Social Solidarity in Action – Our Study Visit to Thessaloniki

The HBS Office in Belgrade has supported the development of the social economy in Serbia for a while now, so the invitation from the HBS Office in Greece to go on a study visit to Thessaloniki, touring the various social enterprises operating in and around the city, was a very welcome one.

We asked some prominent actors on the social economy scene in Serbia to join us, so on October 11th we flew to Thessaloniki with Dina Rakin from the European Movement in Serbia and Coalition for Social Entrepreneurship Development, Marina Tucović from the Women’s Centre in Užice, Anica Spasov from Naša Kuća, Dušan Jordović from Cafebar 16, Miroljub Nikolić from Caritas Šabac, Irma Šiljak from Medica Zenica and Mario Milaković from Super Bake.

When we arrived, after a short respite at the hotel, we found our way to Aristotle Square, the heart of the city, where the HBS Office in Greece is located. Distracted by the spectacular view of the square and the seaside out the window, we were treated to a presentation by Olga Drossou and Sofia Adam on the HBS Greece’s activities in the area of social economy.

First, we were told they use a different term to describe the concept of social economy – Social Solidarity Economy (SSE). Solidarity is perhaps the key word for our entire experience in Thessaloniki, seeing as though these enterprises gained popularity at a particularly difficult moment for the country, with the economic crisis that has been ongoing since 2008.

SSEs developed as a response to widespread joblessness and the cuts to public services imposed on Greece by creditors. Greeks figured, since they couldn’t get regular employment, they would employ themselves, or at least do some volunteer work for the good of the community.

In order to help these social entrepreneurs, the HBS Office in Greece is developing a flagship educational platform, with content on everything needed to start and run a social enterprise successfully, from the legal framework governing the field, to practical economic advice, to democratic governance within the enterprise.

HBS Greece has also painstakingly brought the disparate actors on the SSE scene in Greece together into formal and informal organizations, so that they may press their case before decision-makers as a united front.

On our second day in Thessaloniki, we were taken on a guided tour by Dot2Dot, an SSE specializing in alternative tours around the city. Though we started the tour at a centuries-old Byzantine church, we quickly found ourselves on the near-empty streets of a run-down neighborhood specializing in car mechanics. We were naturally taken aback by this, but it soon became clear that this was a neighborhood rich in history. Our tour guides used old pictures and drawings, as well as real-life actors dressed in period appropriate clothes to bring that history to life.

However, this was not just a sightseeing tour; we were also there on business. Interspersed with presentations on Thessaloniki’s history were visits to several key actors on the SSE scene. For example, we found out that some of the actors who had accompanied us on the tour were actually patients of the Self-Help Promoting Program, a social solidarity clinic for the treatment of addiction. These jobs were part of an alternative therapy program which the center develops on a case-by-case basis, with input from the patients themselves.

Another stop on the Dot2Dot tour was the Solidarity Social Medical Center in Thessaloniki, which left perhaps the biggest impression on all of us. As the cuts to public spending took their toll in Greece, millions of Greeks lost their government health insurance, which necessitated a new approach to health care. That is why these social clinics sprung up all over Greece, and the one in Thessaloniki is the second-largest.

The clinic receives patients without asking for any identification, or any payment, and the doctors and nurses examine them pro bono. The clinic refers patients who need secondary care to a network of doctors working in state and private hospitals, who then treat them for free. There is also a solidarity pharmacy, where people donate their surplus medicine, and Clinic patients get them at no charge.

After lunch, we visited the BIOSCOOP consumer collective. They run a supermarket in Thessaloniki. BIOSCOOP has existed since 2013, initiated by Greek ecology and water movements and describe themselves as a ‘non-profit’ store, since they strive to provide quality products sourced directly from small farms and producers (as near as possible to Thessaloniki) without the high markups typical of large supermarket chains.

Low prices for local, organic food are possible because the “middle-man” for the distribution is cut out and instead managed by working groups of the cooperative. The highest decision making body is the general assembly consisting of all members. Everyday operations are managed by the managing board and 8 open committees and working groups.

BIOSCOOP runs as a cooperative, and anyone can join, provided they accept the articles of the cooperative, and buy a share of the cooperative, which amounts to €150. Members (currently 420) get a say in the decision-making process, but the prices are the same for members and non-members alike. A similar cooperative governance structure was present in most of the other SSEs we visited.

In the morning of our third day in Thessaloniki, we visited Anemoptero, a social solidarity special education center. Due to the precarious legal position of special educators in public schools, as well as the economic crisis which led to cuts in special education spending, there was a need to establish a special education center where there would be regular work for them.

However, this is only one reason Anemoptero was started. The second, and arguably more important one is that the special educators who started it had their own special education philosophy, which differed from that prescribed by state schools.

Anemoptero has no employees, only members of the cooperative, who get remunerated based on the number of hours they work. One can be a member of the cooperative and not work at the center at all. The most important duty of a cooperative member is to attend the marathon monthly assembly where all open questions are discussed. This democratic governance is the cornerstone of Anemoptero’s operation.

This same principle of democratization is applied to the learning process as well. The program is made as a collaboration of the teacher, the parents, and the child on a case-by-case basis.

On our fourth day, just before heading to the airport, we held a brunch session to discuss some of our impressions and conclusions from the trip. It was noted that the vibrant SSE scene in Thessaloniki developed as a response to the economic crisis that gripped Greece. In Serbia, the crisis is perpetual, so there was no single motivating event to produce similar results here. Perhaps the initiative Greeks have shown also has a part to play, especially compared to the relative passivity of actors on the Serbian scene. Finally, the Tsipras government has been progressive on this issue, so the legislation in Greece is generally favorable for SSEs, though not as generous as it could be.

All in all, this was an eye-opening trip for us at the Office, as well as our guests, and we all went back home having picked up some ideas on how to improve the lot of SSEs in Serbia. We would like to thank the HBS Office in Greece, and Sofia Adam in particular, for inviting us and guiding us through Thessaloniki.

Nemanja Georgijević is an intern at the Heinrich Boell Foundation's Belgrade Office.