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Friday, 9 November 2018

Civil Society on the edge: A discussion of the Greek experience

Xenophon Kappas (Director of the Captain Vassilis and Carmen Constantakopoulos Foundation), spoke on 7 November 2018 on Civil Society on the edge: A discussion of the Greek experience. He offered his long-time experience gained while volunteering for organisations such as Amnesty International, the Hellenic Ornithological Society (Birdlife Greece) and Médecins sans Frontières.

He began by defining “civil society”, a term that first emerged during the Enlightenment, but which also appears in the writings of Aristotle as “politiki koinonia” and of Cicero as “societas civilis”. Adam Smith defended the rights of civil society, and Marx and Hegel, despite their different approaches, supported the idea as well. He noted that neither of the terms “state” or ”family” include voluntary associations and enterprises.

He offered a historical perspective of how the idea of civil society developed in Greece, pointing out that the Enlightenment had played a vital role leading towards the Greek War of Independence, as at its core were the right to free speech and education. He pointed to examples of civil society, such as Filiki Etaireia - established at the beginning of the 19th century as a form of freemasonry. Filiki Etaireia had tried to connect Greeks and Greeks abroad in a common cause. A second example was a peaceful demonstration in 1843, with massive popular participation, requesting a constitution from King Othon. A postcard was even created to mark this day as a national celebration. He explained that, in the 19th and early 20th century, the formation of civil society groups with cultural, nationalistic, religious or educational aims, was a common phenomenon, as a form of lobbying and opposition to the state. Some of these groups were more progressive than the state,, others more conservative. An example was the so called ‘Evangelika’, where some serious physical confrontations occurred in Athens, after the gospels were translated into the modern Greek language (‘dimotiki’). Associations were created to support the cause of preserving the old Greek language (‘katharevousa’) in the gospels or promoting the popular/modern language.

From the interwar years to 1974, the strength of the state began to grow while, at the same time, major political events, both international and national, occurred. A reduction of civil society activity could be observed. It was then that the environmental organisation “Greek Society for the Protection of Nature” was set up, and promoted the creation of the first national parks.

In 1963, a massive student demonstration, with student unions from different universities, all with a common agenda, requested more democratisation in the way universities were run. After 1974 and the restoration of democracy, Greece experienced a civil society boom; there are now many more civil society organisations, of better quality, dedicated to causes such as the environment, humanitarian aid and human rights. At the same time the state has tried to promote feminism and syndicalism and this had an effect on civil society as well. James Becket had been sent by Amnesty International in 1967 to investigate allegations of torture by the dictatorship; subsequently, in 1974, the victims set up Greek Amnesty.

Another example from that period was the environmental impact of Acheloos Dump. The project was never completed – in fact six High Court decisions came out against it. The main reason why it didn’t happen was because of strong opposition from civil society.

From 2008 until today, many changes have taken place in Greece, linked to the economic crisis and political turbulence; consequently, civil society has changed as well. Trust in the political system collapsed; the”Indignants” movement (Aganaktimenoi) was an example in civil society. Kappas gave a vivid portrayal of the people who gathered in Syntagma Square to protest about the crisis. There was a General Assembly, in which economists, academics and others would express their opinions. In the upper level of the square were the nationalists and the extreme right, at the lower level, the leftists. All of them agreed that the problem lay within the parliament.

Also, a number of NGOs followed the lead of their members and began working within Greece against poverty, by supporting local populations. In August 2014, there were major inflows of Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees (5,000 arrivals per day); locals formed unofficial groups to utilise the best of their knowledge and capacity. Médecins du Monde characterised the situation as a humanitarian crisis, while “Oloi Mazi”, a successful local group in Lesvos, occupied an abandoned building, in which they offered shelter to refugee families.

Some 2017 research had explored how much the public trusted different institutions; 51% of the people did not trust NGOs at all. Kappas gave several possible explanations for this phenomenon, including lack of urbanisation and a deep culture of favouritism and clientelism. When people came from the villages to an urbanised setting, they never had the time to become truly urbanised; the big state acted as a dispenser of rights through strong political parties, syndicates, professional unions and family ties. This lay behind the low involvement of citizens in civil engagement. In 2008, “Ergo Politon” (Citizens’ Deed), an NGO supervised by the Ministry of Culture, was formed to record all volunteer organisations in Greece. However, it ceased to exist when its huge salaries led to public scepticism.

Currently, a weakening in civil society can be observed. One of the reasons suggested by Kappas is the brain drain; the Greek Statistical Authority gives a number of 700,000 people, 6.3% of the total population, most supposedly from the elite of civil society. Another possible reason was NGOs’ bad reputation in the refugee crisis, where new NGOs had managed big budgets without any specific plans and making mistakes in quality. At the same time NGOs were used as scapegoats for the bad situation on the islands as regards the refugee crisis. The media had portrayed them negatively as well – for example a widely circulated photo showed a member of an NGO hitting a cameraman.

Kappas also spoke about the strong structural characteristics of these organisations, mentioning the substantial quality of the. work that civil society had provided, more than in other countries.

As an example, a former Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, Tina Birbili, impressed by the proposal from ten environmental NGOs, had created a group of public employees in the ministry to work on the legal framework of biodiversity.

The Hellenic Ornithological Society (BirdLife Greece), had raised the issue of the “ETREPS” fund, which the Society had managed to change into a Green Fund that could accept applications and give money to the most appropriate causes. The 2007 Parnitha fire demonstration was also mentioned, where there was massive public engagement, with a lot of people coming out of their houses to protest over an environmental issue. The “Vourkari” wetland case was also cited; in this case there was a good deal of local empowerment, allowing the wetland to be characterised as a natural, and not an industrial, area.

Several other examples of the effect of civil society in Greece were mentioned, such as the MSF interview with Al Jazeera about the poor situation in Moria (refugee camp in Mytilini); then BBC, CNN followed, creating a worldwide wave of media coverage, resulting in a conflict between the government and MSF Greece. Kappas also spoke about watchdogs, citing the example of WWF, which had overturned a number of cases of possible arbitrary state action that had passed under the radar. He also mentioned other informal groups and unofficial schemes, like the City Plaza occupation and Melissa (a women’s network with representatives from different countries).

Kappas concluded his talk by suggesting that the crisis was a factor for mobilisation of civil society and an incubator of existing schemes. As for the future of civil society in Greece, it was unclear where things would settle. Factors that might affect the evolution of civil society included the situation of refugees and developments in the MENA area, the EU and the Balkans.

The Q&A discussion covered the relationship of the state with civil society, the low level of trust in NGOs and the reasons behind it, the legacy of the movement and its connection with the Left, the validity of claims about misuse of funds by NGOs, and the growing polarisation in Greek society as reflected in civil society itself. 

Foteini Kalantzi (A. G. Leventis Research Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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