Saturday, 29 March 2014

Paying for their parents’ crisis: Greece’s abandoned children

This article and an accompanying television piece were published and broadcast by Al Jazeera English.

Haritina is a fine-boned, well-mannered 16 year-old. She brings top marks home from school, is on the cusp of sight-reading her Xenophon and Thucydides, and wants to study ancient Greek in university. What sets her apart from the mainstream is that since the age of three she has been raised in a home run by The Smile of the Child, a non-profit organisation.

Like the 25 other children in this suburban Athens home, whom she sees as siblings, Haritina was at some point abandoned or abused by her parents. Such instances of abandonment, abuse or extreme neglect of children have been on the rise during Greece’s crisis, and have now begun to overwhelm institutions capable of caring for them.

“The crisis has caused parents to lose their jobs, or to live in a state of terror because they can’t feed their families,” says Kostas Yannopoulos, who founded The Smile of the Child 18 years ago. “They start drinking, some commit suicide, some take drugs, some become mentally unbalanced. This impacts on their children and in some cases endangers their lives.”

The Smile of the Child runs a 24-hour hotline and relays reports of abuse, neglect, or abandonment to the authorities. Sometimes they do not act in time. “The prosecutor tells us that there is a lack of places for children to go, so they are left in their abusive environment,” Yannopoulos says. “Not long ago we had a case of a [little girl] that was reported abused to us on four separate occasions. She was found dead in her fridge at home. Her mother, a drug addict, had abused her to death and hidden her there.” The Smile of the Child did rescue the girl’s two little siblings.

On other occasions the hotline has saved lives. “We received a call from a father who could no longer provide for his family. He was about to commit suicide. We got his 17 year-old son on the phone, who said, “please, dad, we need you”, and talked him down.”

The effect of the crisis on families is evident in the organisation’s aid to families which are emotionally stable enough to maintain oversight of their children. Last year, it delivered food and other aid to more than 2,600 families, twice as many as in the year before. 

But it is the children who are emotionally orphaned that need help the most. The Smile of the Child last year increased its capacity and is now home to a record 306 minors. Greece’s other major non-profit organisation caring for children, SOS Children’s Villages, is also filled to capacity at 250, and plans to expand. Its director, Stelios Sifnios, agrees that cases of neglect and abuse are on the rise. A third charity, Kivotos, has increased the children in its care from about 100 two years ago to over 200.

The Smile of the Child and SOS Children’s Villages are vitally important, because state infrastructure can only deal with about half the problem. Social security runs a dozen centres across the country. In theory they can take in about 800 children, but an audit last year revealed that they were only about two-thirds full.

“Often the buildings are old and grand,” says Efi Bekou, general secretary for social security. “They are difficult to heat and maintain, and not all their wings are always working. Most date to the early 20th century. In the town of Drama, for instance, our [social services centre] used to be the old Ottoman hospital.”

The overflow of abandoned or abused children resulting from the crisis is now being ordered into the state hospital system. The country’s two largest children’s hospitals, Agia Sofia and Aglaia Kyriakou, were a temporary home to 177 children three years ago. That number rose to 216 two years ago and 301 last year.

Manolis Papasavvas, who runs both institutions, considers this an inadequate solution at best. “In the past, children didn’t stay for more than two to three weeks. Now we keep them for up to two to three months. It’s not the best thing for a healthy child to live in a hospital. It’s not good for them psychologically, and they can catch illnesses. And we shouldn’t be occupying nursing staff taking care of them.”

Children aren’t allowed off hospital premises. There is an in-hospital schoolroom, but a network of volunteers is all they have for stimulation and companionship outside the curriculum. Yet even living as hospital inmates turns out to be better than what these children have experienced before. “What surprises me is that these children say to me, ‘It’s nice here, we feel welcome here,’” says Papasavvas.

Abandonment often used to be the result of birth defects. Increasingly, it seems to be directly or indirectly economic. “Last year a parent brought their two month-old boy to the hospital and left it by the elevators,” says Papasavvas.   They left a note saying, “I don’t want this child, I can’t take care of it, please take it.” The child was entirely healthy.”

The health ministry says it is now preparing a new centre to house healthy children currently in its hospitals, but it will only absorb about a tenth of them.

As the problem of abused, neglected and abandoned children grows, authorities are beginning to realise the ineffectiveness of dealing with it piecemeal. They do not even know the exact extent of it because neither social security nor prosecutors, who issue guardianship and adoption orders to public institutions and foster homes, have the staff to classify cases or produce centralised statistics.

In early March, Bekou invited private institutions to co-ordinate their actions. There is palpable friction between them. “I want [state] institutions to be better known ... It’s not necessarily known that they exist,” says Bekou. “The state always has a greyer, mustier and more worn image. But it’s wrong to say that the state is entirely absent.”

Money will likely be a lively topic in this dialogue. Social security spent $13 million on both children and the handicapped last year. The Smile of the Child and SOS Children’s Villages together raised $20.5 million entirely from individual and corporate donations – a remarkable feat in a recession, largely thanks to a painstakingly built grassroots funding network and overseas remittances.

Despite the two non-profit groups’ undoubtable contribution, the state has made life difficult for them during the crisis. A 2010 law stopped recognising donations as tax-deductible, even as corporate social responsibility became vitally important. The law started taxing donations to the tune of 0.5 percent, and forced nonprofit groups to pay 23 percent VAT on fundraising sales. More recently, they have been forced to pay property tax. In all, the two charities paid just under half a million dollars in taxes last year.

“We don’t call ourselves non-governmental organisations,” jokes an official from SOS Children’s Villages, “because it’s clear that we are shouldering a public burden.”

The figures suggest that wealth redistribution has failed to address Greece’s massive social distress. The country now has the fourth-highest rate of childhood poverty across the EU according to Caritas, a Catholic charity. However, Greece also has a powerful tradition of euergetism dating back to ancient times, and it is this, rather than taxation, which has saved children like Haritina.

“When children have healthy role models and receive the love a child needs, they are emotionally full and can make their way in the world, even if that love hasn’t come from their biological parents,” says Stefania Tekou, a social worker who is, for all intents and purposes, mother to the 26 children in Haritina’s home. She is assisted by a staff of 15 teachers and nurses, who care for the children around the clock.

Tekou recounts with particular pride a recent conversation she had with Haritina. “She turned to me and said, ‘When I grow up and have children, I won’t need a nanny. I’ll have 16 grandmothers!’ We were all very moved by that.” But surely the most moving aspect of this conversation is that Haritina has not given up faith in family.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Greece reminds Germany of its reparations claim

In 1944-45, a commission led by the town planner Konstantinos Doxiadis recorded the damage to Greece resulting from war and occupation by Italian and Bulgarian fascists, and the Nazis. On the basis of that report, Greece sought $17bn 1938 dollars at the Paris Peace Conference of 1946. It was awarded $7.1 billion and has received almost none of that.

The issue of reparations has been downplayed by successive governments. It was recently raised again publicly by President Karolos Papoulias during the visit to Athens of his German counterpart, who repeated the standard position that Germany accepts "historic and moral responsibility", but not financial.

Nonetheless, the Court of Audit, one of Greece's top three courts, is collating a dossier of Greece's claims, which include damages for the occupation, repayment of two war loans the Nazis exacted from the Bank of Greece, and the return of stolen antiquities.

Finally there is the National Council for the Reclamation of Germany's Debts to Greece, headed by war hero Manolis Glezos. Its approach is to demand a peace treaty with Germany, still not formally concluded since Nazi troops left Greek soil in September 1944, because to do so would involve settlement of the reparations issue.

The Al Jazeera report can be viewed here.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Greece's thoroughbreds at risk as racing industry sinks

Hundreds of thoroughbreds may be within a few months of the knacker's yard unless Greece quickly privatises the body responsible for horse racing. So says Greece's Jockey Club, along with the associations of racehorse owners and trainers.

Even Hellenic Horserace Betting Organisation - the body that stands to be dissolved once its sole license to organise races and wagers is auctioned off - is asking the government to hurry up. It is the first time since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008 that Greece's beleaguered privatisation authorities, which have struggled to raise 2.6bn euros against a target of 11bn, have been asked by state companies to hurry things along.

The reason is that if they don't, horse racing, and the bookmaking industry that supports it, could collapse due to a lack of owners able to field horses. Racehorses' income is a cut of the bets placed on them when they win. Bookmaking turnover on Greek races has plummeted from 336 million euros in 2002 to 31 million euros last year.

The economic crisis has made it so difficult to come up with the roughly 500 euros a month that stabling, feeding and medical bills amount to, that owners have been giving the horses up for adoption. Their numbers have declined from just under two thousand before the crisis to 448 at the end of February, says the Jockey Club.

Now, however, Greece's charities and willing adopters of horses are so saturated with the beasts that the remaining number will not be lucky enough to be re-homed. "They will most likely face slaughter," says Foteini Emiri of the Jockey Club.

Many trainers have been forced to adopt horses abandoned by owners, and some have resorted to sleeping above their stalls, diverting all their resources towards feeding and caring for the beasts. "These horses would die if they were put out to pasture," says Emiri. "They are not like the hardy indigenous species. They need a high-nutrition diet and stabling."The horses consume ten kilos of alfalfa and cereals a day.

The Hellenic Horseracing Betting Organisation is undertaking very little promotion, pending its long-delayed privatisation. Attendance is down and revenues from bookmakers are plummeting. A punishing tax on horse owners has seen almost a thousand horses given away since 2010.

The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, in charge of privatisations, says it has rescheduled the sale for September. Two bidders, Greece's Intralot and France's PMU, have expressed interest. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A few good signs

Some rosy-fingered signs of recovery attended the Greek economy this week.

Unemployment is steady at 27.5 percent for December, after posting at 27.6 percent for the previous month, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, Elstat.

On Tuesday the country's Public Debt Management Agency sold 1.137bn euros' worth of six-month treasury bills at the lower than expected rate of 3.6 percent, versus four percent paid last month, suggesting that Greece is indeed slowly making its way back to financial markets for longer-term paper as planned this year.

Finally, industrial production was slightly up in December by 0.5 percent, and manufacturing has continued to improve in January and February, suggesting that Greece has clawed back some of its lost competitiveness.

No-one in their right mind would suggest that Greece is out of the woods yet. Youth unemployment is at 55 percent. The country still can't persuade its flagship industry, shipping, to keep its oceangoing fleet on the Greek registry (Greeks have been putting their ships under foreign flags).

Nonetheless, the first step to recovery must be a reversal of downward trends, and the signs are increasing that that reversal is gradually approaching. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Greece blows smoke at the EU

This article, and a related television piece, were published and broadcast by Al Jazeera English.

Greece is raising the prospect of softer greenhouse gas emissions rules for European Union members who are in recession. The economically stricken EU member floated the idea two days after the European Commission launched an ambitious new plan to curb emissions. It was an apparent bid to pit the EU Council of Ministers, which it is presiding over until June, against the EU’s executive.

Europe has set itself a goal of largely decarbonising its energy industry by 2050. The Commission’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030. The main mechanism for achieving that is the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, or ETS, the world’s largest carbon market.

Beginning this year, European industry must pay for every tonne of carbon dioxide it emits (or any other greenhouse gas it emits in CO2-equivalent terms) because the ETS is to stop handing out almost a billion euros’ worth of free offsets after eight years of operation. The idea is to offset carbon emissions and encourage the use of more environmentally friendly sources of energy.

Greek environment and energy minister Yiannis Maniatis has proposed that strict adherence to these rules could cost Greece 1.1 percent of its economy and 32,700 jobs. “The obligation of European companies to buy all or part of their CO2 emissions rights leads to increased energy costs and adversely affects their competitiveness,” a statement from the ministry said. 

For Greece the rules mean an annual bill of about 540 million euros ($700mn) at current low carbon prices, a sum it can ill-afford to pay. The country has lost almost a third of its pre-crisis economy and is still in recession.

Steel yields

Last month, two of Greece’s biggest iron and steel manufacturers said they were laying off or suspending about 320 workers, partly because of stagnant manufacturing and construction sectors, but predominantly because of the high cost of electricity. Late last year Viohalko, a steel producer responsible for about 12 percent of Greece’s exports, relocated its head office to Brussels purportedly for similar reasons.

If the present situation continues, steel manufacturing [in Greece] has an expiry date,” Nikos Mariou, who manages steel manufacturer Sidenor told a national newspaper.

“Greek heavy industry pays more than twice as much for electricity as neighbouring Italy,” says Andreas Skindilias, CEO of Halyvourgiki, one of the companies laying off workers. “They pay about 32 euros per megawatt hour. We pay 80 euros. Spain and France are also cheaper. These are the countries we compete with for the North African market.”

The Greek market has fallen from 1.8mn tonnes before the crisis to about 350,000 tonnes, so exports are the industry’s only hope of survival here. “No industry in the world can survive with these energy rates,” says Skindilias.

The Public Power Corporation can point to official figures suggesting that it is one of the five cheapest European electricity markets for industry; but the special deals offered to smelters elsewhere come as discounts to official prices, says Skindilias.

Greece already suffers from a nominal unemployment rate of 28 percent, the highest in the EU, and the government appears to be galvanised by the prospect of further mass layoffs. It announced measures that could reduce energy costs by 150mn euros ($200mn). Among them is the so-called “interruptibility” measure, whereby power utilities can ask large consumers to interrupt their operations at short notice, to enable them to divert power to rising household demand. That significantly lowers generation costs and utilities are prepared to pay for the facility.

Greece may feel that its proposal to soften emissions rules will fall on sympathetic ears because it is emblematic of a broader European concern. The continent suffers from high energy costs when compared to the United States, according to the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based think tank. “Natural gas in the United States still trades at one third import prices to Europe… European industrial consumers [pay] almost twice as much as their counterparts in the United States,” says the IEA’s 2013 World Energy Outlook

The goal Europe has set itself, however, is to produce cleaner energy at competitive rates. Greece gas a particular problem here. The country’s worst carbon offender is its energy industry, responsible for over three quarters of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions (versus a global average of two thirds). Greek power plants pumped 92 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2011, the last year for which figures are available

Many of those emissions come from the Public Power Corporation, the former state monopoly, responsible for 70 percent of electricity production, which now faces an estimated bill of 150 million euros (ca. $200mn) for last year’s CO2 emissions. That is almost 40 euros per household – and hundreds of thousands of households have had their power cut because they can’t pay their bills. This is because the PPC still generates most of its electricity from lignite, a dirty coal that is currently Greece’s only abundant energy resource. In fact, Greece is the world’s 15th largest producer of coal, coming third in the EU after Germany and Poland.

The PPC will not divulge comparative figures, but claims that lignite-derived electricity is far cheaper than that generated from imported oil and gas. It is so committed to the fuel that it is preparing to invest 1.4 billion euros ($1.8bn) in a new plant in northern Greece.

The Greek chapter of the World Wildlife Fund commissioned a study showing that the new plant could be nonviable once heavy industry weighs into the carbon market, raising the price of carbon offsets. 

“This study has shown that in a few decades’ time these units will even have negative cashflows under specific circumstances, and might also require tax exemptions and state support in general,” says the WWF’s Michalis Prodromou. “That is due to the change of the economic and energy environment as we head towards high energy efficiency policies, increased renewable energy penetration and so on.”  

The WWF calls on Greece to place greater emphasis on energy conservation, and to place a higher target than the EU-mandated 27 percent on energy from renewable sources.

Delayed deregulation

Lignite fuelled Greece’s post-war recovery, and many people in the power industry argue that if Greece stands a chance of preserving its heavy industry, lignite must continue to form a part of its energy mix for the foreseeable future. But the record shows that its dominance as an energy source, and the PPC’s exclusive right to mine it, have acted as a brake on cleaner energy and a functioning energy market.

Greece effectively delayed EU-mandated liberalisation of its electricity market by six years, bowing to political pressure from the PPC’s labour union. Private investment licensed since 2001 has been in cleaner gas-fired plants and renewables, but these have had difficulty competing with the PPC because of the cheapness of lignite. The result was that many independent power producers pulled out of their investments.

In 2008 Greece became the first country to be suspended from emissions trading under the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first treaty reining in greenhouse gases. The suspension was punishment for inaccurate reporting of carbon emissions.

Environment minister Yiannis Maniatis has been notably silent on the softening of emissions rules he requested. Both he and deputy minister Asimakis Papageorgiou turned down repeated requests for interview for this story, as did the PPC. If history is a guide, the government may be trying to protect the value of the PPC as it grooms the company for privatisation next year. Greek governments have spent years protecting state monopolies. They are still coming to terms with the European challenge to protect industry and the environment.