CONCORD board member and ambassador for the EYD civil society alliance, Marius Wanders’s remarks in Athens, Greece for the opening of the European Year for Development

On behalf of CONCORD, the European Confederation of Relief and development NGOs, I wish to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for organising and hosting this opening event of the European Year 2015 for Development and for inviting CONCORD to make a contribution.

Our member organisation, the Hellenic Platform of Development NGOs, also thanks the Hellenic Aid Office for having sought and used civil society input and advice in shaping the plans and activities that are now part of your National Work Programme for the European Year.

Allow me to begin with a brief introduction of CONCORD. Our network brings together close to 2.400 development NGOs from across all 28 member states of the EU, from Dublin to Nicosia and from Lisbon to Talinn. They are in turn supported by millions of citizens, making financial or material contributions, doing voluntary work, being advocates and sometimes actively working in projects in the field shoulder to shoulder with local communities and partners, digging water wells, building and running schools and health care centres, treating Ebola patients, reforesting or irrigating dry lands and all those other critical interventions to address the most critical needs.

Their expertise and field based experiences consistently feed into the CONCORD working structures and into fundamental and evidence-based contributions we make to EU and national development cooperation policies, projects and programs.

Over more than a decade, EU institutions have come to recognise CONCORD and its membership as a credible and reliable partner and a legitimate voice in European civil society.Thanks to that profile, CONCORD has also been asked by the EU to convene and lead a broad alliance of civil society organisations from across Europe and from across different sectors, specifically for this European Year 2015 for Development.

That alliance extends well beyond the membership of CONCORD. It will enable us to reach out to even larger and more diverse audiences of EU citizens. We will be able to tap into the highly diverse and rich expertise of these different sectors of civil society. This will enrich the public debate, and it will allow forging new cross-sector civil society partnerships, leading to greater synergies that will benefit our work well beyond the year 2015.

For many citizens in the EU, “development” is synonymous to charitable donations of money and goods given by richer countries to poorer countries. Some will believe that we can ill afford this kind of charity in a time when European societies themselves are struggling with the effects of a long and difficult economic and financial crisis.

Not enough citizens of the EU understand that “sustainable development” stands for a universal and transformative global agenda that promotes social justice at home and abroad and that will eradicate dehumanising poverty across the world, without compromising the future of the planet we live on.
In the European Year 2015 for Development, we wish to engage and mobilise citizens as critical thinkers and as active participants in moving towards the vision expressed in the motto of the year: Our world, Our dignity, Our future.

The objectives for the European Year are ambitious and to succeed, we will first and foremost need to communicate with citizens, using language and stories that all of them can somehow relate to. Because we are working out there every day in the front line of where it is all happening, we have thousands of these stories to share. Simple stories about normal everyday people around the world, told to normal everyday people in Europe. Stories that will engage people’s hearts as well as their minds.

Not everyone may be equally thrilled to hear such stories. We will probably need to engage in some difficult and uncomfortable conversations with fellow citizens of the EU, who have reasons to reject the notion of investing scarce resources in reducing poverty in faraway countries at a time of such great suffering and hardship at home. Difficult as these conversations may be, they are essential to bring about better understanding of what drives each of us and to begin building bridges between opposing mind-sets. That will be a valuable reward for stepping outside our comfort zone.

This year, CONCORD wishes to launch a new narrative that should not just be about “what Europe gives”, but should include an honest and self-critical examination of “how we live”. Here again, we may need to step outside our comfort zone and critically examine how our lifestyles, our consumer decisions, but also the trade, agricultural and economic policies that we adopt in Europe and in member states impact on the lives, prospects and living conditions of other global citizens with whom we share this one sole planet.

The timing for this European Year could not have been better. Three major global processes are converging in the year 2015 and will shape the global development agenda for the next decades. The EU was absolutely right in designating that crucial year 2015 also as European Year for Development.

So how does one measure the success of such a European Year? Many of us have different expectations about the outcomes. For CONCORD, for instance, the success of the Year will be measured by how we will have managed to build lasting relationships and alliances with our colleagues across civil society. The European Commission will probably wish to see the indicators and trends in the recent Eurobarometer survey improve as a result of the European Year.

For me personally, an indicator of a successful year would be the extent to which we have succeeded in busting some very persistent myths around the concept of ‘development cooperation’, like the myths that “development aid is not working; it is money wasted” or worse still that “our aid is only helping to make corrupt leaders in poor countries richer”? And then there is the most difficult myth to bust of all: “We have a crisis and increasing poverty here at home in Europe, so therefore we cannot afford to fight poverty elsewhere.” It is hard to imagine an EU member state where that last myth may be harder to bust than right here in Greece, where society faces incredibly difficult challenges.

On top of all the economic and financial challenges that the Greek society and government face, you also happen to be one of the ‘border states’ of the EU that by their geographical location have to deal with large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers desperate to escape the violence, misery and poverty in their home countries and desperately seeking safety and a more humane future in Europe.
I therefore want to conclude with a personal appeal to the citizens of this beautiful country, the cradle of European civilisation, the birthplace of European democracy and the country that was home to some of the greatest philosophers that the world has ever known.

Citizens of Greece, please make a personal effort to collect and spread your own stories during this European Year for Development. You could do this by reaching out personally to just one of those countless refugees or asylum seekers migrating to Europe through Greece. Ask him to tell you his story: Where did he come from, why did he leave, what has he left behind, how hard was it to get here, what are his hopes and dreams for tomorrow, for next week, for next year, for 5 years from now, and what does he expect Europe to offer to help re
alise those hopes and dreams?
Doing this, you will learn a lot. You will gain new insights and perhaps even discover reasons to re-evaluate the way you look at your own situation. You will at the least have a great story to share with your friends and families, who can in turn share it with others.

But you will also have made that simplest of human connections, a conversation between two individual people from different parts of the same planet. And finally, for one brief moment you will have broken the isolation that most asylum seekers and refugees face in their host societies.

All it requires is a bit of time and once again the courage to step outside your own personal comfort zone.
I wish all of you in Greece a wonderful, exciting and inspiring European Year for Development.