Christine Lagarde's "tough love" is an insult to Greece

By urging Greeks to pay up without whingeing the IMF chief has revealed her deep historical and cult.

You are crossing the road, a little absent-minded. About two-thirds of the way, you become aware of oncoming traffic. And right then, in that moment of panic, instead of speeding up to the safety of the near pavement, you freeze. Or, even worse, you try to turn and go back to where you came.

It is an illogical reaction to a simple, urgent problem. We’ve all done it. But when the head of the International Monetary Fund behaves in such a way, faced with the oncoming juggernaut of economic crisis, it is a source of deep concern.

In an interview for the Guardian, Christine Lagarde did exactly that. She chose to tell Greece it was payback time. “That’s right”, she said calmly, “Yeah.” She chose to talk about starving babies in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen her call to Greece to stop whingeing and pay up. She chose to pinpoint tax evasion by a fraction of the population of a country which accounts for less than 0.5% of the world’s GDP as the sole source of the world’s economic woes. She chose to bury her head in the sand.

But, while her argument has been loudly lauded as “tough love” in many a luxurious Northern European dinner-party, over a glass of cheeky Beaujolais Nouveau, the most rudimentary scrutiny reveals it to be strategically, economically and intellectually flawed.

Her stance shows a complete misunderstanding of the psychology of a nation which has suffered nearly five years of recession and the severest of austerity cuts; a nation which is increasingly and vocally rejecting foreign interference and which is being pushed to political extremes in the upcoming election.

What was the idea, strategically, behind such a statement? If anyone seriously believed that having a representative of the IMF – the Grand Protector of the financial status quo – tell Greece to put up and shut up, would have the effect of encouraging people to vote for centrist pro-austerity parties, then they understand the mood there even less than I thought.

There are very few ways one could make such a move even more cack-handed. One could choose, as the vessel of such sentiments, an ex-Finance Minister of a Eurozone country; perhaps someone who left France with its highest deficit in 60 years. One could choose someone currently under investigation for not just one but two cases of fraud in shady financial deals. One could even accompany this interview with a pictorial which showed her dispensing thrift advice, while displaying a deep tropical tan, heavy jewellery and expensively tailored clothes.

And from such a throne of non-credibility, came the attractively packaged but intellectually hollow arguments.

First, the insidious idea that the misery engulfing the people of any nation is to be ignored, on the basis that there is even worse misery elsewhere. That in some way helping Greece – a member of the European Union for thirty years – is a direct alternative to helping “little kids from a school in a little village in Niger”. There is no such proposed programme to help little kids in Niger, you understand. This is a fictional programme, part of the IMF’s varied portfolio of fictional charitable work, that could, possibly, maybe happen, if only Greeks stopped being so selfish.

The hollow nonsense continued to flow freely. Faced with the question of women without access to a midwife when they give birth, patients dying without access to drugs, the elderly dying alone for lack of care and children starving, Lagarde’s response is simply to say that it is very easy for them to help themselves. How? "By all paying their tax. Yeah."

That’s right. Because, plainly, it is the same mothers without access to midwives, the elderly without care, the sick who cannot afford the newly introduced €5 hospital admission fee, the children without food, who have hoards of taxable income and are busily trying to send it to banks in Switzerland, while starving. Greece as one homogenous, tax-dodging mass responsible for its own downfall.

Which all enforces the grand illusion that all this is nothing to do with a global financial crisis, brought about by the very interests that the IMF represents. Instead, it was a Greek time-bomb waiting to explode. This, however, creates some difficulty in explaining the IMF’s assessment of Greece in May 2008. It boasted headlines like; “The Greek economy has been buoyant for several years and growth is expected to remain robust for some time”; “The Greek banking sector appears to be sound and has thus far remained largely unaffected by the financial market turmoil”; and “in view of Greece’s membership in the EMU, the availability of financing for the external deficit is not a concern”.

Presumably, what is implicit in Lagarde’s comments is: We got it wrong then, but you should take our advice now. We’re definitely, definitely right this time. The IMF is, after all, the forensic scientist of the world’s financial woes. “It's not either austerity or growth, that's just a false debate”, Lagarde explains. “Nobody could argue against growth. And no one could argue against having to repay your debts. The question and the difficulty is how do you reconcile the two, and in which order do you take them? I would argue that you do it on a country by country case.”

I invite Christine Lagarde to name one example, one country, one case where the IMF decided that repaying a debt came second to growth.

It certainly was not Malawi – ordered by the IMF to sell its grain reserves in 2001 to private companies in order to repay a debt with 56% interest (which it had been advised to take by the IMF); a move which directly caused hundreds of people to die the next year.

It certainly was not Argentina which, having been the busty centrefold of IMF policies throughout the 1990′s sticking religiously to all IMF advice – privatising everything but their anthem, liberalising industries, lowering corporation taxes while tightening public spending, suffered one of the most catastrophic economic collapses in 2001. The IMF demanded it got paid first and actively lobbied against discounts to creditors.

As a matter of fact, there appears to be not a single example of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment policies applied to a crisis situation where they haven’t brought more misery and stagnation. Its obsession with austerity has recently been described as “dangerous” for European recovery, by the OECD.

Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz, put it at its bluntest: “When the IMF arrives in a country, they are interested in only one thing. How do we make sure the banks and financial institutions are paid?... It is the IMF that keeps the speculators in business. They’re not interested in development, or what helps a country to get out of poverty.”

So, should we simply discount Christine Lagarde’s noisy drivel? Should we ignore the IMF’s advice altogether? That would be a mistake. This is, for instance, what they said about the UK economy: “The financial sector is strong and well supervised with a principle-based approach. The fiscal framework is good, and the mission focused on how to build fiscal cushions needed to respond to adverse shocks.”

They said this in 2007, a year before the entire house of cards collapsed on our heads – a collapse for which our children’s children will be paying, for many decades to come. The conclusion, therefore, must be that one should never ignore the IMF’s advice. One should study carefully what is being advocated, then do precisely the opposite.

Many Greek voters certainly plan to. That’s right. Yeah.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Poppy McPherson
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“We have lost our birth place”: the long, slow persecution of the Rohingya Muslims

Mohammed Ilias was a school teacher. Then the government dismissed Muslims from their posts. 

The first time the Myanmar army came to his door to ask about the militants, in early August, Mohammed Ilias, a softly-spoken Rohingya teacher in his mid-forties, invited them in. “My little child welcomed them into the house,” he said. “They said: ‘The teacher’s child is very good. Very nice. He’s welcoming us! How well-behaved he is!’”

Maybe it was the kindness of his son. Maybe it was luck. But that day, Ilias wasn’t among the hundreds he said were rounded up in the village of Doe Tan in Maungdaw township, for interrogation about the new Rohingya insurgency. “At least 400 of them they took to the schools and tortured very badly,” he said.

The next time the soldiers came to Doe Tan, they were on a rampage. Insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked dozens of police posts two days earlier, on 25 August. In response, homes were set alight and shots fired indiscriminately, Ilias said.

His eyes welled up with tears. “In that gunfire, one of my elder sisters – 75 years old – died in her home,” he said. “I decided: ‘They killed my sister. They may kill us.’” That day, he left the village with his wife and six children, carrying only a piece of plastic to use as shelter on the road.

The chaos that has engulfed Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state over the past three weeks, pushing an estimated 400,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, has awoken the world to the plight of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around one million.

Soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists are accused of slaughtering civilians and razing villages in a campaign of indiscriminate violence, terrifying in its intensity. But to Rohingya like Ilias, this is the culmination of a lifetime of persecution. It is only the latest brutal chapter in a story of oppression that has deprived an entire people of freedom, education and opportunities over the course of generations.

“They have been torturing us for years,” say many of the Rohingya now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The events of August were the final straw.

In the muddy, cramped camp outside the port town of Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi fishing port close to Myanmar, where many of the Rohingya have sought refuge, Ilias sat with his hands folded on his lap. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a brown checked longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men. “My name is Mohammed Ilias. I am 46,” he said quietly, beginning his story.

He was born in 1972 to a well-known and respected family, he said. His grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was an influential local leader who had been decorated by the British for fighting alongside them in World War II. During the colonial era, the British had encouraged migration into Rakhine from neighbouring Bengal, supplementing the existing Muslim population.

At the time of Myanmar’s independence, in 1948, the first Prime Minister, U Nu, recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Families who had lived in the country for at least two generations could apply for a green card granting them full citizenship. Abdul Aziz was among them. “My grandfather had a card which was green,” said Ilias. “Green like the colour of leaves.”

But in 1962, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup and introduced sweeping new rules governing national identity. The 1982 Citizenship Act, which excludes Rohingya from a set of accepted races, effectively rendered them stateless.

The junta began issuing Rohingya with temporary registration certificates, or “white cards” that made them “residents” rather than citizens. “My family had so much status, so much honour,” said Ilias. “My grandfather was like a king. He helped the British. He got a green card from the Myanmar government, so why would we take the white card?”

Before Ilias’s father died, when his son was still small, he expressed a wish that at least one of his children follow in his footsteps. But it was becoming more difficult for Rohingya to access decent jobs. They were barred from higher education. “He told my sister: ‘Somehow, please make a teacher from my family,’” Ilias recalled.

Ilias couldn’t go to university, but he managed to get a job at a state-run school, teaching maths and science. It didn’t last long. “After that Myanmar decided not to take Muslim teachers,” he said. “They forced us to resign and took lots of Rakhine people into the schools for teaching.”

He continued teaching informally, he said, sometimes taking payment from parents but more often working for free. But few Rohingya in the village could see the benefits of sending their children for an education rather than to work as farmers or labourers, he said. “Our children were getting an education but they can’t do anything,” said Ilias. “They can’t get a government job. If you are an educated man, but you can’t do anything to earn money, how can you cover the expenses for your family?”

To make ends meet, Ilias ran a small shop in the village. But getting supplies required hiring Rakhines to bring them. Even farmers relied on Rakhines to bring fertiliser for their fields. Relations between the two communities had been tense for years but worsened dramatically after outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.

And then, in 2015, voting rights for Rohingya were withdrawn ahead of the anticipated election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. But it was quickly apparent that advocating for Rohingya was not on her agenda. In late 2016, ARSA militants launched their first attack on police posts.

The ensuing months in northern Rakhine, the center of the new insurgency, were fraught. Imams – accused of lending religious legitimacy to the violence – and community leaders like Ilias were suspect.

In early August, the military called a meeting with educated Rohingya in Doe Tan, Ilias said. They were told to sign a paper promising the tackle the insurgency. “It was a paper given by the military, like a peace contract,” he said.

But the militants attacked again on 25 August and soldiers were soon back in Ilias’s house. They saw bottles of medicine – used to stock his shop, he said – and accused him of treating ARSA fighters. “You are not a teacher, you are a doctor for ARSA,” they told him.

“There were four or five of them,” recalled Ilias. “They pushed me to the ground, then with the pliers they took away my nails. They beat me with a bamboo stick.” 

He was saved when a commander recognised him and reprimanded the soldiers. “I saw you, you are a teacher in the school, you are not a bad man,” Ilias recalled the commander saying. “He was just trying to convince me to give information about ARSA. But actually I don’t know about ARSA. How can I give him any information without knowing?”

After fleeing the village, leaving behind the body of his sister Basuma, who he described as a pious and well-liked widow, Ilias heard the whole area had been looted and razed. “The wealth was gone, the houses empty, no people... Then they started to burn from the outside part of the village. They were burning our houses for three days at least,” he said.

The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the recent violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Auu Kyi, on the other hand, has attracted international condemnation for failing to speak out. She decided not to attend the UN General Assembly this week, and has limited her comments to saying she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict. 

“You start systematically weakening a maligned group in order to make their existence either so fragile that they leave of their own accord, or to ensure they fail to put up much of a struggle when a military operation such as this gets underway,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

Like many Rohingya, Ilias spent years finding ways to work within a system that ground him down. Now in Bangladesh, which has reluctantly accepted the new arrivals but has said it plans to keep them in camps, he is staring into an uncertain future (he was photographed for this article, but from behind, as he did not want to show his face for fear of retribution). “We have lost our homeland. Our birth place,” he said. “We are now here in Bangladesh but we don’t want to make any trouble. We don’t want to be destroyed, like waste.”

Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist reporting on South East Asia, mainly Myanmar