Around the world with a suitcase full of debt – Can endless loans and development coexist?

by Christos Mavraganis 

Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister and president of SYRIZA, which is a left-wind party, has attended the 70th session of the UN’s General Assembly, in the 27th of September 2015, representing his country.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York

Alexis Tsipras during his UN speech – Reuters

The Greek Prime Minister gave a speech during the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. This speech could have been the epitome of his political program, but only before he came on power, in January 25th, 2015.

A quick tour through the political situation in Greece

Those 9 months after SYRIZA’s victory back in January, have been extremely crucial for the Greek economy. Meanwhile, a referendum was held back in July, regarding to whether the Greek government should agree for a third bailout program or not. The result was a ‘loud’ 62% ‘NO vote’, but still, a week after the referendum, this third bailout program has been signed between the Greek government and the European partners. Just to make sure that Greeks will not… die of boredom, the citizens were called for… some more elections in the 20th of September, 2015. The result was another victory for Tsipras and the Greek government is now a coalition between SYRIZA and ANEL (a right-wind party). The same coalition government, as it was shaped in January 2015.

One of the most central pylons of SYRIZA’s rhetoric was about the Greek debt. According to Eurostat, the Greek debt reaches the unimaginable 177% of the GDP for 2014. To talk with numbers, a bit more than 317 billion (!) euros.

Tsipras, during his electional campaign, was declaring that the Greek debt simply cannot be repaid if Greece continues to receive loans and he was confident that he had an alternative to offer. This is not the time and place to point fingers, but a series of bad choices, both from the Greek government and also the European partners, led to the third bailout program; in other words, a brand new loan of up to 86 billion euros for the next three years.

Introducing the Greek problem to the world – The developmental connection

Even though the agreement is already signed, Tsipras talked about the Greek debt in his UN speech. The reason he did that was because the bailout program came with the ‘promise’ by the lenders that there will be a discussion for a potential relief of the Greek debt in the future, so the Greek Prime Minister is working on this direction.

He may have failed to reduce the debt during the negotiations, but he’s trying to internationalize this issue, in every possible way. His choice of speaking about the Greek debt during the UN’s Sustainable Development Summit was far from coincidental.

David Lewis explains how the internet, combined with events of such international and developmental importance, is a great opportunity to connect the outsiders with the latest developments (Lewis, 2013, p. 196). He goes on, pointing out the way through which many leaders used the 2010 MGD Summit as a ‘vehicle’ to promote their countries’ political goals and he uses the work of many other theorists (to name a few Long, Boas and McNeill, Mosse, Harper) before he cites the following: “Reflecting on global conferences, Long (2004: 25) has argued that such mega-events have become part of the process of “knowledge production”, “dissemination”, and “transformation” in global politics, multilateral organizations and constructivist analysis of international relations. Global conferences are thus part of the discursive development repertoire that includes meetings and consultancy missions” (Lewis, 2013, p. 197-198).

Tsipras is using such a ‘mega-event’, trying to present that a reduction of the debt is a prerequisite in order for development to be achieved.  “We cannot talk substantially about aid in developing countries or loans in developed ones, unless we tackle the issue of debt as an international challenge at the center of our global financial system”, were his exact words. Of course the numbers are an enemy for Tsipras. There is a reason why Greece has this huge debt, but Tsipras’ goal is not to present numbers. While Lewis explores the common ground between media, representation and development, he underlines that “…representation can be taken to refer to the way that art, literature and media are transformative, not so much mirroring reality but instead ‘representing’ it according to conscious or unconscious conventions” (Lewis, 2013, p. 4). Tsipras wants to prove that the huge debt represents how development will never be achieved unless something is done differently.

Read the complete speech of Alexis Tsipras here

The use of new media

Another vital actor of the Prime Minister’s goals is the usage of the ‘new media’. It doesn’t seem enough that he’s connecting development with the Greek debt using the “UN microphone”; He’s also using the ‘new media’ to spread his message. One could only wonder why. Is it possible that the mainstream media would not cover sufficiently a Prime Minister’s speech in the UN? Don’t hold your breath on that.

A quick search in the website of the Reporters without Borders reveals some very interesting conclusions. Germany is strongly against the reduction of the Greek debt, something that the country’s Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble makes clear in every chance he’s got. Tsipra’s referrence to post World War II Germany, and the reduction of the country’s debt, is a direct message. He said: “Historical experience shows that debt restructuring is necessary for recovery, even for developed countries, as it happened for Germany in 1953“.

And it is not the first time he adresses this issue. Three days after July’s referendum, he gave a speech to the European Parliament and he said, addresing personally to the German leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber: “The strongest moment of solidarity in modern European history was in 1953, when your country came out of two World Wars and the peoples of Europe showed the greatest possible solidarity. 60% of Germany’s debt was written off that time”. (watch after 08:20 min)

What’s Germany’s ranking on the RwB’s list about press freedom? Germany holds the 12th place, not even in the top 10! Belgium, where the ‘heart’ of Europe’s decisions is beating, holds the 15th place, while countries with similar financial crises like Greece’s, as Spain, Portugal and Italy appear to be on the 33rd, 26th and 73rd place! Maybe Tsipras doesn’t even trust the media in his own country, as Greece cannot be found in that list before the 91st place!


That’s why he’s using the ‘social media sphere’ to cover every move he makes regarding to the Greek debt. As Hemer and Tufte would add here, “…the communications sphere becomes an essential medium through which individual participants and players identify, interpret and represent their social and cultural wants and needs. In doing this, they begin to shape development itself” (Hemer & Tufte, 2005, p. 299)”.

Pros and cons of social media use

Tsipra’s twitter account is ‘bombing’ his followers with every kind of information about the Prime Minister’s actions outside Greece.


Barack Obama and his wife Michel, take a picture with Alexis Tsipras and his wife Betty, during the Greek Prime Minister’s trip to the USA

As always, though, this tactic has advantages and disadvantages.

Tsipras wants to mobilize as many people as possible worldwide, because he strongly believes that the Greek crisis is not only a Greek problem, but a European one. Shirky cites that “as the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action” (Shirky, 2010, p.1). Shirky goes on referring to a Katz and Lazarsfeld’s famous study, which indicates that mass media alone do not change people’s minds. The study points out that this is a two-step process in which opinions are firstly transmitted by the media, and then it is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. In this second step, the social media can make a difference (Shirky, 2010, p.4) and Tsipras seems willing to put a huge effort to this direction. Another extremely interesting input by Shirky is what he calls “shared awareness”, explaining how “the social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks” (Shirky, 2010, p.5).


Photos of Alexis Tsipra’s speech in the UN – Tsipra’s personal Twitter account

Similarly, Archetti refers to Eytan Gilboa, who distinguishes three models of ‘uses and effects’ about the way media are used as tools of foreign policy and international negotiation. The first one is the ‘public diplomacy’, “where state and non-state actors use the media to influence public opinion abroad” (Archetti, 2012, p. 186). Does that ring a bell? All the above mentioned practices are describing how Tsipras is trying to convert the Greek debt issue from a local, to a global one, connecting it with development issues.

Every coin has two sides, though. Even if we accept that Tsipras can succeed on spreading the Greek problem globally, there are still good chances that the audiences he reaches will not fully understand the issue. Shirky gives a very solid argument, that even though political freedom is generated through communicative freedom, the Internet’s structure cannot guarantee that the “outsiders” will successfully understand the local conditions of another country (Shirky, 2010, p.3). Likewise, Archetti also underlines the issue of the local differences, setting the question: “How can any analysis of the effectiveness of communication with audiences have any practical relevance if local differences are not taken into consideration?” (Archetti, 2012, p. 188). If Tsipras’s goal is to send the message only to relatively homogenous audiences (e.g. Berlin, Brussels and the EU in general), maybe he has a chance of success. But if that’s the case, then why did he choose to talk about a ‘taboo’ issue during a UN summit? He referred to the Greek debt while being in the United States, so clearly he wanted to send his message also to the USA, where the local audience of the ‘social media sphere’ is completely different. It seems like this choice might meet some serious problems.

Going back to Shirky and the downsides of the social media, we come up with another obstacle for Tsipras. It is about how the governments are also becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent (Shirky, 2010, p.6).

It is clear that this is a two way street and (hopefully) Tsipras is aware of that. His efforts to that goal are ongoing and it remains to be seen whether he will succeed a debt reduction.

By the way, the Greek Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear that he will only wear a tie when his absolute political goal is achieved…

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras arrives at a European Union leaders extraordinary summit on the migrant crisis, in Brussels

The (always) tie-less Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras – Reuters


Archetti, C. 2012: The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice:An Evolutionary Model of Change,  The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 7: 181-206.

Shirky, C. 2010: The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change, Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I.

Lewis, D., Rodgers, D., Woolcock, M. 2013: Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media, London: Routledge.

Hemer, Oscar & Tufte, Thomas (2005) Media and Glocal Change. Rethinking Communication for Development. Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Chapters 16, 17 and 27.

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  1. Thank you for a very interesting read, Chris regarding Tsipras’ resistant use of new media concerning the debt crisis in Greece. Even though the economic and political Greek situation has been widely discussed in the media during this past year, it was very relevant to read your short introductory paragraphs that retell the latest developments within the area, which invite the reader further into the topic in question.

    Similar to what you underline, with the support of arguments by Hemer & Tufte, (2005), I agree that different social media outputs have become very essential tools, not only for Tsipras, but for world politicians in general to demonstrate their own viewpoints on their work and progresses, despite their purposes of using them. As millions of people are involved within social media daily, it does not only help politicians such as Tsipras to spread their message rapidly, it might as well, as you highlight, challenge what is presented in the mainstream media about the Greek debt or other local problems.

    The use of new media by the Greek government is indeed intriguing, which I recall also has been noticed and debated in numerous mainstream European media channels. The Guardian, for instance reported in July 2015 that “[n]ever before has a government embroiled in one of the biggest global economic crises been so good at tweeting”, which points to that their use of new media seems to be more intense than what one has seen before within such situations. Therefore, I agree that wondering what message the Greek government and in this case foremost Tsipras wish to demonstrate by being so active on new media platforms, is highly relevant.

    This persistent use of social media can undoubtedly be seen as a form of new media activism used to intensify opinions that the Greek debt is a global problem, however new media’s “real” influence on international politics is debatable, which Aday, Farrell & Lynch (2010) bring to attention. Surely, the use of new media may help outsiders understand the situation in Greece better (or make outsiders even miss certain local conditions, as Shirky (2010) notes), by giving information directly from the source, rather than relying uniquely on mainstream media covering these issues. However, one might also ponder about whether Tsipras’ “twitter bombing” of information solely can be considered as an alternative source of information, and whether this media discourse really might have any actual impact on the economic development in the country or on international politics. Aday et al. (2010) do highlight that the influence of new media is still very uncertain and we need to question whether these channels influence social development in the way we believe they do, and highlight if they “may be more likely to promote polarization and to provide targeted communication channels for already polarized groups than do traditional forms of broadcasting and mass media” (p.26).

    Clearly, using new media outputs do highlight local problems internationally and encourage debates, however, it may also be the case that these alternative types of new media help form public opinions more than influencing domestic and international politics, which I guess also could be initial triggers for social change. I find that your discussion of Shirky (2010) is indeed very helpful to understand the new media coverage regarding the Greek debt, and it is easy to agree on how social media do enable communication to become more participatory, which may encourage that collective action needs to take place, underlining the so-called “shared awareness”.

    It will definitely be interesting to see how this will play out in the future, and whether Tsipras will be able to achieve a debt reduction and in turn see if he will wear a tie for once :-). Thanks for your well-written insights regarding the matter!


    Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. (2010). Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

    Carpentier, N., Pruulman-Vengerfeldt, P., Nordenstreng, K., Hartmann, M. and Cammaerts, B. (Eds.) 2006: Researching Media, Democracy and Participation. Tartu: Tartu University Press.

    Hemer, O. & Tufte, T. (2005). Media and Glocal Change. Rethinking Communication for Development. Buenos Aires: CLACSO.

    Shirky, C. (2010). The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs. 90: 28-I.

  2. Hi Christos,
    The current European political scenario is changing so fast that these posts and comments might become “old” in a matter of weeks. Nevertheless, I think you point out some issues that are worth commenting (as a Spanish citizen, I might have to reflect on similar issues in the next months).
    You cleverly show how Tsipras has used international fora to create his own representation of a domestic issue (country debt) into an international one (no development without debt alleviation). It is no doubt necessary, at least for us who have a genuine interest in promoting human rights instead of endless capitalist growth, that international debt system will not provide development. Quite the opposite, as many Latin American and African experiences show, countries that are forced to rely on international loans end up applying adjustment plans that perpetuate poverty.
    All this said, the question remains whether or not Tsipras has achieved anything through his media and communication strategy (both on institutions and on media). If one follows Syriza’s campaign, the elections, the negotiation with the Troika and the final result of those negotiations, it is really hard to find positive consequences of Syriza’s and Tsipras’ strategy. There has been plenty of international (and grassroots) support of Syriza and the well known “OXI”, but this support hasn’t brought about more than a symbolic back up for Tsipras’ surrender. As sad as it sounds.

    Finally, and following your comments on the two sides of “the coin” (media use), I think that current left-wing parties are using media ways that can benefit as much as they can harm. When parties like Syriza and Podemos make use of mainstream media to spread their messages, they do so by adopting the codes -language, concepts- that common citizens and potential voters will understand. Of course, this strategy is useful to engage citizens and make them understand the importance of a change in the government. However, in so doing, these parties are forced to ignore underlying issues -capitalism, ecologic crisis, gender equality, productive model of the country- while tackling superficial or temporary ones -unemployment, corruption, and so on. In practical terms, this communication strategy implicitly assumes that radical left parties have no interest in quitting the system (i.e. that they will continue within ‘market economies’). And, of course, there is no way Greece or Spain can remain within European (capitalist, neoliberal) institutions without paying their bloody debts.

    In other words…I don’t see how development and capitalism be compatible anymore. Great job Christos!