The debt crisis in Greece is affecting non-governmental organizations. Their close ties to politics and the state have left them with little funding to carry out their work.
Greek Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are facing an existential threat. Nobody really knows how many of them there are, their legal status is unclear, and they will need to change their focus and the way they work to survive.
At a hastily arranged conference in the northern city of Thessaloniki, initiated by the local German consulate, a dozen German and twice as many Greek NGOs discussed the future and fate of civil society groups in Greece.
Nikos Hatzitryfon of the gay and lesbian group Sympraxis explained why he was taking part: "We not only want money from the European Union, but we also want a different philosophy in Greece. That is why, for me, it was a moral obligation to participate - because here in Greece we say we belong to Europe, but only from a financial perspective, and not from the way we think."
Involved with the state
Worldwide, NGOs play an important role. In democratic societies they are viewed as a key factor in shaping civil society. They work together with government agencies, but are accepted more readily by average citizens the more independent they are from the state and political parties.
In Greece, however, that is usually not the case, says Judith Wunderlich-Antoniou, a German who has been working for many years for the Athens-based NGO Elix.
"Greek NGOs have a bad reputation because they are identified with the political system," she notes and adds that this is their main problem. "Now they are trying to take a step forward. They want to make their work more transparent so that everybody can see on the websites what their activities are and how they are financed. That was rarely the case before."
Funding and ideas
The discrepancy in how NGOs are viewed in Germany and how they are seen in Greece is best explained by Bert Ludwig, of the Open House Network in Weimar, a group that restores historic buildings.
"From just talking to Greek participants you could hear the kind of statist mindset we know from Eastern European countries. The word 'project' to them is not an idea for which you seek funding, but rather 'project' means a source of financing into which the idea is pressed. I don't think that's the right way around. First, you need an idea and not a funding source," he explains.
To underscore the difference, Ludwig points out that his group, the Open House Network, today finances 90 percent of its projects itself, and in the first 12 of the group's 20 years of activities it worked without any outside financing at all.
Another major difference is the widespread willingness in Germany to do unpaid, volunteer work. "Ultimately, you have to get involved yourself if you want to change something for the better, whatever the field. It's also important in an NGO to have the experience that you are changing something. That way you build self-confidence. I think that can be developed further in Greece," says Julian Nitzsche, from the group Wikimedia.
Working in legal limbo
The high social acceptance and respect for volunteer work in Germany is also supported by the government. Every year, there is a special day when all volunteers are honored. Many get to meet the president; some are given special awards. Working in, and for, civil society is promoted with scholarships and stipends and is greatly appreciated when applying for a job.
Equally important is also the fact that in Germany the work of NGOs is regulated by law. Not so in Greece. There, says Christina Mpertsenidi from the group Peirama in Thessaloniki, NGOs work in a legal limbo; in other words, legally, there are not even supposed to exist.
At the Thessaloniki conference, it was decided that the German-Greek cooperation should continue. The two sides want to tackle at least three projects. One is to work with an NGO active in Eastern Europe which plans and builds bike paths along the old iron Curtain. The renovation of monuments is also planned. And to keep village youths from migrating to the cities, they plan to recruit volunteers to work with local young people on joint projects.
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