The Role of the Greek Diaspora

Today, Greek Reporter and Kathimerini reported that Bill Clinton will visit Greece this week to meet with Greek and Greek American leaders to discuss an initiative to help Greek charities and promote reform and investment.

The new Hellenic Initiative, backed by Greek diaspora business executives, lawyers, scientists and others, seeks to raise $100 million for these purposes.

I published this piece on Huffington Post in April. The original post is here. Some of the considerations I outline below will be important for this initiative to consider from its very early stages, so this post is still intensely relevant, and will be for a long time.

The Role of the Greek Diaspora: Save Greece or Help It Save Itself? (Or C: Do Nothing)

The frequency of often superficial or misleading international coverage of Greece’s economic crisis inspired recent commentaries about the role of the Greek diaspora (in this context, Greeks living abroad and people of Greek heritage). These commentaries asked, ‘Why won’t Greeks ask the diaspora for help?’ or ‘why won’t Greeks listen to diaspora Greeks?” or ‘Why aren’t Greek diaspora communities coming to the rescue?”

Before beginning this discussion, it is worth considering a significant lesson from the field of international development, which is, essentially, to first do no harm. To turn good intentions into effective, sustainable programs with positive impact and minimal unintended consequences, external actors must support local institutions and empower local leaders or activists who understand the local context. This lesson was discussed throughout the first annual Global Diaspora Forum, hosted last May by the U.S. Department of State and other partners to highlight how diaspora communities act as a bridge between the U.S. and their countries of origin.

Greek diaspora groups can play a role in helping Greeks address their political, economic and social crisis, but only if they do so with those in Greece that are building the foundations of a more prosperous, equitable and healthy future. Dedicated, intelligent and experienced professionals and activists are working to create positive change in Greece. We do them a disservice to speak as though the diaspora will be the saviors of the country.

We cannot assume we know the answers. We must ask Greeks about their understanding of the country’s problems, their recommendations and what they need to strengthen their impact. Then we can enter a dialogue on how to work together.

I was in Greece for over two months last summer, asking questions and listening. My experience highlighted two key areas on which the Greek diaspora should focus: 1) support the efforts and sustainability of non-government, nonprofit organizations (NGOs) and citizen associations that respond to the needs of vulnerable groups, and 2) raise awareness on independent, non-government organizations that monitor and report on corruption, transparency and accountability issues and judicial reform.

In July, as the director of the Reinventing Greece Media Project, I led a team of young Greek-Americans as they met and interviewed officials, entrepreneurs, investors, media professionals, human rights activists and others in Athens about their ideas and solutions to address Greece’s challenges. We met individuals that see the potential of Greece’s people to innovate and build upon a long history of knowledge, culture and discovery. The team posted interviews and stories on a website, to help transition the public dialogue from a focus on problems to a focus on solutions.

I then spent a month in the northern prefecture Kozani. I saw empty storefronts and people struggling to make ends meet for their children, elderly parents, or even other relatives, and witnessed the difficulty in finding hospitals with supplies or open emergency rooms. None of this is unique to this prefecture. Most of these problems have festered for a long time in Greece, and are not due to the crisis, though they probably have been heightened to an alarming level by it.

A common theme that emerged during my experience: Across sectors, people in Greece feel there is a lack of cooperation and trust — trust between government and the people and trust among people. Independent oversight organizations and judicial reform will be crucial for both social justice and economic growth.

NGOs and citizen associations are increasingly filling in where the government cannot provide basic services to vulnerable groups like the hungry, the sick or the homeless. Organizations like The Smile of the Child, that helps children and families, or the European Network of Women, that supports victims of domestic violence and trafficking, have spent years building networks, understanding the communities they seek to benefit, and gaining people’s trust (which is not easy in Greece, where civil society is still in its early stages). The economic crisis and the policies of European partners and the troika are threatening to shut down the services or entire operations of some of these organizations. When such groups close down, is it difficult to rebuild them, and a great deal of institutional knowledge is lost.

These groups need funding to respond to people’s urgent needs, but also partners that can leverage resources to support their institutional capacity. Greeks from abroad could launch efforts to send expert volunteer consultants, or tap into their networks to help Greek organizations connect with experienced organizations in our home countries.

In addition to civil society organizations, Greece needs more institutions that operate between the people and government, like the Greek ombudsman authority, to build trust back into society.

Consider the issue of tax evasion, which is frequently (over)referenced in the media and by diaspora Greeks. Article after article in Greek and international media quotes Greeks asking why they should pay taxes when the wealthy and the politicians in the country are corrupt and not held accountable. This widespread sentiment should not be dismissed: It is a sign of ineffective institutions. The Greek government recently published the names of companies and individuals with the highest tax debts and set up a hotline for people to report bribes or tax evasion. These are tactics that create another arena where people can target each other based on hidden interests, without guaranteeing any long-term reform.

Diaspora groups should learn about independent organizations in Greece that monitor and report on government policy, regulation and implementation, help raise awareness on their work and recommendations (or the need for more of these organizations), and express concern when their independence is infringed upon.

Finally, the most crucial element of establishing long-term relationships between diaspora communities and Greek society is engaging young people now. They can help design and implement solutions to problems common to all our societies, and we should all make a concerted effort to support them. They have energy, skills, eagerness to learn and grow, and let’s be honest: They have the most to lose if we do not work together to make change happen.

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It’s not about prostitutes, it’s about a healthy society – sign this petition

Just a few days before Greece’s snap parliamentary elections in April, Greek police published the names and photos of over 12 prostitutes arrested for being HIV positive, in a disgraceful violation of their human dignity and a terrible example for society.

Sign the change.org petition below to tell the Greek Ministry of Justice and other authorities involved or complacent in these actions – including the Greek police, the Ministry of Health and the Citizens Protection Ministry – that it is not acceptable to disregard basic human rights and promote negative and harmful mentalities and behaviors in society.

A 22-year old Russian prostitute was arrested in an unlicensed brothel, and a health examination determined that she was HIV positive. Many more women, some Greek, were arrested in continuing raids ahead of the election. Some of them are still in prison.

Prostitution is legal in Greece, and some brothels are licensed, but there are many unlicensed ones operating in Athens and throughout the country. There is no evidence that these women knew they were infected, and some of them may be drug addicts that worked on the streets, not in brothels.

The police, the prosecutor and the health ministry claim that the identities and photos were published to alert the clients of these women, urge them to get tested, and protect their “wives and families”.

This is not about prostitutes. It is about a healthy and fair society. Greek authorities are working against both in this case.

The message that authorities are sending society is this: it is ok if you are reckless and engage in paid, unprotected sex with prostitutes or other vulnerable women (some sources suggest that clients at brothels actually pay extra to go unprotected), the state will trample the human rights of some people (namely vulnerable people) so that you know it is time to get tested.

If the Health Ministry wants to address the spread of HIV in Greece, it seems to me that the message to the public should be: any one of you out there that pays for sex, despite all the awareness campaigns that many of these women are trafficked, should now get tested. It could be any one of you. And also, stop it.

The Health Ministry claims to be concerned with the wives of Greek men that visit brothels. Has the ministry asked these wives which of these message they are more comfortable with? “Keep visiting prostitutes, we’ll arrest and humiliate the HIV positive ones” or “Prostitution is a symptom of crime, trafficking and social suffering. Now everybody is at risk and should get tested and change their behavior.”

The public safety excuses of Greek authorities for their actions do not hold up – not through their own logic, and not through any examination of best practices around the world for engaging in effective prevention and education.

From the Irish Times:

“I find it very strange that the government has only now recognised this public health danger, days before the elections. I can’t be but suspicious at the motives,” said George Tzogopoulos, of the Eliamep think tank. “We need continuity in disease prevention, not fireworks.”

International and Greek rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the local office of humanitarian medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, denounced the breach of medical confidentiality and the endangerment of the women’s safety as a violation of human rights. Police even published the addresses of some of the women, though a few are homeless, so I guess the police can’t direct any crazy people to their doorstep.

  • Press release by the European Aids Treatment Center, signed by several organizations: here.
  • The Greek Ombudsman, in a May 10, 2012 press release (in Greek), declared that publishing the photos and identities of the HIV+ women is a violation of human dignity.
  • The General Secretariat for Gender Equality also denounced these actions.

Please sign this change.org petition to make your voice heard that this is not acceptable: Greek Ministry of Justice: DEMAND THE RELEASE AND MEDICAL TREATMENT OF HIV POSITIVE WOMEN

The petition is directed to the Greek Ministry of Justice and demands the release and medical treatment of these women.

To the Greek authorities:
These are not solutions.
You should know better. You have reputable local and international organizations to consult and examples around the world to look at. You have no excuses.

Destination Greece: Sun, Studies and Service

As summer approaches, some us are fortunate enough to look forward to a visit to Greece. There are several study abroad or learning opportunities for students that would like to learn about and experience Greece – both classical and modern Greece. Programs are increasingly incorporating elements of local volunteering and community service to help their students establish deeper connections with the local communities that welcome them for the summer. I highlighted some of the stories of young visiting volunteers and interviewed a couple Greek organizations that offer volunteering opportunities for Reinventing Greece.

Journey to Greece students prepare for their volunteer service with the 2010 Special Olympics.

Here is part of that story and the link to the full feature (which is the best part!).

Young people are volunteering while visiting or studying in Greece.

The next generation in the U.S. – young adults from adolescents to about 30 years of age, often referred to as the millenials – want to change the world. Young Americans of Hellenic descent are among them. There are young people from this country volunteering while visiting or studying in Greece. In the process, they are gaining new understandings of Greek society, establishing relationships with people in local communities, deepening their ties to their heritage, and learning important lessons about teamwork, community, leadership and citizen diplomacy.

U.S. millenials volunteer more than any previous generation, according to USA Today, and corporations have found that one of the best ways to attract this next generation as employees is to offer paid time-off to volunteer.

National leaders are recognizing that this desire to have an impact and change the world for the better extends beyond borders. In May 2011, The Next Generation Initiative participated in the Global Diaspora Forum, hosted by the State Department and other partners. We saw national leaders and donors of international programs recognizing and discussing the value of diaspora organizations in strengthening U.S. relations and partnerships with other countries in many fields. One areas of discussion was youth volunteering. Young people are seeking opportunities to go back to their countries of heritage, or other countries, to volunteer.

This trend is evident among Hellenic American youth. In a national student research study conducted by the Initiative in 2010, young Greek and Cypriot Americans overwhelmingly expressed an interest in traveling to Greece for volunteer, internship, study and work opportunities. Students and young professionals report that it is challenging to find information, in English, on community organizations and businesses that offer volunteer or partnership opportunities for diaspora youth.

To address this interest, The Next Generation Initiative would like to help its next Reinventing Greece student and young professional team find opportunities to join their peers in Greece and give back to local Greek communities.

Welcome to phase one in this effort: ask questions and learn.

We asked local non-government organizations (NGOs), community action groups, educational institutions and others about their volunteer programs and community service experiences to learn about opportunities for diaspora Greeks or friends of Greece to give back while they are visiting or studying in Greece. We found that study and travel abroad programs are increasingly incorporating service work in their programs. We are sharing some of their stories here.

As we search for opportunities for our team, we invite you to read about the initiatives we are discovering, and reach out to them to join their efforts if you will be visiting Greece this year. We also invite you to share more of your experiences with us and our readers in the comment section below.

See the stories of young volunteers and read interviews with Greek organizations that offer volunteering opportunities on Reinventing Greece:

https://www.hellenext.org/reinventing-greece/2012/05/destination-greece-sun-studies-and-service/

The Smile of the Child Needs Us.

In the fall of 2004, I spent the afternoon in one of the community houses of Hamogelo tou Paidou, or The Smile of the Child, a Greek non-profit that helps children when they are most in need. The founder of the organization knew the value of a child’s smile more than most of us ever could. Ten-year-old Andreas Yannopoulos, while suffering from terminal cancer, expressed with clarity his belief that all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, deserve to smile, and that if everybody came together, this could be accomplished.  Thus the organization was established in 1995 and began fulfilling Andreas’ vision.

After 16 years of growth and tens of thousands of children’s smiles, the organization is at risk of closing its doors in less than two months. The economic crisis is about to hit children who have already suffered abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, illness.

Six years ago, as the children played outside, the head of social services and the child and family counselor at the Kareas shelter discussed the organization’s latest activities in the free moments they had before they received a call to pick up a new child in need. I was with a member of the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services section, which maintains contact with several Greek organizations offering services that could assist American citizens in Greece. The Smile of the Child is an invaluable resource in helping American children in cases where their parent or guardian is hospitalized or unable to care for them while in Greece.

With over 4,000 volunteers and teams of professional educators, counselors, psychologists, social psychologists, social workers and administrators, The Smile of the Child impacts the lives of thousands of children and families every year, and is one of the most trusted and recognized civil society organizations in Greece.

Since 1997, Smile of the Child has established 11 shelters housing 275 abused or neglected children, from infants to young adults, sent through court order.  Its 24/7 national emergency hotline, 1056, received 270,000 calls for help in 2010, including reports of abused or abandoned children. It also runs 116000, the European Hotline for Missing Children, in Greece. The website www.lostchild.gr reports and tracks the cases of missing children in Greece. The group also activates Amber Alert Hellas at the request of the police, runs outreach programs for homeless children in Thessaloniki and Athens, and maintains a fleet of eight ambulances for infants and children and vehicles to reach and transport children in emergencies.

Please help a very important organization maintain its services.  If you are in Greece, you can make a donation via phone or SMS.  If you are outside of Greece, you can make a donation online or through a bank deposit. Instructions here.

New Mayors, New Cities?

Paremvassi yesterday issued an announcement congratulating the victories of the new mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, highlighting their civil society activism. George Kaminis, the new mayor of Athens, is a former citizen’s ombudsman (a mediator between citizens and public administration). Yiannis Boutaris is the new mayor of Thessaloniki.  In addition to being the former Head of the Association of Greek Wine Producers, he is the founder of Arcturos and one of TIME Europe’s Heroes in 2003.

Will they help set a new example for the future?  A new direction for Greece? It will be interesting to see if they draw from their experience with civil society to build relationships with the people in their communities and invite them to help guide local policy. I’m sure their supporters are anxious to see not only new policies, but new interactions.

Digital Civil Society

The 7th issue of the e-Civil Society newsletter is out.  This electronic newsletter is the digital edition of Paremvassi’s printed magazine on civil society.  Paremvassi puts together an interesting collection of articles,  in both Greek and English, written by regular contributors or gathered from Greek and international media.   This edition focuses on journalism in a digital age.   Earlier editions focused on e-government, virtual volunteerism, privacy and social networking.  They are available online and by email subscription.

Paremvassi or Citizen’s Union Intervention, founded in 1995, encourages progress and modernization through the strengthening of civil society, promotion of electronic governance and civic participation, and promotion of corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.

Check out this edition’s English articles to read about, among other things:

  • how media is evolving and changing our culture and etiquette of communication
  • how to balance the increasing openness of the Internet with security and national or corporate interests
  • different views on Wikileaks, and
  • how public policy might support declining newspapers.

Check out the Greek articles to read about, among other things:

  • a proposal by Paremvassi’s VP on how ERT, Greek national television, can serve as a tool to help Greece out of the crisis
  • the impact of the increase in blogs on traditional media
  • how the law applies to blogs
  • a code of ethics for blogs proposed by a Greek lawyer focusing on digital media, and
  • young people pursuing innovative business rather than the public sector.

This last article, based on the results of a survey conducted on behalf of the Thessaloniki Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is pleasantly surprising. Despite the odds being stacked against an entrepreneur in Greece thanks to a myriad of obstacles, young Greeks are innovating.  The article spotlights OpenFund (invests in and supports businesses in emerging technologies), kapou.gr (an online photomapping service), the second method (develops educational software), Total Eclipse (a leading company in computer games), and novo1 (an educational robot currently under development).  Interestingly enough, this TED talk, Let’s Raise Kids to Be Entrepreneurs, was posted online around the same time this article was published in Kathimerini – June 2010.  But I digress…and reveal my favorites.

Take a look at the newsletter and choose your favorite articles.