Governing Austerity in Athens

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In today’s post our colleagues Ioannis Chorianopoulos and Naya Tselepi report the findings from the exploratory research in Athens, carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies.

Local authorities in Greece have limited collaborative governance experience, despite persisting national authority attempts towards this direction during the last three decades (Chorianopoulos, 2012).  A legacy of authoritarian administration for the most part of the twentieth century and clientelistic politics since return to democracy (1974), arrested the development of local relational dynamics, shaping instead a centralized governance mode heavily dependent on the national level.  More recently, formal collaborative responsibilities in EU Structural Funds were met by local authorities halfheartedly.  Regulations were followed to the letter in order to avoid penalties but collaboration was largely symbolic, consisting of roundtables in which local socio-economic groups and organisations were consulted to provide their informed consent to municipal proposals.  Examples of more dynamic collaborative stances did surface, but they were treated in the literature as contextually defined responses, challenging a centralized type of administration.  It is in this frame that the City of Athens was approached in an attempt to explore the traits of collaboration, this time in austerian conditions.

Meanwhile, the latest local authority Act (2010) attempted to infuse a collaborative logic to local affairs by obliging municipalities to set up new participatory platforms, and by widening their degree of discretion to launch partnership schemes with local businesses and civil society groups.  Our initial “access point” to the research field was the “Deliberation Committee”, a mandatory collaborative governance initiative foreseen in the local authority Act.  Concurrently, we also investigated municipal mobilization in other policy areas, as it was becoming known that the City Hall is actively initiating collaborative schemes.   As preliminary research suggests, mandatory schemes followed the pre-austerity route of rubber stamping City Hall plans.  The volume and the traits of collaborative schemes launched by the municipality on its own initiative, however, defied expectations.  The gravity of the sovereign debt crisis and the impact of concomitant austerity measures on municipal finances and local socio-economic realities were key to this development.

Austerity and social need

Contractionary fiscal policy preoccupations shifted the attention of the national authorities to the local level, seen as a tier capable of absorbing a share of cuts to public spending.  Faced with reduced central government grants and real falls in tax revenues, the municipality was forced to reduce its budget by over 20 per cent since the onset of austerity (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: City of Athens: Overall Budget by Fiscal Year (2010-2016). Source: (City of Athens, 2016)

Meanwhile, the share of Athenians whose equivalent disposable income fell below the poverty threshold has more than doubled, reaching 26,1 per cent, while a further 8,1 per cent of the population experienced severe material deprivation.  Consequently, the latest census results registered a 16,9 per cent decrease of the city’s total population, amounting to a decline of 133.336 people due to falling birth rates and almost no net immigration.  The steep rise in municipal unemployment and poverty figures, and the clearly defined population decline trend, suggests that it is in the city that “austerity bites” (Peck, 2012).

Collaborative shift

The City of Athens responded to austerity-stemming impasses via the launch of collaborative governance initiatives.  Prominent examples of such schemes include, amongst others:

  • Rethink and Reactivate, a physical intervention project in the city centre, organized and funded by the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.
  • INNOVATHENS, a public-private consortium that supports start-ups in the tech sector, engaging six associations of IT firms and co-funded Samsung.
  • Resilience, an attempt to define and address the key challenges the city is facing, guided by 100RC – a Rockefeller urban network.
  • synAthina, a new municipal unit facilitating community groups to implement and communicate their activities, funded by “Bloomberg Philanthropies”.
  • Solidarity Hub, a social assistance centre for 8000 registered people that face severe poverty problems. The scheme is funded by EEA grants, obliging City Hall to collaborate with NGOs.

The repositioning of the local governance centre of gravity towards collaborative grounds underscores a profound departure from the pre-austerity stance of centralized administration and limited policy-making interaction with the market and civil society.  Currently, almost all municipal policy areas engage sponsors, donors and partner groups, including community groups and activists.  In the social policy field, in particular, the City of Athens endorsed an overtly “enabling” role, facilitating NGOs to pursuit funding opportunities on its behalf.  As a result, social policy goals for the 2015-2019 period were fashioned on an ad hoc basis and appear in the respective blueprint underscored by the “subject to funding availability” annotation (City of Athens, 2015: 5).

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Food bags awaiting claimant citizens in the “solidarity hub”.

Informal collaborative vehicles and adversarial stances

Our next goal in this attempt to approach the changing matrices of  Athenian urban politics, will be to map and investigate key examples from the variety of grassroots collaborative initiatives that have sprung up in the city during the last years.  Cases in point include the large number of complementary currency systems and time banks, social pharmacies, medical centers, soup kitchens and farmers’ markets, all organized at neighborhood level by spontaneously formed solidarity groups.  It is the perceptions of austerity and collaboration of activists participating in this movement that we aim to explore.  Their degree of engagement in the corresponding municipal programmes, and their views on the collaborative example pursuit by the City will also be examined.  Municipality respondents reflected eloquently on this issue:

“I mean, you have the top down kind of consultation that most countries like the UK have gotten really good at doing.  So they know how to talk and they also have a strong civil society. Which we didn’t have. But then […] what you have here is bottom up collaboration.  You know what I mean? In a network kind of way. …this is the new organizing pattern. Right? … but there is no conversation with the top.  And the question is; does there need to be conversation with the top?” (Athens-UP2-F).

Dr Ioannis Chorianopoulos is Associate Professor and Naya Tselepi a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography at the University of the Aegean.

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