The greek social sector within the european union social policy framework: experiences and matters of concern

by Christina Vayas
Professor of Social Work


The aim is a) to seize up, very briefly, the state of the art in social policy developments in Greece within the last two decades, b) to bring together major achievements and the difficulties all along of the Greek voluntary welfare sector, c) to pin-point on the key issues voluntarism and the non-governmental Human Services are facing today, at the national level, and at the European level, along with most of the other member states, and d) to contribute to the inter-church and inter-state dialogue on the opportunities and the challenges ahead for the social NGOs in Europe by taking forward lessons taught in a national context.

Greece is a rather difficult model of geo-political and socio-cultural mix to find easily a match and on the other hand, the changes that took place in the Greek society, since annexation in 1981, within the field of Social Welfare and in particular the voluntary non-profit Social Sector, are many. Certainly not all of these changes could be relevant or even exemplary to other – old or new - member states. Taking this into consideration, I take full responsibility for the issues and examples selected for presentation in this brief report.

1.The state of the art in social policy development

1.1 The transition to welfare pluralism

Since the early 1980s, the Greek society is experiencing serious demographic changes caused by a low fertility rate and a fast growing ageing population (25%); a steady refugee flow and a large scale economic migration (15.000 refugees and asylum seekers and 750.000 registered migrants);

unemployment, mostly among younger population groups increases and with it a growing concern about women trafficking and substance abuse.

On the other hand, our membership in the European Union (EU) gave an impetus to interstate communication, introduced new policies and funds, new adjustments to the national legal framework.

Soon these facts changed Greek society into a multicultural milieu and created new opportunities for many groups, but also new needs and social risks. Such being the case, and with social policy systems in Europe in transition for sometime, the inadequate practices to fulfill present needs started changing.

Solutions had to be found, mostly at regional and local levels, with service provision close to the targeted populations. It became clear, that neither the State nor the free market could suffice to meet growing social problems and inequalities (this reality became evident and in the Green Book of the European Social Policy).

1.2 New Orientation in Social Policy Formation

The need to act locally became obvious to the Central Administration. New strategies in social planning and human services implementation are being tested. The Local Authority becomes the operational unit for community open care services. Pluralism in participation becomes the new Welfare model. The voluntary Social Services, the welfare initiatives of the Orthodox Church of Greece, the socially minded banks and enterprises, the unofficial care systems and, last but not least, the service users and citizen groups gradually become the new partners of the State.

As the decision-making became participatory – although not yet officially recognized for all the partners - responsibilities had to be decentralized and shared. Municipalities and local communities gained substantial autonomy, a leading role in the welfare mix and in locally operating Services to fight social exclusion.

Not to leave out, of course, the positive results of certain legal amendments, the changing gender roles, the substantial help of the progressive computerization of the public sector and the use of computer applications in the Human Services.

Helping hands to these internally decided developments have been, and still are, important EU policies, initiatives and directives. They had considerable impact on the progress of national and local Welfare Policy formation. Especially, the new regulations governing structural funds, the Amsterdam treaty and other summit resolutions on civil society and human rights recognition, the Economic and Social Committee recommendations, the Comite des Sages report, alternative policies and strategies to facilitate employment for disadvantaged groups and to fight poverty, a consistent attitude for inter-sector and interstate collaboration.

1.3 Case study

The first selected case study is based on the principle, that the Local Authority is more successful in supporting holistic social service production and delivery, in coordinating local service networks and in maximizing citizen participation.

Two municipalities in the greater Athens area started in 1988 the operation of a Municipal Central Social Service, as an organizational model to facilitate welfare pluralism, active citizen participation and to coordinate social policy development.

The scheme brought together Social Services representatives of all public and non-profit or church organizations acting locally, policy makers, those implementing policy and elected local leaders, caring citizens and self-help groups.

The aim was to assess needs and resources, to make project proposals, to build partnerships and networks, to avoid overlapping of services, to promote democratization and self-advocacy, to build a Forum for Human Services to debate local social policy development.

The project became a multiplier of good practice.

1.4 Points to take forward

1.4.1 The modern welfare pluralism is better implemented at the local level; this axiom applies also to the crowded parishes of the big cities, because the services and the professionals are close to those who need them. There, active participation is more realistic, the user groups and the serving agencies are sizeable, but not huge organizational units. It is easier to involve voluntary schemes and volunteer task force in service allocation, to try successful joint ventures and to build a feasible social dialogue in civil matters.

1.4.2 There are substantial benefits for the involved Human Services – especially the non-profit NGOs - such as better and extensive use of their services, more public awareness, easier access to the mass media, participation in local policy making, new action and funding opportunities.

1.4.3 An enabling Local Authority with a significant role in social policy formation needs statutory recognition, economic autonomy and political power to decide for its own social affairs. Although a number of positive steps have been taken towards this direction, there are still conflicting interests between central, regional and local government, that build resistance.

1.4.4 Social NGOs, citizen initiatives and service user involvement is a challenge to strict and inflexible administrative frameworks. The drive for active participation will develop further, promoted especially by the social NGOs acting at the European level. Of course, the conflict of interests, among elected politicians, social providers and user groups, is to be expected.

1.4.5 In modern Social Protection systems the presence of an inter-disciplinary team of professionals is thought necessary. There is need, however, to delineate specializations, professional rights and responsibilities among Social and Human Science professionals, if we mean to equip a new welfare policy with skilled, properly trained and harmoniously working colleagues.

2. Volunteering and Voluntary Social Organizations in Greece

2.1 The vested interest for the voluntary sector

Volunteerism in the field of Welfare and Social Care has a longstanding presence in Greece, either in the form of individual service or in collective efforts. It has roots in the Christian value of philanthropy as a lifestyle, in philosophical ideologies, in a humanitarian tradition and in societal values cultivating self-help and taking peoples’ own betterment in private instead of public “hands”. Volunteer work has been always a non-profit activity for the benefit of others, freely decided and selected by the volunteer party.

In the last two decades, Greece as it has been mentioned, went through many social, political and economic changes. The State, as major social service provider, became insufficient to respond efficiently to the differentiated needs of several high-risk population groups, which supported by EU resolutions, demanded equal treatment. The free market was still too “immature” to bother with the social needs of these groups.

Thus, the State and the local governments turn to the Voluntary Social Sector and the Church for help, to fill in the gaps, to start experimentation with new strategies and programs, to revitalize a dormant volunteer culture, to get to the grass roots and deal with very difficult and complicated social situations, alone or in collaboration with other partners.

The vested interest for the NGOs was strengthened also by the EU policy to “require” in its funded calls for social projects their involvement in service allocation and in joint local, national and interstate activities. Co-financing became a major EU policy, with the Public Sector and the NGOs to share the budgets.

2.2 Legal framework of the Greek Social NGOs.

The Greek State has instituted laws, since late 19th century, which allow its citizens the right to form volunteer associations and develop corporate social responsibility. These rights are extended to non-nationals also, under art.11 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Any organized volunteer activity may take three legal entities: Associations, Foundations or Non-profit Corporations. The Greek Constitution (art.12) protects non-profit associations and corporate schemes in the field of Social Care and Social Responsibility. Associations may unionize to form Federations and the latter have the right to enter in Co-Federations.

The Orthodox Church of Greece, although a public organization, has the legal right to form voluntary Human Services and non-profit philanthropic Foundations by official decree of the Holy Synod of the Bishops. For the European Union the Church has a recognized role as a Non-Governmental Organization in the Social Sector.

The criterion for recognition of the voluntary NGOs is a very broad definition of the “public good». It covers any objective, which is of no strong private interest and applies to the benefit (philanthropic, religious, social, educational) of groups of people The Central Government and the Regional Authority (prefecture) monitor the activities, staff policies and finances of the legally recognized non-profit NGOs.

For the first time in 1998, volunteer work is being recognized, as «a socially important service», by Law 2646/98 (on the Revision of the National Social Care System). In that same law, non-profit welfare NGOs, in order to qualify for service provision and for State or EU money, have to meet eligibility criteria and then register in a national file for accredited NGOs. The State and the Church offer honorary distinctions to volunteers and voluntary organizations for excellence of service.

2.3 Size and development of the voluntary social sector

Over the years, new NGOs appeared with better inner organization and paid staff to help deliver the services. The schemes run by Parents Associations for Disabled Children were the first in 1982, to unionize in a Federation. This organization has expanded nationally and includes more than 65 members. By decree, an appointed representative of the Federation participates in the State Council for the Protection of the Disabled.

Soon after, national associations for the motor and sensory disabled formed the National Federation for the Disabled, which became an active lobby to promote favorable legislation at the national level and to support social justice efforts at European level.

On the overall however, the Greek NGOs followed a horizontal development, choosing to remain active mostly at a local or regional level, serving rather limited numbers of user groups and to network upon need, instead of unionize.

Vertically, there is no national umbrella, entrusted to represent all Voluntary Welfare Organizations. On the other hand, many NGOs operating regionally – social welfare units run by the Church included - have become national representatives to inter-state bodies or have built national networks of the respective European social platforms for several target groups such as women, the poor, the elderly, the substance abused, the homeless, the youths at risk.

We also have examples of small volunteer bodies to progress into complex, computerized, decentralized service providers, either serving a specific target group or many client systems. As these agencies developed, resulting to non-profit social organizations, paid staff and professionals assisted their volunteer taskforce. Some of them kept their non-governmental status, while others became under state surveillance, in order to implement the policies and run the programs of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (laws 2082/92, 2646/98).

It is also true, that the number of voluntary non-profit organizations has grown rapidly in these two decades, because of EU funding and a friendlier approach by the State. The Greek Orthodox Church, despite the fact that it has hardly used any EU social funding, it remains on top among all providers of volunteer social services (over 190 charitable and social care units), with the largest number of volunteers serving mostly small, parish-bound programs (e.g. more than 3700 volunteers only in the parishes of the Archdiocese of Athens).

A number of research studies have been conducted by different interested parties (national and European) to locate and register legal schemes, which provide social care and protection services to different populations. However, due to the diversified classification indicators used, the number remains uncertain (VOLMED 1997). Only recently (late 2002) the State started a national registration of NGOs, which is still in process. Registration follows accreditation, which in turn opens the way to secure state and European funding. So there are a lot of formalities and requirements to be met, luckily to the betterment of the Sector.

2.4 Co-financing Reality and Matching Funds

Government policies, via finance and legislation, influence voluntarism very much. State support continues to play a significant role in the viability of many social agencies. The bigger they get, the more public funds they demand.

The same goes for private funding sources. The bigger their gifts are in value – especially property and inheritance – the more complicated the process to use them. The smaller in scale local agencies face similar problems of control by money allocators and community or parish representatives.

One way or the other, the struggle to secure funds is a reality for the Greek social non-profit sector. Besides, with the taxation of private industries for donations to volunteer Human Services (1997) and, at birth, the tradition of the profit making enterprises to co-finance social projects, NGOs “feel” the reducing effect in their budgets. NGOs are not allowed to trade or to sell products for profit. If they do, they are treated as private business and face the hardships of the free competitive market.

Difficulties arise, also, from state bureaucratic processes and complicated technicalities, which hinder easy money-flow and cause serious delays of ratified funds, including EU approved budgets. This situation has had a negative influence in the delivery of social products on time, and in some cases on the viability of the programs, as well. But it also leads the central government to plan and ratify simpler processes in financing cooperative action and joint projects.

3. Mapping out practices and issues of alert from the Greek landscape

Like other European nations, Greece faces changes in population morphology, the labor market and family patterns, which could make it more difficult to maintain or increase the numbers of volunteers from traditional sources. NGOs need to work harder and in a more targeted way, in order to recruit and maintain their volunteer workforce in Social Protection Services.

The issue of quality performance and the efficiency of service allocation remains an alert issue both for the NGOs and the Service financiers.

The same goes for the replacement of obsolete administration models with innovative and competent management, in order to upgrade and adapt their social products and delivery systems to better protect their service users. This issue is directly related to the rate of agency computerization and Information Technology application. In addition, the New Technologies may become a “facilitator” in building the civil society and in helping Human Services become actors with political clout in pursuing social justice for all (Vayas, 1999).

There have been concerns about the ability of volunteers to carry out complex or demanding services and to even cope with multi-cultural groups, especially under a contemplated “contract culture”.

Problems often result from lack of formal communication between paid staff and volunteers, especially those involved in managerial tasks. Also, due to State financed employment schemes, paid staff replaces volunteers. Definitely, better recruitment, training and placement procedures, plus encouragement and stimulation of volunteers will allow them to provide more and diversified services for the NGOs. But the realization of such a task is rather costly.

Although, many NGOs became employers for unemployed professionals, more human capital could have been used in their activities financed by European money. But, most schemes were not ready for the many operational demands in serving large target groups; and the Government wanted to “cut the pie in many small pieces”, to satisfy a few of the prospective service providers. It is a reality that not all EU funds were used constructively for the benefit of the Social Sector (OCG and ETW, 2000).

In order to minimize State dependency and to secure adequate financing for their operation, social NGOs should experiment on new methods of financing. In parallel, it is important to modify the existing legal framework to ensure that the Sector is using its full potential, at all levels of action.

The following case has been a good example of matching funds in the sensitive area of equality among sexes in employment.

Case study

ERGANI Center to Promote and Support Women’s Employment

This project, located in the greater area of Thessalonica, northern Greece, started in 1991, by a consortium of nine large scale national and regional schemes representing all three sectors, local government and employer organizations, the academic community and a citizen representative body.

Funding was shared by the EU Employment Program NOW (75%), three industries (10%) and the rest (15%) was to be contributed in human resources and in kind by the other partners.

The project had all possibility to be successful due to its strong collaboration model. In many ways it did. But not without struggle to follow the necessary steps in co-financing, during the initial planning stage and later during the developmental stage of the project.

It took the partnership coordinator, a national social NGO in this role (The National Welfare Organization), many hours to sensitize and motivate the private industries to commit themselves. They had to be convinced, that their financial help would be matched with implied and concrete “benefits”.

However, it was worth the effort and the extra time, because there is added value in co-financing with the private profit sector.

It secured a comprehensive plan of action for women’s employment, for it brought together all those involved with the specific target group. It sensitized and motivated the labor marker on equal opportunities issues.

It secured sources for co-financing beyond the public sector. It had a positive impact in changing old gender related mentalities of the employers and last but not least, it maximized the possibility for future operation of viable structures, after the EU financial support is terminated.

One more point to take forward is the fact, recognized also by the Commission, that there is still lack of sufficient and comprehensive information dissemination about financing procedures. The responsibility weights more toward the European Institutions side (OCG – ETW, 2000).

But, no matter how many and how complicated the existing difficulties are in co-financing, Greek social NGOs strongly believe in it and in the partnership with the public and the profit sectors, as the best way to ensure funding, keep involved in social policy implementation and use available resources in a fulfilling way, to the benefit of their service users (Vayas and Zoi, 1998). More is needed, for strategies to be put into action, besides policies and tools. All involved stakeholders must know their place and role!

The third and last example demonstrates, how a small pilot project broadened its scope and methods, in order to cover comprehensibly the needs of refugee groups and turned to a “blue print” for others to follow.

Case study

The first Social Service for Refugees and Asylum Seekers started in the greater Athens area in 1984, by a regional NGO, named Social Work Foundation. After an extensive needs assessment study, the project was planned to help refugees cover vital personal needs, face unemployment and discrimination and obtain – with their active participation - a voice for social justice claims. At first, it received political and financial support from the United Nations High Commissioner for the Refugees.

Over the years, this Human Service, with the help of European, public and private sector funds, established Intercultural Integration Centers in different locations, enriched the services to include more targeted groups, became involved in public speaking on current issues concerning refugee and migrant status and became a reference framework for other NGOs to follow and a respected advocate by the Government.

As a follow-up, and with the joined efforts of the many relevant schemes, which developed in the meantime, the Greek Government issued a series of laws and decrees recognizing social rights for the refugee and migrant populations.

It is good to remember, that successful pilot projects by social NGOs, in order to have lasting results, must leave their pilot character and adapt an institutionalized status. This calls for organizational improvements and validation to match the increasingly important role of the Sector.

One last issue of alert makes reference to the legal recognition of the non-profit sector as partner in setting priority of social needs, policy planning and decision-making on equal basis with the other two sectors (State and Private Industries). The blame for this delay goes to both sides, since it is also true, that the Greek welfare NGOs have not addressed publicly their clear intent to establish a national framework for representation and for participation at all levels of mapping out policy goals and Social Protection systems. It is worth mentioning here, that the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece in collaboration with ETWelfare organized a European Conference (2000), in order to strengthen the collective voice of the Greek welfare NGOs by making a call for the formation of a National Platform.

The need for such a mechanism of empowerment and validity of role has become eminent. The solution is to join forces and legally claim national and European representation.

4. Contributing to the discussion on Opportunities and Challenges ahead for the Social NGOs

The selected samples and issues presented, aim to contribute to the discussion on the new opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the NGOs in the European Union. In order, however, to make any good use of the Greek reality, or any other national experience for that matter, one has to correlate it with:

a) The European Union Social Policy trends and attitudes toward the role of the Social Sector.

b) The expectations and dilemmas of the Social Sector at the European level and

c) The fact, that not all – national or interstate - strategies and good

Practices are transferable; even those imposed or selected, require adjustments and adaptations to fit each country’s idiosyncrasy.

4.1 European Policy and Voluntary Organizations

Since the Treaty in Maastricht (1992), the European Commission repeatedly and in various forms and frameworks has acknowledged the important contribution of voluntary NGOs and community groups can make to the social integration, reaching far deeper into society than public bodies and the market (COM, 1997.241). But there is not yet any clear reference to the status of the social NGOs in the policy dialogue at European level. The relationship with the European Institutions, the State and the profit-sector remains nebulous and despite the successful mobilization of many European NGOs to push forward the civil society, this participation has no voting power.

Over the years, EU social policy has undergone many changes, in order to find feasible and suitable ways to increase employability and fight social exclusion; to respond to the needs created by demographic pressures, trans-national migration and an expanding social market.

However, one model of social policy to suffice for all member-states is unrealistic. EU institutions, in their strategic social planning, should take into account the particular characteristics and expectations of the various groups in the labor force, of an ageing - with different frequency rates - European society.

The Commission “requires” for social NGOS: a) to have the administrative capacity to undertake implementation of social protection policy, b) to bring into play sophisticated expertise in the dialogue for an inclusive society, with public and EU authorities, c) to mobilize and network, in order to provide a driving force behind employment opportunity processes, at the local level.

Knowing the existing policies at the European level, the new Funds regulations and other support resources, that the EU and Member States are collaborating on, provides a solid ground for an active and accountable presence.

4.2 Can the Voluntary Sector and the Church Voluntary Social Services seize the opportunity offered?

This is a struggling question for any one involved in strengthening the non - profit social organizations, at national or European level.

Five major capacities are accepted and expected by European level NGO Associations, as crucial to any attempt towards the development of new and better social protection systems and towards achieving active participation in social policy formation debates:

a) Quality of performance, validity, transparency, reliability, optimization of resources. Common understanding of quality standards for value driven services is an issue of alert for the NGOs.

b) Adaptation of modern management models for operative program implementation, networking and effective representation.

c) Use of new technologies to enhance the roles and activities of the Social Providers, their networks and to back up their global voice.

d) Involvement of supportive citizen groups and service users in program planning and evaluation.

e) Cross-border cooperation and participation in EU policies and processes, in order to move the social debate from the national to the European level.

Coming to the end of this report, I realize once more the struggles and the difficulties, but also the lost opportunities to pave the path towards empowerment of the status of the Non-Profit, Non-Governmental Social Service Providers and of their many European Platforms.

On the way each Church or social NGO chooses to take towards an active and useful participation in the opportunities and the challenges of Social Europe, this synoptic Greek report might help someone to avoid some of the anticipated roadblocks. May God guide us to have the solidarity and the freedom to set the action priorities that will enable us to better fulfill this important role.

This report has been prepared for the joint Social Policy Working Group of Church and Society Commission of CEC and Eurodiaconia (Brussels, May 2004). It was also presented at the Women’s Consultation of the Conference of European Churches and the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women(Volos, June 2004).

Professor Ms Christina Vayas is a member of the Synodic Commission on Welfare and Women’s Issues of the Orthodox Church of Greece and a member of the Social Policy Working Group of Church and Society Commission of the CEC and Eurodiaconia.

3:42 πμ 12/11/2004


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