OPINION

Foreign models, Greek ways

It is a sign of our need to find solutions to the problems that plague our country that we sometimes seem to grasp wildly for ideas that have been of use elsewhere, perhaps forgetting the very particular nature of our problems, our country and ourselves. We are in one of those phases right now, with a government that has done much to point out the problems that it inherited from the previous government. But, apart from repeating a campaign promise to «reconstitute the state,» it has not been very specific in pointing the way forward since its election in March. That may be the reason why there is so much talk of foreign models lately. Perhaps this is part of the ferment that precedes a Big Bang in which ideas will bounce around wildly before coalescing into the solutions that our country needs. Perhaps, though, all this excitement of watching successful experiments in other countries might seduce us into forgetting that these were applied in a very different environment; furthermore, we might come to believe that looking at the work of others is as good as actually doing it. Lately we have all begun chattering away about the Finnish education model. From the snippets of conversation that have come my way, a couple of decades ago the Finns invested large amounts of money in elementary school education, choosing the brightest teachers for the youngest students and paying them very well. As the story goes, there was a remarkable improvement in students’ performance, right through the education system. According to our own education minister, Marietta Yiannakou, the Finnish model «corresponds to the need for broad general knowledge but also to the labor market’s needs.» This we might interpret as a system that provides a broad basis of knowledge before fine-tuning students to the future needs of the labor market. In other words, not everyone’s child will be a doctor, a lawyer or a prime minister. There will be a need also for plumbers, waiters and television technicians. This means that, to adopt such a model, there has to be a reliable way of predicting the country’s future needs (one that can be trusted to be objective and not to express one or other group’s prejudices or desires), and it requires parents who will trust such a body and encourage their children to seek careers that might not be those of which they dreamed. This is a tough decision for anyone to make at the best of times. In the absence of a state organization that could be trusted for its predictions, it is most unlikely that we would be able to adopt anything close to the Finnish model. Also, if we were to go for such a system, we would also need to find precisely those teachers who would best be able to inspire children from an early age and motivate them to seek knowledge. But the way that meritocracy has been stamped out in Greece over the past years would suggest that no Education Ministry would be able to select the teachers best suited to the task and would have to do what it could with whoever was next in line to be hired. Throwing large amounts of money at them would then lead to disaffection through the rest of the education system without guaranteeing that the better-paid newcomers would do any better than the now-angry veterans of our public school system. But there is another Finnish model that we would like to emulate, and that is the information society. However, four years after the EU’s decision at Lisbon to pursue an information society throughout the bloc, and despite the great excitement that Greek officials expressed and the large amounts of funds that they budgeted for this, Greece is still last in the pre-enlargement EU in terms of the penetration of information technology in society. In sad confirmation of this, the European Commission on Thursday referred us to the European Court for the former government’s madcap decision to clamp down on illegal electronic gambling by placing a ban on all kinds of electronic games anywhere (which, aside from giving a leg up to one-armed bandits in licensed casinos, amounts to a ban on playing chess on your computer at home). And despite the proven capabilities of Greeks with high technology, so many years after the advent of the electronic age, the Finns have a Nokia – which exports phones and technology all over the world – and we have millions of Nokias on which teenagers send millions of SMSs each day, running up debts for their parents to pay. Before Finland, Ireland was the rage, with frequent suggestions that Greece could follow the «Irish model» and become the Celtic Tiger of the Mediterranean. This would imply, once again, exploiting a well-educated work force and creating the institutional framework necessary to attract foreign investment. The fact that India has now become the primary source of «outsourcing,» through the use of very skillful, industrious, English-speaking and cheap workers, raises the question as to how the Greeks would be able to snatch business away from the Irish and the Indians. But considering that in 2002 foreign direct investment in Greece was a comical $50 million, anything remotely inspired by Ireland or India would be a welcome development. The latest model to hit our shores is the French one regarding traffic policing, which began to be discussed in the last few days. This implies (if our information is correct) the guillotining of drivers caught exceeding the speed limit and – even worse – the confiscation of their cars. (As the worst punishment for Greek drivers is other Greek drivers, perhaps such extreme forms of policing would be redundant, though.) Anyhow, the idea is a recent import and it remains to be seen whether it could be a solution to a very serious problem – the shocking lack of discipline by drivers and criminal state of our roads. So far, however, the only model that has been imported with undeniable success has been the Portuguese one of auditing public finances. Our new government, like the one in Lisbon (where the EU’s IT dream was hatched) in 2002, declared to the world that the country’s deficit and public debt were far greater than its predecessors had admitted. They then had to labor under the crushing new burden of debt and the disdainful gaze of their partners in the EU. But their consciences were clear. With all these models parading around us, one wonders what happened to the Greek way, in which we get by by dealing with problems only when they become too great to ignore. Which brings us to the dire understanding that no model will work as long as we cannot overturn the Greek model of public administration – in which indifferent civil servants, accountable to no one, obstruct everyone else. Dealing with them would be a task for Hercules; success would result in know-how that we could happily export.