Launch of the Active Citizen Fund Greece

For Norway, the task of supporting civil society whether it is at home or abroad is a key priority. The Norwegian government sees the Civil Society as a cornerstone of modern democracies, and a contributor to the realization of democratic values and principles.

21st February 2019, Serafio, Athens
Ambassador Jørn Gjelstad

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen – Dear Friends

It is with a sense of elation that I welcome you to the launching of the Active Citizens Fund, our new NGO Fund in Greece.

I would like to use this opportunity to say that I am very proud of all the achievements we have made over the years by using the NGO Fund effectively and targeted. The Active Citizen program for the previous period did contribute significantly to several areas of the Greek society, and represented an additional value for many issues of societal importance.

More than 100 organizations were involved in this endeavour and have received support from the Fund. The Bodossaki foundation made an excellent job in managing it.

Two achievements of out of many could be mentioned where CSOs have been able to bring about significant changes for the better.

First, the creation of a network of guardians for unaccompanied minors; even before the 2015 crisis struck this network was in place. This initiative protected hundreds of minors and eased their integration into the Greek society. This pilot project resulted in a highly needed legislation that passed recently.

Today, more than 5000 unaccompanied minors have received guardianship through this network. This demonstrates the capacity for strategic interplay with governmental politics that CSOs can muster, if their actions are well targeted and coordinated.

Second, The Program “We are all Citizens”, our previous NGO program, came in the midst of the financial crisis when Greece saw a critical deterioration in the welfare of its people. The unemployment rate rose dramatically, and public expenditures to general welfare programs and social services were drastically cut. The crisis affected in particular vulnerable groups such as children and youth, migrants and asylum seekers,

not to say the elderly people. At that point the "risk of poverty or social exclusion"-rate  was by EUROSTAT estimated to be 36% of the population.  Against this challenging economic backdrop, Greek NGOs were able to contribute to improvements of existing policies, making a strong advocacy for vulnerable groups and provide key services to the most deprived. The NGOs stood out as the agent for change in terms of innovative methodology and high output. We were all impressed.

No wonder, this successful outcome has raised expectations significantly for what might be possible to achieve for the coming period.

I guess that the pervious success has raised the bar high up for future achievements. But I am certain that the Fund will manage to deliver high quality also in the coming years. The fact that the fund will be managed by the Bodossaki Foundation once again, together with Solidarity Now, makes me certain about this.

For Norway, the task of supporting civil society whether it is at home or abroad is a key priority. The Norwegian government sees the Civil Society as a cornerstone of modern democracies, and a contributor to the realization of democratic values and principles.

They  are important watchdogs on what is going on within institutions and in the society at large. They have a capacity to make valuable input to governmental policy. These organizations have a unique competence in tackling problems arising from inequality and discrimination. More than others, they can contribute to inclusiveness and empowerment within a society. And they safeguard less privileged people and minorities by ensuring that their voices are heard. Every Norwegian government, irrespective of party composition, takes on an active supportive role in this regard. We believe that without the active engagement from the civil society and its organizations, the necessary consensus and trust for rational and inclusive governance would not exist.

A vibrant democracy is dependent on impulses from its citizens, and the CSOs serve as the important communication channel between the public and  private areas.

This is the reason why we have been insistent on focusing so much on CSOs within the programs of the EEA and Norway Grants. Because independent Civil Society Organizations should be considered as strategic partners to any government. They have a core role in raising trust and credibility between institutions and citizens. This task of raising trust is, according to how I see it, the most important strategic endeavor for Greece at the moment.

Please let me now elaborate a bit on the working-conditions for Civil Society Organizations in Greece. As an Ambassador I have the opportunity to meet and engage with a broad part of the Greek society quite frequently.

And I would like to tell you the following: I am impressed by what I have seen and what I can observe regarding genuine social commitment, dedication and voluntarism.  I have often seen contribution of high quality. Therefore, I feel that we have a solid basis to build on in our collective effort in taking the Greek Civil Society to an even higher level by the use of the NGO Fund.

And some areas stands out in this regard as ready for improvement. I will comment briefly on this.

First, we need to strengthen the coordination and the management capacity of the CSO sector, so that each single organization can work even more effective and be even more relevant.

Second, CSOs should be, to a greater extend, geographically diversified, so that larger number of professional organization could cover a larger part of Greece. Currently we see huge clusters of CSOs being organized around big cities (75%), such as in Athens.

On the other side, we can see the number of rural CSOs representing for instance minorities and less privileged groups in remote areas being very limited. This has to change.

Third, it is important to provide a more predictable framework for funding. This should be combined by several sources, including governmental support, to sustain and improve what has already been achieved. It is very sad to see CSOs closing down its advocacy and watchdog role due to lack of funding.

Fourth, we need a clear and consistent legal framework for the Civil Society. In that context,  a unified CSO register should also be called for.  In Greece, the Foundations are the main donors to this sector,

but too often they apply a narrow focus and limit their contribution to limited tasks. One challenge from such a fractionized approach is that the whole CSO ecosystem remains underdeveloped. The domination of segmentized long-term partnerships can easily impede the development of an effective and comprehensive umbrella structure, which could ensure the required network and funding for the whole sector. This affects negatively the smaller CSOs and prospects of initiating cross-cutting collective action.

Fifth, the young people seems to be missing out in our civic endeavour. The civic engagement of young people is key to a proactive, inclusive Civil Society.

There is an extraordinary high unemployment rate for young people compared to the average EU standard. Therefore, empowerment of young people should be a top priority for any Greek government. Hope, opportunities and the perception of being a valuable contributor have to be created on the individual level. A program for a systematic inclusion of young people in decision-making processes on local level, participations in various organizations, as well as involvements in public services or judicial proceedings is called for and should be developed. 

Sixth, lack of efficient enforcement of laws or insufficient measures to tackle systemic corruption are dysfunctional features in any society.

Likewise, the existence of ineffective judicial procedures. These flaws can easily undermine social stability and good governance. It is encouraging to observe that a small but increasing number of CSOs are currently addressing these issues, providing a much needed attention on such issues to the public. I hope to see this number of CSOs significantly increasing. Norway stands ready to support such initiatives in order to achieve significant improvements as regards good governance.

So, please let me comment briefly on our ambition with the Fund for the coming 5-years period.

By using this fund in a targeted and effective way, we hope to see the following areas strengthened by concerted action. We will

First, promote democracy, active citizenship, good governance and transparency,

Second, increase the awareness of human rights and combat discrimination and harassment in all its forms,

Third, improve social justice and inclusion of vulnerable groups, including refugee/ asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors and Roma people,

Fourth, promote gender equality and combat gender-based violence and

Finally, develop targeted measures to be included in a comprehensive governmental strategy to counter environmental degradation and climate change.

This is quite an ambition, but we will proceed in a systematic and coordinated manner.

As you know, there will soon be open calls for organizations, and I look forward to learning about projects submitted as well as projects that finally will receive support from the Fund. We hope to see a variety of projects being complementary or mutually reinforcing to other governmental policies,

and programmes as well as the significant program contribution to Greece by the EU. The Fund Operator will leverage its wide contacts with relevant institutions and CSOs in order to maximise potential synergies and avoid duplication.                                                                                                             

In the course of the coming period, the Embassy will try to reach out and visit as many of these projects as we can.

We believe it is of strategic importance to visualize the results and societal contribution achieved by this program. Therefore, we are happy also to launch a pre-defined project, named the Active Citizens Economy.

This is an in-depth quantitative research project that will measure the economic impact of the civil society sector in Greece. We will look at its contribution to GDP, to job creation (in particular for the youth), the scale of volunteering, the geographic distribution of CSOs and CSOs impact on local communities. A systematised collection of these empirical data will ease our work in making a credible impact assessment. Such an assessment will make it easier for us to communicate to decision-makers and the wider Greek public about CSOs important contribution to the society at large. The proposed study will have an estimated period of implementation of 24 months. The results will be widely disseminated.

As the Ambassador of Norway, I would like to underline that strengthening bilateral relations with Greece is the primary objective of using our Grants. Programs and projects allow for the exchange of knowledge and experience; facilitate relations between politicians, governmental representative, and experts; and build valuable long-term partnerships between our two countries that will sustain over years.

In conclusion, I would like to express my sincere hope and expectation that the Active Citizen Fund Programme will be appreciated as a contribution to solidarity and support that it is meant to be,

and that it will further strengthen the ties and friendship between our countries for the coming years.

Thank you for your attention.