Greek economic crisis stimulates social entrepreneurship

Greek economic crisis stimulates social entrepreneurship

Earlier this month, the Hellenic Statistical Authority released new data showing that more than 2.5 million Greeks, or nearly a quarter of the population, are at risk of poverty.

More than four years after the onset of the economic crisis and the introduction of the first austerity measures to Greece, it is still evident on the streets of Athens that people are struggling to make ends meet.

As lunchtime nears in the busy neighbourhood around Omonia Square in the city centre, some 300 people are already lining up at the Caritas Athens office for one of the free hot meals provided daily by this Catholic NGO.

One of the workers from Caritas urges those queuing to wait inside the building, cramming the staircases and hallways, for fear of racist attacks by members of Greece’s far-right party Golden Dawn.

Although the vast majority of them are migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, Caritas says it has also seen increasing numbers of desperate Greeks.

The day’s menu proposes the usual rice and steamed vegetables. But more surprisingly, fresh-baked pastries from the French baker Paul are also given out.

Alexander Theodoridis smiles in satisfaction. If it wasn’t for the not-for-profit organisation Boroume (Greek for “We can”), which he co-founded, hundreds of these small pies would have ended up in the garbage bin.

“We are just a communication hub,” Theodoridis tells Equal Times. “We simply bring together those who can give away food, and those who need it.”

Since the beginning of Boroume and Caritas’ partnership in early 2014, an extra 24,000 “meal equivalents” – using a general rule of 700 calories per meal – have been provided to hungry migrant and Greek families.

“We have more products to offer than before the Crisis began,” says Aglaia Konstantakopoulou, a social worker at Caritas. “Not only are we able to feed everybody who comes here, but we can also give them quality food.”

Started in May 2011 as a simple initiative to bring leftover cheese pies from an Athens bakery to a nearby soup kitchen, Boroume has mushroomed into a renowned NGO with four full-time employees and more than 20 weekly volunteers.

They now count more than 200 permanent “bridges” established around the country, connecting food donors with recipient organisations and serving an average of 3,000 free meal equivalents per day – food that would have otherwise been thrown away.

Their model has proved so successful that it is now being emulated in other countries around the world, and will be discussed at the end of the week at the FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies) Platform meeting in Brussels.

The organisation runs exclusively on private donations and has garnered the support of Greek and foreign sponsors as well as multinational corporations – one of the top law firms in Athens even provides Boroume with free legal assistance.

“Need makes you inventive,” says Theodoridis, a 37-year-old London School of Economics graduate and former political adviser.

“We are often told that it is the state that should be helping out hungry people. We say “fuck it”. We in Greece have to stop expecting everything from the government. I would even say that the economic situation is a blessing, because it leaves many areas of society open for such initiatives.”


Self-employment, sustainability and social responsibility

Despite a modest decline, Greece still has the highest unemployment rate in the European Union, at 27 per cent, and is only second to Spain in terms of joblessness for people under 25, with more than half of all young adults currently out of work.

For this category of workers, even finding a job often means having to live with a salary barely above the minimum wage, which was slashed by 32 per cent in 2012 to a mere €500 – gross.

In a 2013 special report on youth unemployment, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stated that: “Apart from its detrimental effects on future wages and employability, youth unemployment may have a negative impact on happiness, job satisfaction and health for many years.”

The organisation recommends a broad approach to tackle this issue, with a priority for “pro-employment macro-economic policies”, the enforcement of labour law and collective agreements, as well as entrepreneurship and self-employment.

Just like at Boroume, many young Greek workers have chosen the latter, often more out of necessity than of choice, and have delved into their country’s socio-economic troubles as a source of inspiration.

Since 2013, this drive for self-reliance and social responsibility has come together at Impact Hub Athens, an office and web platform connecting young entrepreneurs with a national and international network geared towards sustainable projects.

Tina Kiriakis is a former corporate PR and marketing manager. After being laid-off in 2010, she decided to launch her own tourism agency to takes visitors on “alternative” tours of Athens. She now runs an average of 10 excursions a week during the tourist season and employs five freelance guides.

“I never would have done it if it wasn’t for the crisis,” she says.

Another resident of the Impact Hub is Filisia, which created a musical device that supports the cognitive and physical rehabilitation of people affected by cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome or autism.

Its prototype has been hailed by doctors and therapists around the world and has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants. Its inventors are continuously perfecting their model, with hopes to launch the manufacturing process soon.

By providing tutorials, mentorship and connections, the promoters of the Impact Hub believe they can help transform an idea into a functioning venture, hopefully contributing to Greece’s unemployment and decent work problems.

“There was a real need for this because people had lost faith in their ability to change anything,” says 22 year-old Lioubi Karageorgou, Impact Hub’s communications officer.

Though both she and Dimitris Kokkinakis, co-founder of the project, have no salary, they say they’ve learnt to live on €200 or €300 a month.

“I won’t just leave here for a job that pays,” states Karageorgou. “And I don’t feel unemployed, because I am constantly learning.”