A combination of 5,000 years of history, great political thought, riots in the streets and tobacco smoke in bars, restaurants, homes, and just about every other place can either sharpen or deaden the development mind. Welcome to Athens, last week. We were warned not to leave the hotel, but of course we all did. And the Greek salad of history, thought, riots, and tobacco smoke proved tasty for the development palate.
5,000 years of history should teach us that we need long-term time horizons for the kind of substantive development changes we are seeking. Of course there can be short term "victories", but those can quickly ebb away if they are not solidly grounded. We have seen this with journalists and media rights in Russia; democratic reforms in Thailand; and political processes in South Africa. These are long processes. They have no single solution. People themselves in these contexts will drive [and resist] these changes. Backward steps will happen. Too much development thinking and action is far too short-sighted. This particularly applies to the programme support. OK - the MDGs are to 2015 but most programme support remains 1, 2 or 3 years in length - far too short?
Of course 5,000 years is just a little excessive. We do not live now in the historically comparable era of the Epidavrus theatre. But the point still stands. Long-term sustainable change takes time - lots of time. We can [and should] all accelerate the pace and strive for quick results. But if that means short-cuts in building the essential foundations for change such as the inclusion of different population groups, full consideration from different perspectives of the options available, open and transparent decision making processes, then the short-cuts will be rendered, at best, useless and maybe counter-productive.
Socrates is part of that history. It is a testament to the power of his principled thought and judgment that, thousands of years after he stood and debated with the public in the Agora and other key Athens public spaces, we are still enthralled by Socrates. It is very moving to stand near where he would have stood and to imagine those scenes. I am no expert on Socrates but what we all know is that he posed questions - and kept posing questions. His way was not to answer problems but to highlight issues and raise...well...questions. It is that simple approach that drove one of the most important political [democracy and governance - both Greek words?] processes in global history.
So, why, in development practice, do we all need to be consumed by answers? Everywhere we turn people in development are either asked for or volunteer answers. These are important - of course. But shouldn't the communication and media role - a legitimate and substantive role - be to ask the questions - to light and fuel the fire of debate? Is that not our well proven niche and vitally important contribution?
Who knows what questions the great questionner himself - Socrates - would have asked of the riots that started in Athens the day we arrived [no connection - promise]. They continued the whole week we were there. As the world knows, these riots were initially a response to the shooting of a 15-year old boy by a police officer. But it soon became very clear to all of us foreigners that the core issues and dynamics around the riots went very deep indeed. Of course, the Greeks knew this from the beginning. 2,000 years [approx.] after Socrates, these riots highlighted two development questions that we leave off the development agenda at our peril.
What is the role of violence in progressive development action? Perhaps 10,000 young people throughout Greece, in one short week, through a potent mix of molotov cocktails and building destruction, put core issues about the overall development priorities for Greece smack-bang into the middle of the Greek political process and public and private debate. These issues had been ignored and marginalised. For example, one report has up to 70% of Greek young people [aged 18 to 24] being unemployed. The actions of the rioters may topple a government. Was there any other option for them? Was there another way for their voice and perspective to be heard and incorporated in the development process in Greece? As non-violent practitioners committed to peaceful development action, we all need to say “yes - there is another way". But it is well worth posing this question as a contribution to finding that better way forward.
Have we lost the balance in democracy and governance focused international development between the building of democratic institutions and supporting people participating in the political process? I sense that the institutions have received an overemphasis relative to the people. Since the end of the military dictatorships in the 1970s, Greece has focused a lot of attention on building its democratic institutions. [Perhaps more accurately we should say “re-building”, as Greece did, after all, invent democracy!]. Greece has a democratically elected government. But one week of a relatively small number of people throwing burning bottles at Police, smashing store fronts and setting fire to cars and buildings, and both the legitimacy of the elected government and the relevance of the democratic institutions looks as shaky as a Delphic stoa.
The reason for this is, of course, due to resonance and support, not anarchic action. The government would not be under threat and the institutions would not be shaking at their propylon base if the motives and analysis of the people in the front lines of the riots did not resonate with ordinary Greeks. But they do. The level of support and understanding from ordinary Greeks in everything from polls to street vox pops by TV stations seemed extraordinarily high given the destruction being visited on their cities. People matter. The parts of the international development community that are focused on democracy and governance can learn from the Greek experience that people matter as much, if not more, than institutions. That you can build all the institutions you like, but if people do not feel their voices are being heard and their issues are being taken seriously, then nothing can save the legitimacy and substantive role of those institutions. It is the communication and media role to ensure that there are primary spaces for that involvement and voice. Otherwise it is all smoke and mirrors.
Which brings us, of course, to tobacco! It is a long time since I have been in any environment in which there has been so much tobacco. Even many of the economically poorest countries have banned the smoking of tobacco in bars and restaurants and meeting rooms. But not Greece [or if they have, no one knew about the law and all ignored it!]! And the majority seem to smoke - which is also increasingly rare. From The Red Lion, Panos' local bar [the person, not the organisation, I hasten to add!] to up-scale restaurants, your drink and meal were consumed with tobacco smoke - literally consumed. Whilst the rest of the world is experiencing a dramatic shift in social norms and personal behaviours around tobacco, Greece seems to just keep on smoking. The communication and media strategies and actions that have played such significant roles in bringing about that global shift - communicating data on 2nd hand smoking effects, promoting rights of workers in bars and restaurants, highlighting health care costs, advocating local civic laws and rules, counter advertising, public debate, and private dialogue - seem to be so much smoke over the water for Greeks. The question is - why? What has happened - or what has happened specific to the Greek context? Cause we should all know: in development action the local rules. Tobacco in Greece proves that. In the Socratic tradition, we need to ask why. The exploration of that question will tell us a lot about effective strategies for overall development progress.
5,000 years on and there is still a lot that we can learn from Greeks - many thanks to all of them.