12/10/2013 By: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Myrto Papadopoulos [www.myrtopapadopoulos.com]
One of the most worrying aspects of the crisis has been that the financial constraints on the state and its ever-decreasing role in a number of areas, such as social welfare, healthcare and urban services. This has left thousands of Greeks directly exposed to some of the worst effects of the recession.
According to Eurostat, 31 percent of Greeks are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared to 27.6 percent in 2009, before the crisis began. Also about 65 percent percent of Greece’s 1.3 million unemployed have been out of a job for more than 12 months and therefore without proper social insurance. In 2009, just 45.6 percent of Greece’s jobless were long-term unemployed. At the time, Greece only had around 500,000 people out of work. The impact of the recession is as clear as the need for a safety net to protect the growing number of people being pushed to society’s fringes. In the state’s absence, this crucial role is increasingly played by volunteer groups.
Boroume (We Can) is one of the organizations that has attracted most attention over the last couple of years as it uses food donations and salvages ingredients that others discard in order to provide meals for Greeks who cannot afford to feed themselves. Similarly, the Greek branch of Doctors of the World relies on the volunteer work of doctors and medical experts to provide free healthcare to Greeks who do not have enough social security credits to visit public hospitals.
Also, a group of about 100 Athenians came together in May this year to form the Symahoi Ygeias (Allies of Health). While some of the group are doctors, it also includes people from many other walks of life. Their initial aim is to provide assistance to units that are providing vital social work, such as municipal medical centers, the “help at home” scheme for the elderly and disabled and neighbourhood “friendship clubs”. The group has already signed agreements with several municipalities in Athens and hopes at some point to be able to set up its own centers to provide medical assistance.
A similar role is carried out by the Metropolitan Community Clinic in the southern Athens suburb of Elliniko. Created in 2012, the clinic is run by volunteer doctors and other staff who provide medical assistance to more than 4,000 people a year who cannot afford care elsewhere. The medicines and equipment used at the clinic have been donated.
This type of volunteerism is a relatively new concept in Greece, which has a poor record of this kind of social engagement, partly because of the relative economic stability over the last few decades but also because of the dominant role of the family in personal life and the political party in public life. Even last year, Greece came 145th out of 146 countries in the World Giving Index, which also suggested that only 5 percent of Greeks donated money and only 3 percent volunteered their time.
However, recent research suggests that the crisis is prompting a change in the way Greeks approach the idea of helping others. An opinion poll carried out by QED for the Human Grid, a scheme set up by the TEDx Athens discussion forum to map and act as a bridge between the various volunteer groups in the Greek capital, suggests that a growing number of Greeks are giving up their time for common causes. The survey, published in May this year, indicated that there has been a 44 percent increase in the number of Greeks taking part in volunteer projects and solidarity activities since 2010, when Greece signed up to the EU-IMF bailout.
A third of those questioned said that they will likely join a volunteer group soon, while 84 percent said that they viewed the idea of volunteerism positively. Half of the respondents also had a positive view of non-governmental organizations and 46 percent were in favour of collective activism. The latter is significant as NGOs have often been viewed negatively in Greece due to cases of corruption, while some forms of activism, such as urban intervention, have been regarded with suspicion because of the absence of political influences and connections.
“So far our country has scored very low in terms of having an active civil society but there is constant improvement,” said Stathis Haikalis, who acted as a coordinator for the survey. “There is a subtle but continuous trend of people dealing with the nightmare in the Greek social and economic spheres, which is the lack of trust in every aspect of domestic life.”
There is a very practical element to the apparent trend for more Greeks to become involved in volunteer groups, since the effects of the crisis demand that people come to the help of their fellow citizens. But there is also a more existential aspect to this development as it indicates a growing willingness for people to trust each other and wean themselves off a dependence on political parties to act as their social networks and providers.
There is, however, plenty to be cautious about. The QED survey found that 38 percent of those questioned said they expect that they or their family members will soon be in need of volunteer help. As long as an economic recovery remains elusive, there will continue to be tremendous pressure on Greek society and even an increase in volunteerism is no substitute for a state that can provide the social services that are so desperately necessary in Greece’s situation.