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Movement of the Day: Informal Citizen Networks in Greece

* Report: Informal Citizen Networks. The Case of Greece. Tepsie, 2013

A very interesting report, and we’ve asked our Greek friend to report on some of the movements that are described here.

But first, general excerpts from this fascinating survey:

Introduction

“Since 2009 Greece has experienced a severe financial recession and the government has adopted austerity measures that have had a severe impact on the lives of citizens. High rates of unemployment, people living below the poverty line and social disruption are just some of the main characteristics of the current situation. At the same time, we are seeing the emergence of a large number of informal citizen networks and grassroots movements aiming to provide innovative solutions to the difficult situations which the country is facing.

Our aim in this paper is to provide a further insight on the main characteristics of the informal citizen networks in Greece which have gradually emerged during the last few years and which have recently become more visible.

This paper is thus structured around the following sections:

• The first section covers the description of the structure of Greek civil society, its special features and its evolution during the last century. Given that there is a long road ahead before civil society gains the position and recognition it deserves within modern Greek society, our approach will be to present and highlight the most important factors that not only shaped civil society, but also those factors that hindered its development in contrast to other European countries where the sector is more developed.

• The second section attempts to provide the main characteristics and differences of the informal networks that have developed during the last thirty years. Our main focus will be to answer two very important questions: Can the emergence of the informal networks be attributed only to the current financial crisis? And, what other factors eventually led to their widespread adoption across Greece?

• The third section presents an indicative number of informal networks that are currently active in Greece based on a typology that we have developed as a result of their main characteristics and objectives.

• In the fourth and last section of this paper our endeavour is to highlight those factors that may influence the future of the informal networks as well as the extent of their contribution in forming a new future for Greece. Some first considerations regarding current and future trends are also presented.

Civil Society in Greece

Civil society in Greece has a very long tradition which has been quite chequered throughout the years. The term, ‘civil society’ is widely used by the public and in academic discourses in Greece. It describes both formal organisations and informal collective activities of people who are independent of the state, contributing to the development of civic values and social capital and taking a generally constructive stance towards democracy as a social order (Sotiropoulos, 2004). Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) as the main precursors of civil society activity have played a rather significant role in the country’s history, starting from the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire (1821-1827) and then throughout the 19th century. ?he process of democratisation is associated with the development of civil society and with rising political participation (Schmitter 1986, Diamond 1997). While parliamentary democracy and the development of CSOs were closely related in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century this democratic tradition was interrupted by the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), which followed the end of the Second World War and also by the military intervention into Greek politics. The last intervention occurred in 1967 and led to a military dictatorship which lasted for seven long years.

During this period (1967-74), a number of resistance organisations of students, intellectuals and left-wing activists developed. Following the transition to democracy since 1974, we have observed a phenomenal boom in civil society. According to Sotiropoulos (2004), “compared to other young democratic nations, including South-East European nations, Greece is an example of a successful democratic consolidation and civil society development. However, compared to other West European nations with strong civil society traditions, Greece has a less well-developed civil society”.

Looking at the literature, we observe a frequent characterisation of the Greek civil society as underdeveloped, weak, poorly organised as well as having a limited impact on society at large. Even though we observe the existence of a rather strong informal civil society which has flourished during the last years and has become more evident during the economic downturn which is currently traumatising the country, Greece was further described by Sotiropoulos (2004) as “having a low stock of social capital and trust“.

There are two distinct factors which have hindered the development of social capital in Greece. The first one refers to the economic and political instability throughout the years of Greece’s modern history. The second can be attributed to the heavy dependence of Greek civil society on central state institutions (ministries and public sector organisations). Mouzelis (1995) also confirms this trend by reporting that “the “weakness” of Greek civil society is attributed to the dominance of clientelism and patronage and the vertical, rather than horizontal, incorporation of the social spectrum to politics”. Even though democracy has flourished in Greece since 1974, CSOs did not emerge in large numbers until the 1990s which is also when empirical research on them began.

The emergence of informal networks during the last 5 years

“Up until 1990 and since the democratisation of Greece in 1974, the emergence of civil society organisations was not that common or at least, as mentioned above, empirical research on them has only begun after 1990. From that period onwards and up until the beginning of the Greek economic recession in 2009, many informal citizen networks have emerged but without much communication about them, which means many people are unfamiliar with these organisations and their activities. Some key questions emerging from this situation are: What does it tell us about informal citizen community mobilisation in the years prior to the economic crisis?; Were CSOs structured in an organised manner?; What specific examples of informal civil society mobilisation are there, what are their main characteristics and, if and how they differ from those networks flourishing after the crisis?

As the literature shows, there have been quite a few events during the late 90s that can be described either as cases of constructive civil society participation or that could be seen in a more negative sense, as being quite destructive. We provide two examples of these cases below, which indicate the characteristics of such networks prior to the crisis. These cases were widely communicated to the public, although they were not representative of all the existing networks during that period.

On the one hand, there was a constructive civil society mobilisation which surfaced during the early fall of 1999. It was the case of non-governmental mobilisation which aimed to help the victims and the material damages of the earthquake in Western Athens. A lot of collective actors devoted part of their resources to alleviate the situation of the victims of the earthquake in 1999. A vast number of associations (it was estimated around 700), foundations, NGOs as well as a lot of private businesses were mobilised. They offered goods, such as money, food, clothes, and also services, such as health care and psychological support to the victims.

On the other hand, an example of a not-so-constructive, but rather destructive, civil society mobilisation also surfaced in the late 1990s. This refers to the Greek school parades, which take place to celebrate national anniversaries. The parade follows the lead of the pupil who carries the Greek flag and who is chosen from among the graduating class as being the top pupil in his or her class (according to a specific ministerial ordinance). In 2000 and again in 2002, in two small Greek towns the local community convened to reject the decision of the school’s head master to deliver the Greek flag to a student because he happened to be of Albanian origin.

People from the local community announced that they would use force to obstruct the parade if it were headed by the Albanian student carrying the Greek flag. Just one day before the parade was scheduled to take place, the Albanian student backed down and passed the flag to the second best student who happened to be Greek.

What do these stories tell us about the different informal collectives that appeared then in comparison to the current citizen networks identified and developed after the crisis? According to Sotiropoulos (2004), it seems that under particular circumstances, the informal collectives that were formed prior to the crisis fought to preserve their own interests against those of the wider region or the country as a whole opposed to what is happening with the post crisis citizen networks.

Another important aspect that should not be neglected is the structure and organisation of those collectives. Careful attention needs to be given to the terms and definitions adopted before and after the crisis period when characterising the mobilisation of the informal civil society. The main difference of those phenomena in the late 90s was the fact that they were mentioned and acknowledged as collectives- which of course continue to exist even after the crisis serving different or the same interests – instead of how they are conceived nowadays, after the crisis, i.e. informal citizen networks.

In order to have a more complete picture of the situation of civil society in Greece and more specifically of informal networks, it is important to describe how the mobilisation of those networks has evolved over the years gaining greater momentum after the economic recession. A new era for civil society organisations started in 2009 and is still developing today. Since 2009 there has been a boom in informal citizen networks and grassroots movements shaping an “alternative”, “parallel” economy in Greece. Despite the poor tradition of Greece in the field, a rather stronger “informal” civil society has emerged. In various Greek cities, informal gatherings of citizens have turned into local social movements trying to provide solutions or a new way of thinking in order to structure a new future for Greece. This new alternative economy is becoming more and more popular in Greek society as it spreads rapidly across the country.

However, the emergence of such networks is not a new phenomenon, at least during periods of economic crisis. Although completely new for Greece, in several other countries around the world such informal networks have a long history – for example, Argentina. During the Argentinean economic crisis (1999-2002) several citizen networks and parallel currencies were developed. Social currencies such as creditos5,6 of the Red Global del Trueque (RGT) – literally “Global Network of Multi-Reciprocal Exchange Clubs” or more simply the “Global Exchange Network” (GEN) which facilitates trade between some 200.000 producers and consumers- emerged, involving millions of people. Soon, a massive barter exchange movement expanded to several other parts of Latin America.

Another example is the cimarrón, one of the several alternative currencies in Venezuela. LETS is a very popular Exchange System which started in the UK and expanded in many countries around the world. Many other schemes such as the time banks operate within the framework of a parallel economy springing up in many regions of Spain. These are just some of the ways that people develop creative approaches to meeting their needs, especially during tough economic times. Returning to the situation in Greece: could such networks be considered as an after-effect of the crisis? We believe that the answer here is twofold. Undoubtedly this is the case for Greece as the emergence of many informal networks coincides with the outbreak of the financial crisis. Having this perspective in mind, someone could easily and logically believe that the emergence of these networks should be attributed to the economic recession. But what other reasons lie behind their existence?

The emergence of these informal networks can also be attributed to the transformation of consumers’ behaviours and attitudes towards a more responsible way of living different from the current one which is characterised by passive consumerism, over-production and the great dependence on money. In particular, it is the desire felt by many people for a new way of thinking and acting in their everyday life, a kind of creative resistance to the current situation. Other sources claim that these new kind of networks have appeared in order to fill the gaps between people’s needs and the social services provided by the state. In spite of the large public sector in Greece, the country’s social services are often not up to the task of helping people in need10. More broadly what is happening in Greece and elsewhere could be understood as a way of redesigning the mainstream economy that has failed to meet people’s needs, and prioritising wellbeing and resilience.

Taking a closer look at the core features of these informal networks, all the above mentioned reasons for their appearance are reaffirmed. Starting from their objective, which is explicitly claimed by each one of them, most of these grassroots movements aim to respond to the current crisis through innovative ideas and joint solutions. They aim to modify existing thinking and provide support to people in need in order to improve life in community, to promote fair and equitable sharing and distribution of goods and services as well as to promote and preserve resources and assets of their local communities.

Most of the informal citizen networks in Greece also share some common features among them.

These mainly involve the following:

• The participation of people in the networks on a voluntary and democratic basis.

• The promotion of fair and equitable distribution of resources.

• The development of relationships based on solidarity.

• A focus on a smaller scale economy.

• A different value system, which promotes concepts such as self-sufficiency, mixed with modern ideas like sustainability and ethical consumption.

• Independence from public authorities.

As a consequence, we have tried to categorise the various existing citizen networks based on the following typology.

More information as well as examples of the different categories will be provided in the next section.

Our typology includes the following eight categories:

• Exchange and virtual currencies networks

• Cost cutting networks – “Without intermediaries”

• Social kitchens

• Social clinics- social pharmacies

• Social education networks

• Social /Cultural activism

• Self-management & self control networks

• Networks for change

Conclusions

“It is generally acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges for Greece in the current crisis is the rebuilding of a strong civil society. As already mentioned, the role of the informal citizen networks towards this goal is seen to be important although the real impact of these networks cannot yet be measured. After a critical overview of the actions and impact of the informal citizen networks identified in Greece, the following thoughts can provide a further illustration of possible future trends.

Bottom up movements and networks can provide alternative solutions and present a way of breaking the cycle of crisis. The existence and growth of such networks in Greece may contribute to the development of a new economic model or system. This has already been achieved to some degree with the cost cutting networks where a new economic model enabling transactions without the involvement of intermediaries has already been adopted by many Greek citizens. Another emerging trend concerns the redefinition of values and the gradual transformation of lifestyles. Greeks acknowledge that the social and political system has failed and by self-organising mechanisms they try to provide a response to their needs. The existence of a large number of networks aiming to transform the current way of thinking and the adoption of new values comes as a solution to the failure of the country’s social and political system.
A third trend that can be identified concerns the development of smaller scale economies, encompassing principles such as self-sufficiency, solidarity and substantive democracy. This is especially the case with most of the solidarity and exchange networks which are developed on a local level and according to their members seem to have a positive impact in local employment rates as well as in boosting local economies through the mobilisation of transactions without the use of money.

Last but not least, there is a clear orientation towards collective action in the last few years. The increasing participation of citizens in networks and groups that through organised collective action manage to improve their lives shows that people acknowledge the power of acting together. Thus a growing trend towards the empowerment of individuals seems to be developing as part of the emergence of informal networks.

Aside from these initial thoughts, the development of the informal networks cannot be predicted. Their future will probably depend on several factors. Definitely, the financial crisis which is the main reason for their emergence will have a strong impact on them but it cannot help in the prediction of further trends regarding the future development of the networks. In this respect, the results of a study conducted by Sotiropoulou19 are indicative. According to her, there are several regions in Greece with high unemployment rates or sudden unemployment increases as a result of the economic downturn. However the participation of citizens in such networks in the specific regions is limited or does not even exist. So it is not possible to say that the deeper the crisis (e.g. higher unemployment rates), the more the development of the informal networks will be enhanced.

Other factors that will probably influence the further development of such networks concern the role of the state and the local public authorities as well as the support provided by private institutions and organisations. The case of TEM is indicative as the support from the local authorities and the local private business contributed significantly in the development and spreading of the network.

Among other factors that may influence the development of those networks is the use of information technology which has already facilitated the mobilisation of the Greek civil society and the spreading of the networks across Greece. Considering that Greece is not a particularly advanced information society, will future developments in ICT enable better networking and more engagement from all citizens? Are new technologies powerful enough to contribute towards a strong and robust civil society in Greece or is their role dependent on the support of a wider political environment and culture?

History shows that such networks usually disappear after the end of a crisis. Whether or not they will remain and produce long-term effects by helping turn new ideas into innovative and concrete actions that will have a real impact for Greece is still be determined. Whether or not these networks will have the same characteristics, dynamics and whether they will be underpinned by the same values also remains to be seen. Another important aspect that should also be examined in the long run is whether or not they will be transformed into formal structures, whereby the commercial exploitation of their services would be their first priority (and this applies particularly to those networks which are currently opposed to adopting principles of commercialisation and profit).

Overall, these networks could be seen as marking the beginning of a more solid and sustainable future for Greece but their real impact and evolution remains to be seen, especially after the end of the crisis.

Even though the Greek civil society is characterised as being weak, underdeveloped or even poorly organised, there is a growing acknowledgment during the last few years that a stronger and dynamic informal civil society has surfaced through the mobilisation and self organisation of several citizen networks. This form of civil society is now gaining considerable visibility. The emergence of these networks can be attributed not only to the financial crisis and citizen needs which cannot be met by the state, but also to the desire for a redefinition of values and lifestyle.

In contrast to the citizen collectives that existed prior to the crisis, the current citizen networks have a more structured form, and they are better organised. They focus on the promotion of principles such as solidarity, fair and equitable distribution of goods and services, self sufficiency, infusion of true democracy, etc.

For many they represent the first signs of a lifestyle transformation. For others, they are just alternative methods for dealing with the crisis. We think of them as the beginning of an era bearing great potential for both citizens and the country at large.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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