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.


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:

My Vision for the Greek American Community

Recently, I had the honor of attending the first annual Global Diaspora Forum, hosted from May 17 – 19 by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships, together with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Migration Policy Institute, and other partners.  In her keynote speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the launch of the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance (IDEA), a collaborative platform to engage diaspora communities, the private sector, and public institutions and support the development of diaspora-centered partnerships that promote trade and investment, volunteerism, philanthropy, diplomacy, entrepreneurship, and innovation in countries of origin.

Presentations, panels, and roundtables at the Forum highlighted how diaspora communities engage their countries of origin and promote ties between the U.S. and these countries through a range of activities and through all sectors.  While listening to leaders from different diaspora groups and exchanging experiences with fellow participants, I gained a greater focus on what being a member of a diaspora community means to me, and a clearer vision of how I want to help my community realize its potential and move forward in the future.

As a first generation Greek-American – born in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from Greece – and with an unabashedly Greek first name (the name of a goddesses from Greek mythology), I always felt the need to address my background.  A healthy percentage of my personal statements for college and educational program applications therefore featured how growing up with immigrant parents and frequent travel to Greece impacted me – my values, my character, the way I relate to others, and my perspectives on distance, separation, heritage and aspiration.  I was initially hesitant, however, about getting involved in Greek-American activities because I was weary of letting this aspect of my life overshadow all the other elements of who I felt I was or wanted to become as a person.

It is only in recent years that I began focusing on what my diaspora identity means to me and what role I want it to play in my life.  My relationships and engagement in various initiatives in the Greek-American community have grown recently, but the greatest impact on my broader perspective and vision for my own community came from speaking with individuals from other diaspora communities during the Secretary’s Global Diaspora Forum.  In each conversation, there were both different and common values, experiences, and lessons.  These conversations allowed me to better understand and express my own vision for my community and our connections with each other and with Greece.

The experience led me to draft the following principles, expressing my goals and values as a member of the Greek-American diaspora:

  • Engage in public service and community development based on the values of my parents and grandparents.
  • Mentor future leaders – students and early professionals – in my diaspora community.
  • Support robust engagement and strategic partnership with leaders, activists and grassroots networks in Greece.
  • Build local, international and cross-sector partnerships and networks seeking to bring positive impact to communities.
  • Encourage and facilitate dialogue and exchange to identify and scale best practices.

In her keynote remarks, Secretary Clinton stated, “Increasingly, I think one of our greatest assets as Americans – not only in our governmental activities but throughout our society – is to reach out and, frankly, model for others what it means to live with diversity but to be respectful and even proud of one’s own traditions.”  To me, being respectful and proud of my own traditions means understanding the source of these traditions and sharing them with others and with younger generations.  It also means drawing from my traditions the inspiration to build new and evolving partnerships with people that share these traditions, whether they are fellow Greek-Americans or individuals in other Greek diaspora communities or in Greece.

There are increasing efforts in Greece to strengthen communication and partnerships with Greek diaspora communities around the world.  Prime Minister George Papandreou has repeatedly invited the Greek diaspora to share their talents and experience to help Greece address its challenges and move forward.  Addressing the Parliamentary Standing Committee for the Greek Diaspora in January, Deputy Foreign Minister Demetris Dollis stressed the need for a new approach to engaging the diaspora according to key objectives and priorities, for increased effectiveness and to overcome the challenges of limited and decreasing levels of Greek government funding for institutions to engage diaspora.  The need for a reassessment of the current approach to engaging Greek diaspora may never have been so pertinent as it is now.

There is good reason for this outreach effort.  Many Greek-Americans are successful, educated, and leaders in their professional fields and communities. As a community, we have an opportunity to play a leading role in facilitating international partnerships with Greece.  At a time when the international media is focusing its attention on economic issues in Greece, often throwing around generalizations and superficial analyses on the root of these problems and speculating over what will happen next, we must speak in a clear voice as a diaspora community on how to work together to help the country address its economic and social challenges, based on dialogue with our counterparts and peers in the country.  There are existing and newly forming groups in the Greek-American community that are hosting discussions or launching initiatives, but there is little dialogue on developing a comprehensive strategy to coordinate our efforts and support each other towards our common goals.

Setting out clear principles makes it possible to connect with others, build coalitions, and move forward.  After participating in the Global Diaspora Forum, I am inspired to hope that as a diaspora community, we can increase our collaboration and begin discussing a comprehensive approach to our partnerships with Greece. There are individuals in our community that have extensive experience and expert knowledge in their fields, but now is the time to build international and cross-sector partnerships in order to leverage our skills and resources and have real impact.