Existing challenges and the blossoming of social innovation in Greece

19.03.2013 Blog

Social innovation is a completely new term for Greece.  The Greek social economy is not yet developed or better to say is quite fragmented while the voluntarism rates are quite low, unlike other European countries. This fragmentation of the sector is a result of the several pressing challenges that exist preventing thus its further development.

Despite the existence of several challenges, a wide emergence of several social innovation initiatives has been acknowledged during the last 4-5 years. Towards this end, a great paradox is created. Why does Greece give birth to a great number of social innovations while the challenges preventing the development of the sector are persistent? In our effort to explain this paradox we will briefly outline the most important existing challenges to SI in Greece and its effects, providing also a depiction of the nature and structural characteristics of social innovation in Greece. 

Starting with the existing challenges, the first and most important one concerns the lack of legal recognition of social innovation and social economy. Up until recently there was no specific institutional framework to recognize social economy and the organizations included within. Although a relative law was introduced in 2011, many of its provisions have not been implemented yet. Besides, the specific institutional framework is regarded as deficient as it doesn’t include many of the widely accepted institutional forms of Social Economy organizations. The absence, therefore, of a solid legal framework remains an important challenge creating further implications such as the lack of a supportive policy framework to encourage the development of the sector through the provision of training programs, consulting services etc., as well as financial challenges such as the difficult access to finance for social economy organisations.

Definitional issues are also an important challenge restraining thus the development of social innovation in Greece. Social innovation as a term remains unknown to the vast majority of the Greek society including social economy organisations or even Corporate Social Responsibility departments of big companies. The fact that the state has not yet mobilized its actions towards raising awareness to the public on the activities and benefits of social economy and social innovation creates additional burdens. People cannot understand or recognize the contribution of social innovation in addressing social demands. That being said, the development of momentum around it remains problematic. Another important challenge worth mentioning refers to the widespread perception that third sector organisations are strongly related to corruption and the clientelistic structure of the state. Due to the famous scandal with NGOs that took place some years ago in Greece, whereby the media accused these organisations of self-interest and corruption, there is a prevailing prejudice against the nonprofit sector not enabling it to be properly developed as it happens in other European countries.

All these challenges are extremely important as they prevent the development of social innovation from its very first stages. For example, social enterprises cannot be developed when the legal framework is inadequate; NGOs cannot operate effectively when access to finance is limited or when the vast majority of the Greek public holds negative views towards them.  But what is the case with the informal sector?

Although these identified challenges influence the development of social innovation in most of the sectors that SI occurs (third, public, private sector), the informal one remains unaffected as it comes alive through grass root movements which cannot be affected by the lack of the legal recognition or the limited access to finance or the existing stereotypes.  As the legal framework is not ready yet and due to the existence of several challenges, the role of social entrepreneurs or other third sector organisations has been “transferred” to the civil society through the form of massive informal citizen networks which aim to respond to the current financial and social crisis with innovative ideas and joint solutions. In relation to their main characteristics and purposes, the existing self-organized groups of citizens aim to modify existing thinking, behaviors, norms and structures in order to improve life in community and also promote fair and equitable sharing and distribution of goods and services. They are active in various sectors, bearing different approaches and dynamics. These movements were born out of both the existing financial and social needs that emerged through the current crisis and simultaneously by the desire of citizens to show that in a period of crisis, as it is for Greece, people need to act, take initiatives, and be innovative in finding solutions.

We could thus conclude that the development of social innovation in Greece was caused by the hard effects of the crisis that created important needs to people leading to the rise of grassroots movements aiming to respond to growing social problems. In parallel, the existence of important challenges to the development of the field didn’t act as a deterrent as citizens’ movements cannot be influenced by institutional or financial burdens as they are born out and developed by their own indigenous potential.  Whether or not this wave of social innovations will produce long-term change by helping new ideas to flourish and be developed into innovative and concrete actions is expected to be seen in the future. This is just the beginning of a long journey...