Mrs. Ekavi Valleras, Director of the Desmos Non-Profit Foundation, writes about Greece’s civil society, in the Special Edition of Kathimerini, “Greece and the World in 2019”:
Confronted with the severe financial challenges of the past decade in Greece, civil society has undertaken a major role in alleviating the social and humanitarian needs that continue to arise. In the process, it has evolved into a vibrant, dynamic and creative nationwide community, which is beginning to perceive itself beyond the crisis, and self-organize.
Our community often resembles a busy beehive buzzing with activity and inspiration. Traditional organizations are renewing themselves and expanding their operations in order to better serve the vulnerable social groups which they support. Public Benefit Foundations are increasingly transforming their giving philosophy from conservative philanthropy to empowering organizations via synergies and dialogue, focusing on the long-term positive impact of civic society.
New initiatives, such as “Desmos”, founded in direct response to the crisis, are themselves evolving beyond it. They look for long-term solutions, provide essential services to both donors and organizations, operate with full transparency and with a culture which encourages the use of innovative tools, practices and synergies. Many small-scale, grass-root initiatives that address the needs of their local communities, sprout on a daily basis in neighborhoods and social groups.
Individuals and companies come knocking at our door. The private sector appears increasingly open to information about the real needs of organizations, and are interested in making critical interventions. They are looking for reliable direction, they set benchmarks on accountability and impact, and collaborate effectively with civil society organizations.
Ηowever civil society is not a closed system of organizations. It also consists of thousands of citizens from every age group, who wish to support the most vulnerable amongst us. In July 2018, even from the first moments in the aftermath of the tragic fires in Mati and Eastern Attica, the public’s response was overwhelming: so many people rushed to donate essential goods as well as their services and time as volunteers – indicative that sentiment for active participation for the common good is maturing.
This summer, the UN welcomed Greece into the group of countries committed to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At their core, the SDGs support human rights, alleviate social inequality, provide universal access to basic goods and promote environmentally and socially sustainable development.
Our community has accumulated a wealth of experience and best practices across a wide range of social challenges and issues. It assesses real time activity on a daily basis, develops and capitalizes on existing know-how, creates networks, and engages in increasingly sophisticated self-regulation. In reality, civil society fills in the gaps in welfare for the elderly, children, the uninsured, unemployed, people with disabilities, refugees and migrants, among many others. It supports hospitals and schools, takes initiatives for the environment and culture, but also responds decisively to crises and natural catastrophes. Nevertheless, civil society is mentioned publicly mostly in cases of mismanagement and lack of transparency.
The state can be instrumental in helping civil society become even more effective in the future. We need a favorable legal and fiscal framework to create incentives which will encourage private sector giving to contribute. At the very least, it is important to remove the disincentives. Until 2014, every business was required VAT on basic goods in stock that was donated for social welfare purposes. Desmos proposed a legislation, which passed through Parliament, which exempts companies from paying VAT on goods that they can no longer sell, but are suitable for use, thereby achieving the most progressive policy in Europe on such donations.
Equally important is the creation of a reliable national database for civil society organizations and their work, which will allow us to map and evaluate the whole range of organizations and the needs they meet.
At the same time, there is a need for a legal framework for volunteering, to clearly define their status when contributing to organizations and initiatives, and remove any negative connotation. This will utilize the critical mass of people who wish to contribute to the common good. The innovative educational program “I Care and Act”, the only Greek program that cultivates the notions of volunteering, solidarity and active citizenship, has already inspired 40,000 students across the country to change their mentality and make giving a way of life, through a wide range of volunteer projects on a daily basis.
In the wider discourse on national strategy for social well-being and cohesion, civil society’s participation is essential in order to maximize both its acquired knowledge as well as its future potential, at a time when financial challenges will continue to limit state intervention.