In a major debacle for Greece and the SYRIZA-led government, UNICEF has dissolved the Hellenic National Committee of the organization, citing financial irregularities.
In its announcement — the full text of which, oddly enough, does not seem to be publicly available in English — UNICEF stated:
“UNICEF is suspending its agreement with its existing National Committee in Greece as a result of concerns which were raised following a recent independent audit. UNICEF has concluded that the necessary reforms in the group will not be achieved and we have taken steps accordingly.”
UNICEF further stated that it is not interrupting its activities in Greece, which will continue to operate under the auspices of UNICEF Europe and Central Asia until a new National Committee is formulated.
As with many such stories though, the real story is the back story — the one which supposedly reputable “authorities” on Greek news such as eKathimerini conveniently choose to ignore. Anybody that knows anything about Greek society, especially as it is constituted during the years of the economic crisis, is aware that non-governmental organizations and their ilk are viewed with great suspicion by a majority of the population. This mistrust towards NGOs, particularly of the institutionalized and supranational variety, has been confirmed in numerous public opinion surveys but is also common knowledge for anyone that converses with Greek people on a regular basis.
Why this mistrust? To be frank, NGOs and such organizations are largely viewed by Greeks as havens of corruption, nepotism, financial management, money laundering, and nefarious behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. They are also regarded as maintaining close ties to the government of the day, benefiting from financial grants and other favors while citizens are saddled with higher taxes and social services continue to be chopped in the name of “sound fiscal management” and “remaining in Europe.”
These suspicions seem to be confirmed by reality in the case of the Greek branch of UNICEF. What is clear is that the president of the now-former executive board, Sofia Tzitzikou, is a former candidate with SYRIZA in the first district of Athens, and was for years the board’s vice president before ascending to its presidency. Reportedly, she began receiving a pension at the ripe old age of 52, while the Greek government and main opposition chide — in unison — “greedy” and “unproductive” Greeks who purportedly received “early pensions.” While Tzitzikou claims that the probe into the finances of the Greek branch of UNICEF began under her watch, what has actually taken place is a second probe, conducted by UNICEF centrally, which followed the initial Tzitzikou audit and which resulted in the ouster of the entire board, including Tzitzikou.
What did the UNICEF probe find, specifically? A closed clique of friends and SYRIZA party cadres had been appointed to well-paid positions within UNICEF. These hirings did not take place on meritocratic grounds. Furthermore, the Greek organization’s procurement department was said to be inoperative (likely code for contracts and purchases being issued directly to favored suppliers), while internal compliance was also inoperative.
Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Giorgos Katrougalos, a “constitutional law expert” who back in the day (2011) spent some time amongst the protesters of Syntagma Square proclaiming the need for “constitutional reform” and participating in staged roundtable discussions with other fraudulent saviors (such as Yanis Varoufakis), was also a member of the board of the Hellenic Board of UNICEF. Katrougalos is said to have been part of this “closed clique” which mismanaged UNICEF’s funds.
In turn, Tzitzikou herself is said to have appointed relatives up to the third degree to posts within UNICEF, while the organization’s financial “black hole” is said to reach €2 million.
Indeed it does seem that there was plenty of wealth to spread around, and not just directly within SYRIZA circles, as the new vice president of the now-ousted Greek UNICEF board was Grigoris Felonis, close to the PASOK political party and a close confidant of its former leader (and former vice president of the Greek government) Evaggelos Venizelos. Felonis had been appointed by the New Democracy-PASOK coalition government to the board of directors of the Greek National Lottery (OPAP) prior to its privatization, while Felonis is also a member of the executive board of the “new” PASOK, the “Kinima Allagis” (“Movement of Change“).
It is perhaps for these reasons that UNICEF Greece maintained a “low profile,” as it is rather unclear what, exactly, the organization was active with. This is evidenced by the obscure location of its headquarters, on a dead-end street in the Kaisariani district, outside the Athens municipality and far from central transportation links — but within hearing distance of the headquarters of the Greek riot police (MAT) which SYRIZA, at one time, had pledged that it would disband.
Indeed, this author can personally attest that UNICEF’s Greek offices, not just now but for years, have looked abandoned and inactive from the outside.