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Democratic Greece: lessons for African countries receiving aid?

November 3, 2011

Ancient Greece is the cradle of democracy, so how ironic that the democratically elected government of modern Greece should call a referendum on its latest bail-out agreement with the Eurozone leaders. Ironic, because referendums are anti-democratic in the way they allow politicians to shirk the difficult responsibilities for which they are elected, and particularly to allow the majority to tyrannize minorities – thus shirking one of the most important aspects of parliament, which is to ensure that the executive governs on behalf of all. Eighteenth century British MP Edmund Burke’s famous reminder to his Bristol constituents not to expect him to represent their narrow perspectives is a good illustration of how MPs should see their role: he reminded them they had elected him to exercise his voice and his vote in the interests of the country as a whole, not just them.

In the UK today, referendums would almost certainly lead to a large reduction in the country’s overseas aid programme; to the restoration of the death penalty; a reduction in the rights of asylum seekers; and the exclusion of many people in need from welfare and the support currently provided to disabled and other minorities. Yet these are all issues on which UK MPs have resisted the majority view and taken decisions which reflect a broader perspective and their responsibilities to higher values.

And yet, in the case of Greece, perhaps this is the right time to ask the people what they think, because in some ways the bail-out package represents a change in sovereignty, a constitutional change. Under the terms of the bail-out, the Greeks’ government – their elected ministers and their civil servants – will come under the supervision of bureaucrats from abroad, who represent the interests of taxpayers in 16 other countries and a bunch of foreign banks – not Greece. We may flippantly describe these people as “bureaucrats from Brussels”, but think about it: for the Greeks they represent German interests above all. When was the last time Greece was supervised by Germany?…

So Papandreou is calling this referendum not just as an alternative to a general election which he wants to avoid. It is to ask Greeks if they are willing not only to accept a restructuring package which will cost them dear over the coming 20 years, but also whether they accept the undermining of their democratic political process by the dictation of fiscal and other policies from abroad, and by the placement of viceroys to oversee their performance – as though sent from the capital of an imperial power. In those terms, seen from here, the referendum seems well justified, even if inconvenient: and after all, isn’t one of the whole points of democracy that it’s supposed to make governing just a wee bit inconvenient?

A second irony is that Angela Merkel feels justified in criticising Papandreou for doing what he feels he needs to do – the referendum – in order to stay in office and implement the restructuring he has been forced to agree to; even while she accepts that she has been bound by the terms of her relationship with the German parliament to string out the Greek bail-out negotiations for six months, rather than bring them to a conclusion back in the summer when the technical solutions and plans were already quite clear. Surely therefore she should accept that Greece needs to do its own politics before moving ahead with the plan?

Greece: a member of the EU and thus a relatively wealthy country, as viewed from Africa. But are there perhaps some lessons in this story for African governments and civil society. This is effectively a story of aid – of taxpayers from other Eurozone countries pledging and spending vast sums of money on and in Greece. The self-interest of the donors in this case is easier to see than in more classic models of overseas aid, but the basic idea is the same: use our money to help them.

Nevertheless the idea of bureaucrats from donor countries overseeing the decisions and practices of ministers and civil servants in recipient countries is very familiar indeed to Africans. I recall a few years ago being told by a British person working in the Ministry of Finance in Kampala that he was one of 26 outsiders who had been placed in the ministry to keep an eye on things. Such practices are a regular source of anger, frustration and shame in Africa – and are an essentially anti-democratic measure in countries whose citizens are trying very hard to nudge their rulers into being more democratically accountable to them, rather than to representatives of Brussels, London, Washington, etc. If the government in Uganda is being held accountable by representatives of the UK and the EU, what role is the Ugandan parliament playing on behalf of ordinary Ugandans? And, as some Greeks perhaps view Germany with mixed emotions, a mere 65 years after the Second World War, perhaps Kenyans and Ugandans view their donor the UK, and Malians France, a mere 50 years since their independence… 

So perhaps there are some lessons from Greece for MPs and civil society in places like Uganda, Kenya and Mali: use occasional referenda to ask the population whether they accept an aid programme tied to outside meddling. Or at least, make the issue part of their election campaigning and political discourse. Perhaps the referendum result – “yes” to the money, and a begrudging “well I guess we have to” with regards the international oversight – is fairly easy to predict. But the campaigning and the individual and group reflections that the referendum would stimulate would surely be a step for democracy, and might go some way to offset the anti-democratic effects of receiving large sums of aid from elsewhere.

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