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Looking back and looking forward: Greece needs a real rebuilding plan

Wednesday, December 19, 2012  |   |  Tags: ,

Greek Ambassador Gianna Angelopoulos wrote a thought-provoking piece yesterday on learning from Greece’s past at The Huffington Post:

I fear that my home country, Greece — which has no shortage of founding principles, or ancient heritage, or illustrious former leaders — has forgotten how to learn from its past.

After all, Greece is the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and the international communal spirit embodied by the Olympic Games.

But today all three of those ideals are under threat in Greece. How can a democracy work when its people are jobless? How can we do the right thing for future generations? How can Greece establish a relationship with the international community not based on debt or dependency, but on mutual interests and trust?

For the answers to these questions, it’s time for Greece’s citizens and leaders to look into our own past as a people. […]

Americans are fortunate to have founding fathers like Abraham Lincoln to learn from, and they are wise to do so. We Greeks have our own storied history, from the Athens of the ancient world to the tales of mythological gods and goddesses. But more importantly – and more instructively — there are examples throughout Greek society of a can-do attitude, an ability to embrace change, as well as great courage in our recent past. Their lessons speak loudly to us today.

The founding principles and ideals that can renew Greece’s strength are anything but myths.

Ambassador Angelopoulos is absolutely correct that Greeks should look back at their storied history for inspiration.  However, part of the problem in Greece is that Greek politicians spend so much time looking backwards in history that they don’t even try to look forward. Vision is lacking in Greece. Without vision, without a path forward out of the crisis, Greeks will continue to suffer.

Disappointment, rage, fear and shame are the top sentiments among Greeks, according to the latest poll. It’s hard for find hope at the bottom of a garbage can while you’re sifting food, and looking forward to tomorrow is tough when you’re looking to scrape euro coins together to buy your next meal. One out of every three Greeks lives below or near the poverty line.

What Greeks need now is inspiration from the past, yes, but also a concrete, independent plan for Greece’s future. For far too long, the policy outlines have originated from external forces, giving Greek politicians an excuse to throw their hands up in the air, parrot PR talking points and escape scrutiny for their lack of long-term solutions.  Greece cannot and will not be rebuilt on the ashes of austerity. There must be another way forward.

Compare the party agendas of the political parties here in the United States with those of Greece. You may not agree completely with what the Republican Party, Democratic Party, and other entities are proposing, but there is no doubt that the parties are indeed proposing something. Their detailed party platforms and agendas are filled with ideas, draft bills, etc. On the right and on the left you can see how each group would fashion the America of tomorrow. In Greece? Such a robust debate about the Greece of tomorrow is lacking. In its place, impoverished Greeks are subjected to interparty and intraparty bickering, rants against the troika, and promises that the status quo will eventually, well, not be the status quo. But how?

Like the block of clay that yearns for a sculptor’s touch to come to life, Greece needs a craftsman to mold the nation’s future.  The possibilities are vast and bold. Does Greece become the central alternative energy hub of the Mediterranean? Does the legendary Greek sun light the way of Greece’s manufacturing crisis? There was a hint of such an endeavor before the crisis when Greece invested in the solar power industry. The country saw an explosion in the number of solar panels, and there are plans in the works to build one of the world’s biggest solar parks in Greece. In June, a license was granted for the country’s first offshore wind farm. Developing Greece as such an energy hub would also highlight the strategic importance of Greece in the region.  There is already one person fighting daily to make sure that the world hears the call for a new era of conservation and alternative energy. The New York Times recently profiled Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “Green Patriarch,” known around the world for his active mission on environmental issues. The components for a large-scale investment and branding effort for a new Greece, a Green Greece, are all there.

Not surprisingly, the crisis has curtailed investment in some of these projects. Yet, the idea of Greece as a beacon of conservation and alternative energy resources is a prime branding idea and sound policy framework that has yet to be seriously embraced by any party.

There are other efforts to build Greece as the new start-up hub of the Mediterranean  but the reality is that an ocean exists between the rhetoric and policy on that issue. While Greece has jumped 11 spots in the World Bank’s ease of doing business this year, the current ranking of 78th in the world is not anything to brag about. Drilling down on the numbers, Greece has actually slid down six spots in the subcategory of “starting a business” — now ranking a miserable 146th out of 185 economies. Can the new Greece be the heartbeat of the entrepreneur in Eastern Europe? Perhaps, but certainly not until a large-scale, multi-agency policy shift is enacted and not until there is substantial investment into modernizing the government’s technology infrastructure so that the state operates as a facilitator, not obstructor, of small business jobs growth.

Vision is only part of the equation. Something bold like rebuilding the country on the back of clean energy jobs or with the sweat of small business start-ups requires capital and unfrozen credit markets. In the latest bailout deal,  76% of the funds will remain in Greece while the balance will go towards debt relief.  This is a welcomed change in ratio. There’s a reason that Greece’s social situation has deteriorated so rapidly despite tranche after tranche of bailout funds. As The New York Times reported at the time, “European bailout of 130 billion euros ($163.4 billion) that was supposed to buy time for Greece is mainly servicing only the interest on the country’s debt — while the Greek economy continues to struggle.” For far too long, the focus was not on saving or investing in Greece but on saving and strengthening European banking institutions. Keeping more cash in Greece is the first step in the long process of truly investing in Greece’s future.

Ambassador Angelopoulos urges Greece’s leadership to look at Greece’s history for inspiration. Greece’s history proves that, indeed, Greeks have the courage and resilience to follow through on a plan to rebuild their country. It’s time for Greece’s leaders offer up that plan and to finally offer a glimmer of hope to their constituents.

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