The Multilateralist

Christine Lagarde’s Boutros-Ghali moment

In an interview published in yesterday’s Guardian, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde made some remarkably tough comments about Greece: Lagarde, predicting that the debt crisis has yet to run its course, adds: "Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to ...

In an interview published in yesterday’s Guardian, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde made some remarkably tough comments about Greece:

Lagarde, predicting that the debt crisis has yet to run its course, adds: "Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax." She says she thinks "equally" about Greeks deprived of public services and Greek citizens not paying their tax.

"I think they should also help themselves collectively." Asked how, she replies: "By all paying their tax."

Asked if she is essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe that they have had a nice time and it is now payback time, she responds: "That’s right."

Lagarde pointedly contrasted Greece’s situation with those of the world’s poorest countries:

Asked whether she is able to block out of her mind the mothers unable to get access to midwives or patients unable to obtain life-saving drugs, Lagarde replies: "I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens."

The reaction from Greece–and from some others in Europe–has been harsh. Via BBC:

Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Ms Lagarde of "insulting the Greek people".

Left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras insisted: "Greek workers pay their taxes, which are unbearable."

On her Facebook page, Lagarde issued something approximating an apology, in which she expressed her "sympathy" with the Greek people.

The episode bears a certain similarity–though in a very different context–to a furor caused by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali when he insisted that the suffering in Bosnia was much less than in several African countries. A year into his tenure as secretary general, Boutros-Ghali had become intensely frustrated by the money and attention lavished on the Balkans and by what he perceived as the lack of concern about Africa’s much more serious crises. On a visit to beseiged Sarajevo, an angry Bosnian reporter confronted the UN chief:

"How many deaths are needed for you to do something?" the Bosnian demanded. "Is 12,000 enough? 15,000? 30,000?"

Mr. Boutros-Ghali, his smile fading, said Bosnians should realize that the plight of Sarajevo was not the only one demanding the world’s sympathy, nor even the worst.

"I understand your frustration," he said. "But you have a situation that is better than 10 other places in the world I can give you. I can give you a list."

That response became notorious and helped build the image, at least in certain circles, of an unsympathetic and obstinate  secretary general. In 1996, the United States used its veto power to deny Boutros-Ghali the second term customarily granted to UN leaders.

 Twitter: @multilateralist

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola