Alexi Tsipras Martin Schulz/Flickr

Why the Greek Bailout Failed

As the crisis in Greek demonstrates, imposing structural reforms from outside a country is unlikely to succeed without the willingness of a capable government. If a bailout program requires a wholesale change in a country’s economic model, moving swiftly to write down outstanding debts may be the more sensible option.

CAMBRIDGE – As the Greek crisis evolves, it is important to understand that a successful structural-adjustment program requires strong country ownership. Even if negotiators overcome the most recent sticking points, it will be difficult to trust in their implementation if the Greek people remain unconvinced. That has certainly been the experience so far. And without structural reform, there is little chance that the Greek economy will see sustained stability and growth – not least because official lenders are unwilling to continue extending an unreformed Greece significantly more money than it is asked to pay. (This has been the case through most of the crisis, even if one would never know it from the world press coverage.)

Greece’s membership in the European Union gives its creditors significant leverage, but evidently not enough to change the fundamental calculus. Greece remains very much a sovereign country, not a sub-sovereign state. The “troika” of creditors – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission – simply do not enjoy the kind of leverage over Greece that, say, the Municipal Assistance Corporation wielded over New York City when it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s.

The best structural-adjustment programs are those in which the debtor country’s government proposes the policy changes, and the IMF helps design a bespoke program and provides the political cover for its implementation. Imposing them from the outside is simply not an effective option. So, for reforms to take hold, the Greek government and its electorate must believe in them.

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