Nepotism, graft and apathy holding Greece back
Greece Letter: Since the economic crisis over 500,000 people have gone abroad
The EU has stipulated that getting rid of the bureaucratic nightmare of setting up a business is one of the major reforms Greece must undertake if it is to become competitive, attract foreign investment and achieve economic growth. Photograph: Reuters
An Athens newspaper recently referred to the mantra “this is Greece”, which is often used to explain a failure in the political or social system – a way of shrugging off the problem onto the collective shoulder. “It serves to rationalise inertia, the inability to break with vested interests, and the failure to take on influential oligarchs.”
To fight this, the paper argued, is a losing battle, even though there are “hundreds of inspiring examples to show that we can achieve anything we put our minds to”.
Unfortunately this is true on the individual level, but not on the macro-social level of government or industry.
Last month some of the top Greek industrialists denounced the obstacles to effective competition in the European marketplace: taxation, high energy costs, bureaucracy and monopolistic practices.
On the same day the German finance ministry and the European Stability Mechanism both warned that Greece cannot in the foreseeable future pay off its debts to the IMF or other creditors, and that continuous surveillance of economic performance is inevitable.
One of the merits of a new book by Roderick Beaton, Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation, is his demonstration of Greek indebtedness to foreign lenders since the foundation of the state in the 1830s: funds to fight the war of independence and to finance Greece’s fledgling manoeuvres in statehood.
The eventual bankruptcy of Greece in 1897 led to an international commission monitoring the economy right up to the 1960s, only to be replicated during the present crisis.
Beaton points to the top-heavy bureaucracy which also has its origins in the system imported with Greece’s first king – a Bavarian prince imposed by the great powers – and continued under successive governments to the present day.
The problems confronting the Greek manufacturing industries also have their equivalents in innovation and technology. This spring I have had the dubious privilege of advising a young man in the village on his masters thesis in robotics. I know almost as little about robotics now as I did before. But the thesis had to be written in English, and my young friend was unsure of his vocabulary and his grammar.
A dubious privilege? Yes, because there is no future for this young man in Greece: to pursue his career he has to emigrate, probably to the UK or the US. I have known him since he was a child, and all that time he has been inventive, explorative and go-ahead.
He scared the hell out of us as a schoolboy when he built an electric bazooka that could fire missiles over 500m. So I was helping him to do what his heart, and my heart, realise is wrong: to take away from his family, his village and his homeland the initiative and skills which they all so badly need.
In the university sector research may not be marketed. Advances in areas like robotics (a growth industry from warehousing to micro-surgery) cannot be sold in the marketplace.
Recently three specialists in an Athens university designed a submarine robot but were not allowed to make it commercially available. The result? They sold it on their own initiative to China for €90 million, and are now living and working there. China 3, Greece 0.
Since the onset of the economic crisis, over half a million people have left Greece, most of them young, highly-skilled and highly-motivated, with entrepreneurial flair and ideas. They have been disappointed in their home country by a combination of the economic downturn and what seems to be an innate systemic resistance to creativity and enterprise.
The Athens newspaper was correct: yes, young Greeks can “put their minds” to a challenge, and, with dogged persistence, they can sometimes reach their goal. But for the majority the bureaucratic nightmare of setting up a business is one of the greatest deterrents.
The EU has stipulated that this is one of the major reforms Greece must undertake if it is to become competitive, attract foreign investment and achieve economic growth. And it is one of the steps which it seems incapable of implementing.
It is not Greece’s people – young or old – who are lacking in ideas or ambition. It is the centuries old system of nepotism, graft and apathy instead of meritocracy, transparency and energy which keeps Greece intellectually and socially locked into its past.
Obliging my young friend to take up a research position at a foreign university, at a salary he could never hope to command at home, and with prospects of developing his ideas into tangible results, is morally and socially indefensible.
Yet it is a path that as many as 100,000 graduates in the sciences and the humanities will follow this year and well into the future.