Athens: On Life Support or Living the Legacy?

During a recent trip to Greece, I found the situation there not exactly as they would have us believe. Over the last five years, Western media have been selling us the idea of ​​a failed state, speaking of Athens as a dangerous city with constant outbreaks of crime and disorder. They make sweeping generalizations about the Greeks being corrupt and lazy people, who want only to free-ride off social services provided by the state. I even heard journalists blame the entire euro crisis on Greece, saying that kicking them out of the Eurozone would be a magic solution to the EU’s problems.

All this scaremongering Riots on the streets of Athens... or London?obscures the actual situation of a proud people. The financial crisis  afflicting this country has causes far beyond the rate of taxes paid (or not paid) by Greek citizens. First, the aftershocks of the US crisis in 2008 are still being felt not only in Greece but all across the old continent; some say it was the watershed in Wall Street that helped spark the Greek crunch. Second, many experts (including Spanish professor Jose Manuel Serrano) say that Greece’s political and economic suffocation is due to systematic control attempts by foreign governments.

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How much of a Consumerist are you?

Some people still believe that, to be happy, we need to accumulate things. Shopping malls have become the destination of choice for human entertainment, in turn making our regions economically dependent on department stores.

Have you ever wondered where so Coltan from DRCmuch of what we buy, mostly needlessly, comes from and goes? The system of production and consumption on our planet begins with extraction. You get the necessary natural resources (minerals, water, wood, etc.) from all over the world taken to manufacturing centres. There they are combined with synthetic products, and energy is invested to produce anything from clothing to appliances. So far, so clear.

Yet there are two basic problems with this system. First, there are not enough natural resources in the world to meet the current demand of Western consumption. The USA, with only 5 per cent of the global population, uses about 30 per cent of the world’s resources. Clearly, if other countries follow these rates of consumption – and there are several that threaten to do so including India and China – our resources will run out much sooner than we think.

Second, the world’s largest corporations have amassed so much power that they’re increasingly difficult to regulate. According to the consultancy Global Trends, of the world’s 150 largest economies only 41 per cent are countries; the rest are corporations.

There are various drawbacks to this situation, from the terrible working conditions for employees in developing countries, to the destruction of valuable  natural resources without compensation. All this to produce shoes, watches and tablets as quickly and cheaply as possible to satisfy the  demand of global consumers.

Although consumption trends are high in many countries (Germany leads in  Europe, while the growth in some Persian Gulf countries is astounding), the USA has topped the list since the times of Victor Lebow. This analyst theorized that for the large US economy to maintain its robustness, it would need to make consumption a permanent part of the US lifestyle.

It is seriously difficult to understand prices in US malls. How  can a buyer know how much was earned by the Chinese boy who assembled the product by hand? If he was offered social security and health benefits? How much did the fuel cost to bring it from China to Rotterdam to Florida? If it is an electronic device, where did the Coltan come from? And how much was paid to farmers who extracted it? If this mineral – vital for cell phones and games consoles – came from D.R. Congo, did it come stained with blood?

We do not have sufficient space to address the last link in this consumer system: the inevitably gigantic quantities of waste generated. But the message is clear, responsible citizenship requires us, at the very least, to ask ourselves again and again if we really need that new item that we are about to buy.

Although modern advertising may suggest the opposite, and those who call us  ‘ecocentric’ are everywhere, it is worth pursuing sustainable lifestyles. Ultimately, parks and fellow humans are worth more than shopping malls and corporations. Because our quality of life doesn’t depend on our level of consumption!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 9 April 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Enoughproject

Making Local Democracy Accountable

Representatives from 10 countries met in Zambia in early December to review methodology from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).

The methodology, called the State of Local Democracy Assessment Framework (SoLD), allows people to carry out citizen-led assessments of local democracy.
It has already been tested in nine countries and is currently applied in Ghana, Indonesia, the Philippines (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), and Morocco.

Based on the challenging findings of assessment teams made up of academics and NGO representatives, delegates shared experiences and discussed the various strengths and weaknesses of the methodology.

Specific issues included challenges for assessment teams in conflict situations, urban versus rural contexts, the impact of informal institutions, the adequacy of methodology in capturing the gender dimension, and the need to include accountability for improving service delivery as a specific topic in the assessment.

On the final issue, a small team of experts of which I was part, was invited to contribute to the SoLD discussion and to work more specifically on IDEA’s methodology for assessing accountability in service delivery which was piloted in Lesotho, Bolivia and Indonesia in 2011 and which will be revised on the basis of these experiences in early 2012.

Renée Speijcken, Researcher, UNU-MERIT / Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.

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UN conference in Morocco: Empowering citizens to fight corruption

‘Corruption is personal, not only to me, but to everyone’Carman Louise Lapointe, Under Secretary General for Internal Oversight Services of the United Nations (UN OIOS)

MARRAKECH: With a personal short story from Canada, Carman Lapointe sparked a lively debate among officials, academics and journalists from over 30 countries on how to engage citizens in the fight against corruption in service delivery, and so ensure more effective and accountable development and governance.

Across six sessions and one working group scheduled over two days, 75 participants debated and exchanged the latest and most innovative approaches, technologies, experiences and insights from research and reality in anti-corruption and accountability.

The aim was to produce a joint list of recommendations for the Conference of States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption which was running in parallel on the floor above us in a convention hall in Marrakech, Morocco.

What was my role?
I was invited by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an international NGO from Stockholm with whom I work on the issue of democratic accountability for improved service delivery. From this conference we expected an opportunity to meet and exchange views with leading academic experts, NGO representatives, policy makers and implementers in the area of anti-corruption and accountability which would inform and inspire our work. Yet the outcome of the workshop was mixed.

Despite the best intentions of the conference organizers, the format did not really showcase technologies and innovative interactive approaches. The agenda was over full, there were too many presenters in each session and timing was too tight, resulting in hardly any time for real interaction and debate. Individual presentations were mostly interesting but sessions as a whole lacked coherence and reference to their described objectives.

Still, the benefits of this kind of meeting are not always found in the official part of the programme. The real value lies in the moments around the main sessions, the moments waiting in line for registration and security checks, at meals and coffee breaks or shuttling between venues.

Fringe benefits
Here the real learning manifests as we bump into each other and start casual conversations that often end up in fascinating discussions in which views, insights,  research findings, experiences,  contact details and even our annoyances, are exchanged.

It was in these moments that I learned about some new and interesting approaches to analysing anti-corruption and democratic accountability, got some useful references and tips on how to involve citizens in e-governance and learned about what it means to fight corruption in one of West Africa’s most unstable countries. Here then I found what I was looking for, and some of these aspects will definitely inspire future work.

Some days later, another time and place, I find myself in a line again. Behind me is a man making a huge fuss; an officer comes forward and the man is taken aside; then clearly visible to those closest to the scene, he takes out his wallet and hands money to the official. He skips the line and is attended to in a separate office. After a few seconds we see him leave with a smile. One thing comes to mind right now: ‘Corruption is personal, it happens not only to me, but to everyone’.

Renée Speijcken, Researcher, UNU-MERIT / Maastricht Graduate School of Governance