The bear necessity of sanctuaries

Whenever I try to explain to a foreign friend or colleague how Greece’s public administration malfunctions, and how it could be improved, I remember how Arcturos set free the bears.

Up until the mid-1990s, one could still encounter dancing bears in Greek cities and towns. Flea-ridden, skeletal, mistreated and dragged about by chains passed through nose rings, for a few drachmas they were forced to shuffle about in what passed for a dance. Even though it was already illegal to keep a wild animal in captivity, whenever a bear owner was arrested the unfortunate creature was returned to his custody because the authorities had no place to keep bears. When Arcturos was established in 1992, at the initiative of Yiannis Boutaris (who today is mayor of Thessaloniki), a sanctuary was set aside for bears taken into custody to live out their days in a semi-wild state, under the environmental group’s protection.

Arcturos’s example could provide an effective way to deal with the problems in our public administration – where laws are not implemented, where the bureaucracy does not work toward solutions, and where the confusion of regulations and responsibilities, the lack of logic and of funds coalesce in a system that blocks every positive development. The bears were freed only when some people took it upon themselves to create a sanctuary, allowing the authorities to confiscate the animals. In a few years, an ancient, cruel custom was eradicated entirely.

A few years later, in the human sphere, Citizens’ Information Centers (known as KEPs) were set up to serve as “sanctuaries” where citizens could evade the chaos of the civil service. At KEP offices they could request and get a range of documents without having to visit countless services all over town. The success of the KEPs (despite the cuts that they too have suffered in recent years) showed that where the bureaucracy’s Gordian Knot could not be cut it could be bypassed with the establishment of a small, flexible organization that was focused on providing solutions. This model could work wonders in other spheres, such as education, justice, and so on.

Establishing small organizations, with carefully selected employees, with organizational charts that set out spheres of responsibility and accountability, would solve many problems for citizens. They would also provide a stable point on which a new Greece could be founded. These organizations would differ from Arcturos in that they would not be funded (solely) by private donations, but they would be similar in that they would be focused primarily on solving problems.

Arcturos, which has spread its interests beyond bears to a wide range of environmental issues, is struggling to survive. Now it is our turn to offer it protection.