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.

Greek elections and governance: Debating the rules, selecting the players, but no referee in sight

Greek elections are scheduled for May 6, after former Prime Minister Lucas Papademos resigned in early April, after former Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned in early November 2011.  Papademos was appointed as part of an interim coalition New Democracy and PASOK government.

Early elections are most directly a result of the decision to accept the bailout loan agreements and implement severe austerity measures with no strategy to promote economic growth. Two women are trying to take the Greek government to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for implementing austerity that deprives people of their freedoms. The accusations may not lead to a trial in this court, but it is a sign of the frustrations and absence of accountability that exists within the country.

For anyone laughing at this effort, perhaps this will be less amusing: the Athens Bar Association went to the Council of State, Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, over the bailout loan agreements, which it views as “anti-constitutional since they were not voted upon with a high parliamentary majority vote, but also because they violate the constitutionally reserved rights of the citizens.” The Council judged the government’s decision to enter into the loan contract as constitutional in June 2011, in time for the parliament to approve the second bailout loan agreement. The Council may have ruled in favor of the government, but there was enough doubt in the legality of the decision-making process for an association of lawyers to move on it.

As elections approach, Greek voters must reflect, think clearly, take new action. This is not easy, given that the political system makes it different for new people to enter the system, some of the new political parties that have emerged – for a total of 32 parties on the upcoming ballot – were started by former members of the two main parties, and some are extremist and racist.

The main parties do not appear to have spent much time reflecting, thinking clearly or taking new action. The platforms (using this term loosely) are stale, unclear, contradictory, full of inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric (particularly in mongering fear against migrants and immigrants) and empty of true vision or real plan of action.

Voters have shown signs that they want to change their behavior to change the country.  There are a growing number of citizen groups dedicated to community action, volunteerism and social causes. A new political movement, Koinonikos Syndesmos (Civil Association), also launched in October 2011 with the release of a founding declaration expressing the goals of goals of engaging civil society, furthering political dialogue and facilitating political action in an effort to reform the country and to maintain its European identity.

Voters in the country may want to change their behavior in order to change the country, but are there enough substantive choices to allow for a change in behavior in a snap election?

To the world outside of Greece: pay attention.

If you think what is happening in Greece is unique to Greece, a simple matter of financial mismanagement of one country’s government now facing the consequences, or a result of ‘culture’, you are mistaken.

This European crisis is one of economic issues, an immigration and border policy that leaves responsibility distributed unevenly among member states, and, most frighteningly, of democratic governance issues:

From my earlier post: After the Greek prime minister announced a referendum on whether to accept the debt agreement, EU leaders insisted on the referendum question being ‘stay in EU or leave EU’ when there has been NO serious dialogue in Greece on this issue and polls show that 70 percent of Greeks do NOT want to leave the EU. And they set the date for December 4, leaving no time for a real debate. This is not a minor point. This is absolutely critical. A referendum alone is not democracy. A referendum is one part of a process. If you spring a referendum on people without facilitating an informed debate process, you are simply manipulating and insulting those people, and they would be right to believe that you are hiding something. Whether EU leaders were sincere or also calling Papandreou’s bluff, it is a destructive message to send throughout a union of democracies and to the rest of the world.

Undemocratic proposals are also coming from Europe regarding the level of control EU officials should have in a country’s domestic economic policies: see Myth #2 in this Forbes piece.

All of these proposals, in addition to the very real austerity measures, stand in the way of democratic reforms that remain unresolved in Greece. The system needs referees – institutions to ensure oversight, transparency and accountability. Such reforms would have helped Greek institutions combat or limit government financial mismanagement if the EU had pushed for them long ago.

Former Prime Minister George Papandreou recently told TIME magazine “We were a lab rat, an experiment,” in reference to Greece being forced to accept the bailout loans and austerity measures. There was no experiment. Do we really want to pretend that there is no example in history that shows that straight austerity does intense damage to the implementing country and its people? Do we want to pretend that decision-makers in Europe, the IMF and even Greece thought this path was the wisest for Greece because they had no precedent to look back upon? The public should believe that Europe and the IMF are amateurs, rather than ask what motives these actors have besides the welfare of the Greek population or sustainable reform in the country? Seems  a little insulting.

If you believe that Greece’s crisis is purely its own, look at Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Czech Republic and then keep looking.

If Greece was an experiment, where’s the lesson that is supposed to be applied to subsequent cases?

Additional info on 2012 elections in Greece:

Profiles of the parties running in the election:
Kathimerini English Edition: http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite3_1_03/05/2012_440466
Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/05/20125120322955327.html

Policy paper on the Greek elections, written by Nick Malkoutzis for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/id/09061.pdf

A voter’s guide to the elections (Athens News): http://www.athensnews.gr/issue/13494/55209

Greek Elections: A Practical Guide (Greek Reporter): http://greece.greekreporter.com/2012/04/30/greek-elections-a-practical-guide/

IFES Election Guide: http://www.electionguide.org/country.php?ID=85

Greece Elections – Graphic of the Day: http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/index.php/greece-elections-graphic-of-the-day/

Time to play: Which is Real, Which is Parody!

The rules are easy, just guess which Item (1 or 2) is real and which is parody. Careful though, the game itself may not be as easy as you think!

Item 1:
«Solidarity Fund of Greece», A bank account for donations to the Greek government, to pay off the country’s debt

Excerpt: “a call to all Greeks worldwide to support the campaign for the “*Solidarity Account for Greece*” which was established for the repayment the nation’s public debt.

…we are calling Hellenes worldwide to take action.

We consider that it is our duty, that each and every one of us and all together as one, support and contribute actively to the Solidarity Fund Campaign, which is led by the President of the Hellenic Republic…”
Item 2:
The Official Kickstarter Page for Greece! A crowdfunding page to pay off the country’s debt.

Excerpt: “our creditors are demanding €14.5 billion ($18.6 billion) by March 20. We do not have this money, nor do we think we can raise it in time… And so we come to you, our friends, for help.

A donation of any amount is appreciated, and gifts are available for those who give at premium levels. We promise these funds will be used only to pay down debt, and any funds received above the requested amount will be rolled over to our next, inevitable Kickstarter campaign.”

Image by New Diaspora. New Dialogue. illustration contributor.

 

Did you make your selection? Have you given up?

Here is the answer:

Option 1: Real!

The excerpt is from a message from an organization focusing on strengthening ties between Greek diaspora communities, in 2010. 

Option 2: Parody! (For now.)

This was published recently in McSweeney’s, a San Francisco-based publisher that publishes – among other things – the literature and humor site McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Did you get it right? Did you get it wrong? Its ok, no one wins. We all sit down for a good laugh and a cry!

I’m not sure if the author of Welcome to the Official Kickstarter Page for Greece! was aware of the 2010 Solidarity Fund account. The parody Kickstarter page is humorous either way, but the comparison highlights the question of whether leaders in Greece and the diaspora communities fully acknowledge the causes and the deep impact of the political crisis that is intertwined with the country’s economic crisis.

The political crisis is that Greek society does not trust its political leaders and people have difficulty trusting each other after decades of ineffective or completely lacking transparency and accountability institutions. For years, Greece has lacked strong government or independent institutions with an ability to combat corruption and ensure that laws were implemented or reformed as necessary.

So why would people contribute to a fund that goes to the government – whether for the repayment of the debt or any other reason?

Here is what is most interesting to me: I have not yet seen any comments regarding the McSweeney’s post from the Greek diaspora community organizations or individuals that commented on the November 2011 Saturday Night Live skit portraying the gods of Olympus attempting (unsuccessfully) to address the economic crisis. Maybe they just don’t know about McSweeney’s.

In case you forgot about that SNL skit, here’s a little reminder:

‘Zeus’: “Wait, there is a Greek god of finance, right, there has to be…”

There isn’t. ‘Zeus’ calls on each of the gods/goddesses, none are responsible for finance. Later in the dialogue:

‘Hermes’: “It’s the party god’s fault, he’s been overseeing all the Greek banks.”

The skit shows that the ancient stories of Greek culture are still fun and pretty well-known in mainstream American culture. The ancient Greek gods and myths continue to be interesting and relevant today because they represented a spot-on understanding of human nature. There was also humor, satire and irony throughout the ancient myths, probably based on an understanding that sometimes humor – bright or dark – is the most effective way to get your point across.

When the laughter or giggles die down after reading a parody Kickstarter page, two thoughts will likely remain:

1)     It is absurd for anyone to imagine that people would trust the government or its international lenders enough at this point to donate money, when there has been little progress in making the political and economic systems in Greece or Europe more fair.

2)     How many Kickstarter pages would the EU actually need…?

All politics and parody aside, there are some interesting, creative projects on Kickstarter, even in Greece or relating to Hellenic culture, so check out the real page: http://www.kickstarter.com