Coffee and Conspiracy

This summer, I spend the month of August sipping coffee in Greece, but in cities, towns and mountain villages rather than on beaches.  Don’t express any jealousy yet:  more than one of these coffees involved me getting mildly maligned about the dubiousness of non-government organizations, immediately after mentioning I work at one, and before any discussion of the organization’s efforts or my experience there.

The intensity of the suspicion being leveled at a non-government entity surprised me for two reasons:  1) it trumped the (what I previously believed were unyielding) laws of Greek hospitality, in particular: do not attack the career and life’s work of your coffee guest before they’ve had their second sip, and 2) I thought people were exhausting all their suspicion on government these days.  Not so.  Suspicion was the order of the day, and there was plenty for everyone:  government, non-government, international community – no institution appeared to be immune.  By the end of our coffee, we were left with the unanswered questions:  So how do we move forward?  Who are we to work with in order to bring about change?

The mistrust towards NGOs was also surprising because the same people expressing cynicism towards them also did not know much about their structure or activities. These sentiments may be explained by the fact that traditionally, many civil society organizations such as labor unions or cultural and student associations were influenced by political parties and the Greek central government.  [More information can be found in the 2005 report Greek Civil Society:  The Long Road to Maturity, coordinated by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.]

With all the challenges and changes that Greece is currently facing, it is difficult to witness this blanket cynicism dominating so many conversations.  It is a powerful force though, and even crept into me at times while I was there. After all, there are so many changes (many of which involve financial expenses) that people must take on, while so little accountability has been seen.

My experience in Greece re-emphasized the critical need for communication between the people and their government, between non-government organizations and the public and even between Greek residents and diaspora.  Once frustrations were vented, many people I spoke with asked what we – as both international community and as Greek-Americans – were thinking/saying about Greece’s situation.  And once the reflex reaction to express cynicism about non-profits had run its course, I was actually asked to explain what my organization did, whether I thought we made a difference in the world, and what my experience had been.  A few people even asked me what I knew about Greek non-government, non-profit organizations.

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One Response to Coffee and Conspiracy

  1. Athan Manuel says:

    Interesting insights. If our Greek-American enviro group pick up momentum I assume we will run into the same cynicism. Hope you had a good trip nonetheless.

    Your post also reminded me of a conversation I had with my uncle in Messinia last summer. When I described my job as an enviro lobbyist his first response was ‘you get paid for that?’

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