Tales of the world episode 70 – Of (UN) interns and men

It is fitting to start the new season of Tales of the world podcasts with a news story arc that happened in Geneva this August. It was broken to the public by the very local newspaper Tribune de Genève, which, for three whole days, knew the glory of being quoted and mentioned by the global media giants, in their search for human-interest stories that could touch their readers during the typically slow summer reel.

The premise of the story arc was quite simple: the newspaper posted on Monday evening, around the time people check their facebook and twitter feeds, a potentially explosive news, as it was directly related to Geneva: young unpaid UN intern has to live in a tent during his internship because he cannot afford anything else, raising the question about who can actually afford to take up this kind of unpaid job. The response was quite immediate and overwhelming: almost everyone in Geneva knows someone or has been in the situation of being an unpaid UN intern, so they sympathise. They also feel inspired that someone courageous has finally took it upon themselves to say something, when they themselves did not do it, although the thought has crossed their minds. So there go offers of lodging and support. On the other hand, as the story is being picked up by more and more international media, the UN itself is forced to come up with a half baked declaration about how it helps its interns survive the fourth most expensive city in the world.

The next day, around midday, lo and behold, the intern buckles under the unexpected pressure of media coverage and claims himself touched and surprised by such reaction. He decided to resign however, and above all, to do this in a press conference in front of Palais des Nations, full of symbolism and fake humility, which instantly raises suspicions as to his ingenuity in this affair. The alarm bells started with the question of “how did the TDG journalist hear about this story” are confirmed, and sure enough, by Wednesday evening, in the middle of a heated public discussion about UN interns and their pay, or lack thereof, the third act in the drama is played and David Hyde confesses publicly that his was a communication coup orchestrated in order to get attention to this topic, about which he intended to do a documentary.

Meanwhile, UN interns did go out on a protest asking for a change the system, which was reported virtually nowhere in the press. And now, for the fifth act and the revenge, as it is called in theatre theory…the weekend papers wasted no time in calling this story a “publicity coup”, a “lying strategy”, with its main character “coming clean”, “confessing” to a “deception” and a “stunt”. By doing this they buried, in their turn, the real story – which is the growing inequality and injustice embedded in the UN internship system – under the cover of self- righteousness.

Three main observations occur to me in relation to this saga.

First, I am appalled by the comments posted by people on the first articles describing the interns’ situation, which, in their majority, did not even engage with the possibility that something is rotten in the system, and kept saying that the only thing to do is to adapt and essentially submit to the current situation, work hard and eventually “earn” the right to have a good internship, when it is pretty clear that these are no longer sufficient conditions to achieve one’s goals. I guess this is Calvinism at its best and Calvin may rest in peace, his city is still under the spell of his 16th century ideology and hypocrisy.

Secondly, my thoughts turn towards David Hyde, the unhappy protagonist of this story. I choose to be naïve enough to believe that his was not a self-interested publicity stunt, but rather the case of young person of strong convictions, who was overwhelmed by hubris and the arrogance stemming from the fact that, at the root of it, he had a good point to make. Also, let us be honest, this type of calculation turns out to be the only way to actually get through to the press, who fell so quickly and so hard for a story which was in the image of the way it works. If the idea of a documentary about this subject really existed, it was a good one and an honest one. The rub is that it needed time and reflection, values and skills that are no longer taught in schools, families and society at large. This brings me to my third point.

The ethics of journalism. What kind of journalist falls right into a youth’s poorly organised plan of making a splash for an idea? Or should we think that, more cunning than a fox who studied cunning at Oxford, the TDG journalist was complicit in this plan out of their support of the cause? I think this overestimates that particular individual on several accounts. Also, what kind of media, in general, fails to stop and reflect on why this entire situation happened, and why, ultimately, it failed to treat in depth the real subject: inequality, injustice and entitlement, and the many forms they take, including in the institutions that are meant to combat these very things. That which has failed us, including David Hyde, most in this story, is lazy journalism, which promises the glory of an instant for an individual, only to bury deep the idea or the cause they happen to stand for.

So there we go, the start of a season, which begins with a bang and a whimper and with a very precious insight: we cannot take the system on full frontal, no matter how right we are; we shall always be crushed, not least by the complicities it generates within ourselves; we can, however, build strategies and proposals based on reflection and medium and long-term processes, which help us build ourselves and narratives that will withstand the temptations of arrogance and hubris and truly build a better future.

Tales of the world episode 69 – La crise grecque un dialogue de sourds à l’européenne

En littérature, on sait qu’on se trouve devant un classique quand chacun qui le lit, et même ceux qui ne l’ont pas lu, trouve quelque chose de fort à en dire, que ce soit positif ou bien critique. Quand les échos d’une œuvre dépassent et vont bien au-delà de son message, au prix de l’obscurcir et même de le pervertir, nous sommes bien devant une production qui touche une question profonde. Selon ces critères, ce qui se passe en ce moment avec la Grèce et son avenir européen est non seulement un grand classique mais aussi, une grande expérience de littérature contemporaine d’écriture à milliers, voir des millions, de mains.

La tragédie à laquelle nous assistons n’a de grec que son air d’inévitabilité et d’étrange aveuglement que ses personnages exhibent. Pour le reste, il y a des éléments de la commedia dell’arte, de vaudeville français et des notes brechtiennes.

 L’aspect le plus interpellant de cette crise est que chacun de ses personnages lit le texte de ce qui se passe exclusivement selon sa version des choses. Les Européens, en disant « mais nous, on a voulu vous aider, on vous aide, même maintenant que vous nous avez roulé dans la farine avec le coup de poker du référendum, signez les termes et conditions, des plus généreux d’ailleurs, et on ne vous lâchera pas. Et de toute façon c’est vous qui nous lâchez, pas nous… » Et aux grecs de décrier la « fausse générosité du bourreau qui donne avec une main pour prendre avec l’autre tout en gardant son masque d’humanité. Nous sommes les victimes du terrible complot du capitalisme et des banques. »

Ce qui rend ces deux positions crédibles et même véridiques est que chacune d’entre elles contient des éléments de vérité. Juste ce qu’il faut de vérité, en fait, pour conforter chacun dans son cocon d’idées et ne pas les pousser à examiner les choses avec plus de détachement. Car les européens ont raison, ils ont été généreux … avec les banques qu’ils ont aidées et qui avaient prêté de l’argent à la Grèce sans regarder les failles de son système politique et économique. Ils ont cru être généreux quand ils ont passé l’éponge sur les mensonges grecs à propos du budget lors de l’entrée de la Grèce dans l’Euro et quand ils ont continué à nourrir la machine corrompue de ses élites au pouvoir.

Et les grecs ont raison, ils sont victimes du capitalisme et des banques, mais des victimes consentantes, qui ont vécu en s’accommodant des petits arrangements balkaniques et byzantins avec les autorités et les oligarques qui les dirigeaient. En tant que roumaine, ce type de mentalité m’est bien connu : quand le peuple est pauvre et a le sentiment de ne rien pouvoir changer il s’accommode de tout régime, en se disant que, de toute façon l’un vaut un autre, ils vont tous voler et être corrompus de la même manière et on n’y peut rien. Alors, autant essayer de survivre et tirer tant que possible la couverture à soi. Sauf que, en tant que roumaine, j’ai aussi vu qu’avec le soutien du l’UE, quelques dirigeants inspirés et une société civile qui s’active, il est possible de changer ce type de mentalité. La Roumanie est loin d’être un exemple parfait et en ce moment même ses oligarques et dirigeants corrompus mènent une bataille à vie et à mort contre les institutions anti-corruption qui menacent leurs petites affaires personnelles, basées, comme en Grèce sur le siphonage des fonds européens et investissements étrangers. Mais, quelque chose a changé et la société civile est au moins consciente du fait que si elle ne s’engage pas dans la politique, le pays méritera son sort. On ne pourra blâmer personne d’autre.

Ce genre de prise de conscience est cruciale dans le devenir d’un pays, et elle n’est pas naturelle. Ce sur quoi l’Europe aurait dû vraiment insister face à la Grèce, non pas ces dernières 5 années, mais bien avant, était la mentalité qui soutenait la corruption et la domination mafieuse de l’état par des réseaux d’intérêts personnels. De faire le parent sévère aujourd’hui ne sert à strictement rien, à part se fourrer la tête encore plus loin dans le sable, et ce, des deux côtés de ce drame.

 Donc, si le peuple grec décide de voter non et d’assumer la faillite de son pays, que ce soit clair que ce sont deux faillites qu’il assume : celle de sa propre mentalité gangrénée et celle du système capitaliste européen qui a lâché sur les valeurs démocratiques au nom d’une survie, qui s’avère temporaire et inutile à la fois. C’est peut-être la seule manière qui reste d’articuler des véritables réformes de l’état en Grèce et en Europe. C’est juste dommage qu’on s’obstine à incarner l’inéluctable des mythes grecs au lieu de les écouter et prendre note.

Avec la musique du groupe grec Imam Baildi, une chanson qui parle du désamour de deux amants…



Tales of the world 68 – Actionable insight

On actionable insight and the topics that the chronicle will be looking into in the near future.

Thank you for listening after so long an absence on my part!

Best, Ruxandra

Turkish parliamentary elections of 2015 or why it turns out democracy is not a bus, after all

The Turks have always held the EU to impossibly high standards of democracy, often and rightly decrying the moments (and there are many) when it its members have behaved in less than democratic fashion both towards Turkey and amongst themselves. Reading years worth of newspaper articles from across the Turkish media landscape, one realises how idealised an image of Europe the country has had ever since its creation in 1923 and since the 1960s , when the EU accession talks and aspirations have taken hold among its population. I use to say that, often, Turkey seems more European than the EU in its hopes and projections for its democracy.

The country has periodically proven it throughout its history, and in the past two decades:  in the 2000s it has brought to power a party (AKP) which had been side-lined and discriminated for years due to its ideological identity; recently, a judge has freed all the Gezi Park protesters from the abusive accusations that were hanging over them; and now, in spite of high political and physical pressure, and 13 years of effective erosion of democratic practices and rights, it has allowed a much maligned political force, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), to enter Parliament and end the corrosive political monopoly that the AKP (a party that came to power in virtue of democratic norms and rights) has been exercising since 2002 in the country.

It feels like a great victory, not least because in 2002, when AKP came to power, people invested many hopes in it: there was the underdog which had to fight for its rights every step of the way against an oppressive secularist army and against an untouchable Atatürk-stamped legacy. The taste was bitter when it turned out that AKP was using a democratic rhetoric only in order to enable a form of payback for past injustice.

The HDP victory was slow in the making, and did not only happen because of the adversary’s display of authoritarian rule. It happened also because the HDP has learnt from AKP’s mistakes: it turns out that after all, democracy is not a bus one can opportunistically board and quit, and it can never be served by narrow interests and soon to be forgotten promises. By extending its base and the series of issues to defend  from the Turkish-Kurdish peace process to the discontents of globalisation and civil rights, the HDP shows it has learnt something from the years of exclusion, not least that democracy is not limited to elections and to people as voters. If anything, today, those who have voted have shown that democracy can prevail over an authoritarian political culture and it is possible to get over one’s own demons.

That is why today and the coming weeks are the time to emphasize that the violence and sacrifices  the Turkish people (along their European counterparts) have endured in the name of modernisation and becoming a more democratic society since 1923 can be transformed in a strength that goes beyond partisan revenge.

That is also why today the nations of Europe, to which I firmly believe Turkey makes a valuable contribution, should salute the results of the elections as more than a mere achievement of electoral prowess. It is a much needed breeze of hope for a continent in search of a project for the centuries to come.

Nepal – a story of resilience and hope

Much like the aftershocks of the earthquake, articles and impressions, interviews and accusations from and on Nepal, roll out continuously, hot off the presses and on social media feeds, giving us ample material to be worried and angry, to feel righteous and entitled to an opinion, or better yet, generous and giving.

“We are alive, that’s what we are” tells me Lekh Paudel, a friend from Kathmandu, who has travelled for an hour this morning to find an internet connection in order to make our appointment. (Given that before the earthquake, Nepal was a place where wi-fi could be found everywhere from restaurants to rickshaws (it has happened to me to have a free connection even in the jungle) travelling one hour to get any is another sign of how widespread damages are.)

I met Lekh in January, while on a research trip. He was our guide, privileged informant, and general miracle worker, arranging for interviews, negotiating taxis and keeping us abreast with Nepal’s turbulent history and political turmoil. Since last Saturday, his miracle working skills are summoned for after-earthquake recovery efforts.

Half of his family house survived the disaster and, thankfully, there was no loss of life to mourn amongst his close ones. This means that Lekh and his wife, Rachana, fully concentrate on coordinating aid for sending help to the district of Dolakha, where Rachana comes from, which is one of the 9 most affected regions of the country. 95% of the houses were destroyed by the earthquake and people have no shelter and food.

Tents and food are needed and money is needed. So far, Lekh and Rachana have managed to organise together with some of their Indian friends the delivery of tents from the Indian side of the border and they are looking for ways of getting more sent, on Nepal highways network, which has to some extent been spared from destruction.  In Kathmandu, political parties and their youth wings are mobilising and coordinating the relief effort for regions outside Kathmandu Valley. Throughout the country, and across borders, old networks of kinship and allegiance are reactivated as each is trying to do their best in this crisis.

While listening to Lekh’s story, my mind wandered to our discussions about Nepal’s 10 year civil war and struggle to achieve justice, which we were having but 4 months ago. In some ways, the efforts at peace they required were very much like those needed today: focus, hope, open minds, tolerance, understanding, and, most of all, resilience.

As of yet, with every passing day Nepalis realise  that they can best count on themselves and their resilience to get through yet another cruel twist handed to them by geography and history.

If you wish to help, contributions can be made to:

Lekh Nath Paudel, Seuchatar 5, Kathmandu; Account number: 050200000551 Swift Code: BOKLNPK Bank of Kathmandu

Your contribution will go towards helping people outside Kathmandu valley and will be accounted for.


International affairs chronicle with a twist

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