and inefficiency, yet both parties do their best to further precisely these attributes.   

The image of the flaming garbage can for me illustrates Greece’s struggle to transition from second to first world country.  How do I define a first world country?  

·        Political maturity. Greeks are increasingly sceptical of government and the promises of its political classes. The standard political approach of sloganeering or the search for external or internal enemies, is present, but is less valid.

·        A desire for higher quality public services. Greek citizens want quality education and healthcare. The achievements of the past 30 years, which saw the foundation of basic services across the country, are now no longer enough. Trading a vote for a place in the government has also lost its allure, at least among the upwardly-mobile professionals.

·         Higher productivity. Greece today is a Second World country with emerging pockets of world-class productivity: Athens International Airport; the Attiki Metro; Aegean Airlines; high-speed ferry operators and shipping groups such as Blue Star/High Speed Ferries; banking groups such as Ethniki, Alpha, Marfin, Eurobank or Pireaus Bank, which have expanded beyond Greece’s borders and control a significant share of banking in the region. Other notable cases include natural resources and energy companies such as Titan, Mytilineos or Motor Oil; food processors such as Vivartia; tourism groups such as Grecotel. In the future, this same productivity will extend to smaller companies now making their drive towards internationalisation.

·        A desire for greater personal mobility. Greek citizens above all want the assurance of an economy which offers them a meaningful career and personal development. The older model, of working for a single company over a lifetime, or working in the public sector, are less attractive that we may believe. Particularly younger Greeks, or professionals returning from abroad, are leading the way in this respect.

·         An emphasis on accountability. In theory, at least, citizens are against the status quo of statism, clientism, or corruption. While actual behaviour contrasts markedly with the idealism expressed, (e.g. many complain, but continue to bribe or avoid the law), more and more citizens and voters want to see effective public services which do their job properly.

·        Greater social involvement. The number of NGOs and other organisations emphasising volunteerism and community service has skyrocketed in recent years. This is highly encouraging, as it shows that citizens are concerned and will contribute if the correct framework is available.

·         Environmental integrity. Even before the massive fires of 2007 and 2009, Greek citizens have been taking a greater interest in the environment. We can only hope that this trend will accelerate in the future.

I see these trends occurring in every domain of public life: politics, public administration, business, social work. Yet three major questions remain:

a.       Can these changes actually materialise in a systematic way given the traditional deficiencies of the public and private sectors?

b.      Can Greece survive the dramatic public debt situation, and in the process transform the public sector from the corrupt morass of the present day into something leaner and more efficient in the future?

c.       Have Greece’s political parties and citizens really accepted the need for change, and do we see demonstrable indications of a new form of political, economic and social interaction?

To my considerable dismay, the answer I would give to these three questions is negative. The changes forced by the recent debt bail-out have been accepted in theory, but rarely in practise. Five of the six parties in Parliament are actively campaigning against the “Memorandum”. Few of the government reforms introduced over the past 6 months have truly addressed the needs of the sectors they purport to regulate, and few comply with the letter and spirit of EU law. Implementation is everywhere delayed, and the true magnitude of public revenue and expenditure numbers is increasingly open to question.  

Any objective observer reviewing the current local and regional elections will immediately conclude that nothing has changed. There is no vision, no coherent plan, few new faces with an idea of what is actually going on. It’s the same tired slogans, the same party hacks, the same intra-party manoeuvres. What real political choice is there? What political responsibilities exist when the same parties nominate the same members of a failed political class for power?

And finally, any objective observer would be shocked by the standards of public life and social intercourse in Athens and nearly everywhere in Greece. Whether queuing at the supermarket, or driving to school, or walking on the sidewalk, or travelling by ferry, there is remarkably little consideration for one’s fellow man. Public behaviour is as far removed from the cherished values of “philotimo” or “philoxenia” or even “philhellenism” as the planet Pluto is from the sun.

With democracy and freedom come the fundamental responsibility of self-respect and respect for one’s fellow citizens / residents. This is the grand paradox of Greece: despite decades of investment and relative political stability since 1974, the standards of public life and public service have slipped further than ever.

While the past traditional values were sufficient to help Greece survive through civil wars and occupation, these values have been so eroded in the last 30 years as to make Greece an essentially ungovernable country. We may have increased enrolment in public education, we may have increased the number of hospitals, and we may have better banking and internet access, but we have still not accepted the need for self-respect and respect for others.

This can neither be mandated nor legislated by government, nor by the Troika or any other “external enemy”. It cannot be bought with European subsidies or Goldman Sachs loans. It can only be done by the Greeks themselves.

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