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Interview of Martin Hirsch, President of Agence du Service Civique, to the Crisis Observatory

You have been dealing with the struggle against poverty your whole life. Did you ever think that in the 21rst century we would be witnessing in some parts of Europe a return to extreme poverty, for some people, of the kind we thought we had put behind us several decades ago?

Yes, I know and it’s especially difficult in Greece but it’s also difficult in different countries, even in countries where we seem to be generally all right in terms of poverty. Unfortunately, poverty did not decrease during these past years even though growth was good and the average citizen seemed to be OK. So that’s the difficulty in Europe, specifically in southern Europe, not only in Greece, but we see problems in Spain, Italy, Portugal and even France, which we could say is “half southern Europe and half northern Europe”.

I don’t know what will happen. I mean it would be easy to say that we know we can improve or that it could be worse, so I do not want to predict the future. However, in the global context, the European community has solid foundations and I’m sure that we can reverse the situation. I would say that we have experienced a very rapid decline, during the last few years. I believe that we could also reverse the situation in a few years; recovery is possible. The difficulty is that people are suffering right now, but I’m sure that the road towards recovery is possible.

What went wrong? Greece is now in its sixth year of recession, Europe is in crisis for four years, why are we still in this situation?

It’s difficult to have a single diagnosis and I know that nobody can fully explain the difficulties, that’s why we have controversies on what we should do to reverse the situation. Some people say we should cut public spending, others that we should support public spending. So I am not sure that there is one single explanation to of what happened in Europe or a single recipe of what we should do. What I see is that in the last past decades we built a European Union which included countries whose standard of living was lower than the European average; this  helped to create growth and wealth all over the European continent.

But is seems that some part of this wealth was artificial. This is sometimes the case in France, where we have a very generous social system, which is partly paid by debt and at some moment we may have a problem. This in my mind is not a specific Greek syndrome, it is something which happened in Greece, because for different reasons this country was more fragile than others, history in this country is not the same as in other countries.

We had the case of a fast growing economy, which allowed the build-up of public services, then we had a period of low growth, where we had some difficulties but where most economies were converging and then with the crisis, which was triggered by what happened in the US -but it could have been triggered by something else- we have a recession with the consequences that we see today. So perhaps in the long-term maybe the overall balance is positive, but this is still not clear.

Of course you understand that this is difficult argue for Greece since we have lost close to 25% of our GDP so far. 

Yes but you still are in a better situation that you were a few years ago. You are still above others. This does not mean that I deny the difficulties of the situation, I want to be clear.

What do you think about the actual handling of the crisis, the austerity policy that is being pursued? Is this helping in terms of poverty and exclusion? Is this an unjust policy that hurts some people more than others?

The European institutions are asking countries to cut their public spending. I’m not convinced that this is the right way. We should focus on whether public spending is efficient. Even in countries with a high level of public spending, we should make sure that the debate is not about reducing the amount of public spending, but on how to ensure results for what we spend.

I think that is what is at stake for the next period, with the coming European election. We will see if after these three or four years we can make the case that we shouldn’t cut all the programmes, training programmes, support to families and so on, but say that a programme is not very good, when it doesn’t give incentives to people to find jobs, but puts them on dependence from the government. However, we can support people by public expenses if it is for training, for their jobs, to avoid having low-paid jobs without any perspective.

You were one of the people that helped reform the Revenu de Solidarite Active, the Minimum Guaranteed Income. What’s your experience in France? Was it successful? Do you think it can be part of the solution in Greece and in other countries as well?

Actually in France we didn’t create the minimum guaranteed income three years ago; we had it for over twenty years. It was created in 1988. What happened was that at the beginning the minimum income system was created for marginalized people; we had something which was quite comprehensive for most of the population, but there was a small part of the population, which was at the end of its unemployment benefits or had other problems. So we had in our country some people who were depending on charity. Therefore, we created a right for them to have a minimum guaranteed income. That was in 1988. At the beginning we had 200.000 or 300.000 people covered by this scheme.

However, 15 years later we had more than one million people. At this time the people covered by this scheme were not the same people that as those that participated initially. Most of them were people who wanted to work, or were able to work. At the beginning the scheme concerned mostly people that were marginalized, homeless people, without the ability to work. After all these years the system was transformed and created some negative side- effects, because if you have a minimum guaranteed income, which is linked to a minimum wage, you can create adverse incentives. For example, in France we have a minimum wage of 1.000 euros per month and a minimum income of 500 euros per month; therefore, if somebody goes back to work for a part-time job they won’t earn more money, compared to the guaranteed income, so there is no incentive for them to go back to work. So I think it’s very important to have a minimum income, but without creating adverse incentives.

Designing an efficient scheme is important, because you can’t ask rich people to give 100% of their money for taxes, nor should you ask poor people to earn 100% of their money by using benefits. So it’s very difficult to design a system, where you are able to support the most vulnerable people -we don’t want to go back to the deep misery in Europe and Greece is part of Europe- but you have to make sure that you won’t create these side-effects.

To give you an example outside of Europe, I had this discussion in South Africa a few months ago. There, they created a minimum guaranteed income scheme for old people and they discovered that it created disincentives for young people to work. A family in South Africa often depends on one income and the fact that the grandfather receives a minimum income created disincentives for the young people to work, in a country where the rate of youth unemployment is higher than that in Greece. So we had a discussion to design it in a way that if the grandfather has a minimum income and the grandson goes back to work, you won’t cut the guaranteed income but adapt it, maybe divide it by two to give more money and more incentives.

Do you think it can be a successful instrument in the battle against poverty? Should it be used in Greece?

Fighting against poverty needs a strategy without only one single magic tool. It is a mixture of different tools. For example, for youth unemployment you can’t say you will only subsidize training, or only subsidize public sector jobs and so on. You need different tools together and this is particularly true for poverty. If you want to tackle the poverty issue you need a general strategy on growth, you need also to make sure that you take into account what people pay, because sometimes the poor pay more and you have side-effects on market pricing. So you have to make specific programme to make sure that poor people can have access to basic services without over-pricing. You have to take into account the most vulnerable, in order to make sure that they won’t go into a worse situation. You have to see where you can subsidize, where you can put money in training. Therefore, I can’t say that there is a single recipe, there is no recipe all around the world and I know because I was in charge of such programmes, I know that we succeeded in some aspects and that we failed in others. Effectively we try to keep the same level of poverty with more public spending. I think that’s why it is also important to involve civil society in the fight against poverty.

That is my next question. You are currently presiding the Civic Service Agency in France. You helped create it as well. Do you think that volunteerism and civil society activism is a way to combat the crisis?

I think it’s very important and very useful for different reasons. In France nobody believed it could be useful when we created it two years ago and there were two kinds of opinion; some said that voluntary service should be mandatory, that every young person should be compelled to volunteer and others would say it’s not useful at all. We did it on a voluntary basis allowing young people independently of their skills to spend between six months and one year for a mission with an NGO, or public authorities and we attracted many young people. There are many bodies ready to hire these people and I have to tell you that the rate of satisfaction is very high from the volunteers. When we asked them a few months later if they would do it again, the answer was yes; if they would recommend it to another European person? Yes, for more than 90%, which is quite high for such a programme. Not all of them have a job afterwards. But a big part of them said that it was useful for them because they had a positive experience, they wanted to prove that they could do something, to be part of a collective project. They received some training, which is useful, they built a network and it helped them build their self- confidence, but also develop more confidence in society. It’s true in France but it’s also true in other countries where these kinds of programmes exist.

How many are they?

In France, from the beginning of the project, which was three years ago, we have enrolled 50.000 young people. We want to reach 50.000 young people per year, which is the next step and then maybe 100.000 young people per year, which is difficult not because we don’t find enough organizations to hire, not because we don’t have enough young people who want to volunteer, but for budgetary reasons because we give them an allowance and also social protection and security. But it’s a very positive programme; on the national celebration of the 14th of July the volunteers were on the first row of the parade.

I’m asking because in Greece there is no tradition of civic society activism. However, it seems that one of the good things that have come out of the crisis is that there is now a much more active involvement of people with civil society, especially in terms of social solidarity. Do you think that it can be something that has a lasting effect and become part of the wider social security and health care framework?

Yes, I do believe that. I don’t know if Greece has a civil society tradition or not, but there is in the Greek vocabulary the word “filotimo”. I know this word and I think that there is a link with volunteerism. I would say that in many countries, society needs a period before it can trust the young people. We try to mix people independently of their level of social origin, education and so on. It is important for society. I’m sure that independently of traditions, the young people always want to be involved and this is true in Greece and in Germany, in France and in the US, in Bolivia, in India and so on. So it’s our governments that deny the fact that young people want to determine their own destiny.

One effect of the crisis is that beyond material exclusion and fragmentation within countries and across countries in Europe, the crisis has also created a cultural rift between creditor and debtor countries and their societies. There are many stereotypes in Germany and Northern countries about Greeks and the same is true here about these countries. Do you see a danger in this rift of solidarity between the European people? How could this be addressed?

Yes, first I would say that these stereotypes have not been invented by the crisis. There were underlying stereotypes. It’s very important to keep this in mind. What the Germans were saying about the Greeks or maybe what the Greeks were thinking about Germans is not just a story of the past few years. It’s obvious that when you are in a crisis situation, stereotypes become stronger and stronger. That’s the first thing. Secondly, I would say that most educated people all over Europe would say that the solution is to have a stronger Europe. At the same time, most of the people with difficulties would say that the cause of our trouble is Europe. So personally I’m convinced that the way we built Europe created problems, but these were less serious than what we could potentially have, given the situation. I’m sure that the situation could be worse for most countries, if not for all countries, if we didn’t have this European construction.

But there are some moments when the side effects may be higher than the benefits and we are certainly in this situation. We often see Europe as the institution we should criticize when we want to reproach our own home government. I’m sure that it’s true in Greece as in France. In France when we don’t like our government we say that there is something even worse which is the European level and that’s due to the fact that very often the national government says we were obliged to do this because of Europe. There is a lack of democracy at the European level which is obvious.

Moreover, there are many different layers in European governance. I will tell you something; there are many countries where there is a need for regional space. I’m sure that with a strong Europe you can have strong regions. Many people are convinced that if you have a strong Europe you can’t have strong regions. Actually the regional aspect is weakened because sometimes you have the sub-regional, the regional, the national, the European level and so on. I can’t tell you what will be the story in the future, but there is a scenario in which we rediscover the strengths of the democratic dimension of Europe and in which we can find some space in it. And there is a scenario in which part of this space is destroyed. I don’t know which scenario will prevail. I know that I’d like to fight for the first scenario.

I come back to my small programme for volunteering; we interviewed a sample of young people who have volunteered and a sample of young people who have not volunteered. We asked them two questions; one question was “do you agree with this sentence: we do not feel this society as our home anymore”. Most of the young people who have not volunteered said that they did agree with this sentence. Most of those who have volunteered said we don’t agree with this proposition.

Then we asked another question: “do you feel that other people are a threat or an opportunity?” and the result was the same. I want to say that when I was the Chairman of an NGO called EMMAUS, which took care of homeless people, when in 2005 we had this debate on whether we should agree with the Treaty, we made debates in shelters with people living in the streets. They were fantastic debates about the European concept; were no discussions at all about the positions of political leaders, they did not care about that. People discussed about what is solidarity in Europe, and this was a mix of people who were immigrants and poor people from France. What could be their project, what could be their voice, what could be their ideals and things like that. We are not used to organizing these kinds of debates, but I think that there is space for the re-appropriation of the democratic ideal of Europe.

Could describe two or three policy proposals for increasing social solidarity across Europe and alleviating poverty at a European level?

What I would suggest is the following; the first thing would be to help countries to design efficient schemes. If you can develop it and if it’s efficient, we –Europe- guarantee that we will fund it and that we will use the European funds to do so. For instance, I would say to the Greeks, try three things about youth unemployment with limited funds for the first year and we guarantee that if among the three programmes one is efficient you will get structural funds scale it up. That’s the first thing I would say. The second thing is that preserving the health care system should be a priority. We have built health care systems all over Europe. It is important for health, but it is also important for employment; I mean that many people work in the health care system. So you can say that we don’t want inefficient hospitals, but we can’t destroy the health care system. We can help make hospitals more efficient. It’s true that in France this is very difficult, it is even more difficult in Greece for obvious reasons. But I think that the European Union should say that if you make the effort without any waste, we support you financially to make sure that you won’t be back to this situation. My third proposal would be to support volunteer solidarity on health care. There is a very modest programme at the European level but it could be much bigger.