Visit to Greece

As a member of the UK delegation visiting Patras in Greece with Locality as part of an EU project to foster a citizen led response to austerity I was anxious that the exchange (one of multiple visits across Europe over the last two years) avoided a voyeuristic insight to the challenges that the people of Greece are facing.

Our hosts from the Institute for Innovation & Sustainable Development were amazing, not least in their organisational and translation skills that helped us get under the skin of the real experience of intense austerity, also helping us to appreciate Greek culture, not least socialising, eating together and being outside – a real relief following the prolonged winter just passed in the UK.

Greece, we’re advised, has suffered from a severe and all pervasive form of statism which perhaps accounts for the absence of any social enterprise models, but none the less surprising given the global history and growth of social enterprise. It appears that NGOs and for profit businesses are the only legal forms that can operate within the constraints of Greek laws. Whilst this doesn’t prevent social business it may be one contributory factor preventing innovation that could be readily addressed with either revisions to company law or support to develop hybrids that enable local people to develop community and social enterprise.

Some of the projects I visited were developing in parallel to familiar UK projects (volunteering/ time banking/ soup kitchen) but all were relatively new, busy with lots of volunteers (largely university students)

I didn’t see any evidence of supported housing for vulnerable people other than an institutional project for people with learning disabilities that reflected mainstream UK provision of the past with no sense of personalisation or influence of the user movement.

I’d be interested to know how Greece is responding to older people and in particular, the increasing number of people with dementia.

Does Greece have a better, more community/ family focused means of providing dignified care compared to the UK for example?

Access to health services are insurance based so those unable to afford the premiums, typically have no access to health care. With increasing unemployment I fear that the longer term impact of such health inequalities will further compound recovery in Greece.

However, the Municipal Clinic and Social Pharmacy run by volunteers was heartening with services providing free access to primary health care and medicine. The Social Pharmacy recycles unused medication making it available to people without funds through a network of professional pharmacists and lay volunteers.

I was encouraged by the volunteer commitment from pharmacists and lay people to support this initiative in Patras and expect that, as a response to the cliff edge of insurance based healthcare it can easily be replicated, at least across urban areas of Greece

The Social Pharmacy may be a model that could deliver benefits in the UK given the estimated £300m per annum that is wasted on unused/ partially used medication. Savings reinvested in frontline prevention would benefit people, commissioners and the public purse though perhaps not pharmaceutical companies.

Of course, immigration was a major concern, with Patras appearing as less of a destination and more of a stopping off point to Italy and western/ northern Europe. Nevertheless, the risk of harm that young migrants are exposed to suggests that targeted EU funds (e.g. NGOs operating in Greece) would provide savings and better outcomes for public money in preventing costs further downstream (western/ northern Europe)

I was somewhat surprised by the absence of charity shops from the Greek high street given retail provision across the UK. A significant proportion of UK people routinely shop/ donate to charity shops to support the charity/ recycling and to live a more affordable lifestyle so if donated goods were developed as a retail proposition then it may serve a number of purposes and deliver sustainable benefits

Finally, I was surprised how outwardly resilient Greek culture appeared given the commitment to café culture. Most cafes/ restaurants seemed busy in the town centre of Patras. Hwever, I suspect that beyond the town centre and across regions, especially those without/ fewer tourists, many local businesses will struggle to survive. Patras, in terms of population, is similar in scale to my local town (Northampton) but appeared to be less afflicted by shop closures perhaps reflecting the relative absence of out of town retail parks, less internet shopping and a culture of ‘going out’ to eat/ socialise. Patras also seemed to have a better balance of independent shops and less of the ‘clone town’ culture of UK towns which may be indicative of a more resilient local economy. I certainly hope so.

I look forward to the next installment with a visit to Utrecht, Netherlands in June where the combined learning from exchanges will inform actions, we hope that benefit communities and citizens across Europe


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