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Guerilla philanthropist

May 28, 2018

Greece will soon exit its international bailout, but does its economy offer fresh investors a level playing field? DW meets a Greek-German philanthropist trying to change things for the better.

Sunrise in Greece
Is Greece ready for a new dawn without help from international creditors?Image: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Antonis 'Toni' Schwarz turns into a narrow ally near the Greek parliament building in central Athens. Judging by his casual look and reserved manner, one would never guess he belongs to the country's super wealthy – a segment of Greek society that received much flak during the height of the financial crisis. The rich have been branded tax evaders, a moneyed elite who are shirking their responsibility. Schwarz has heard these reproaches many times. But he does not see himself a member of the one percent – just the opposite.

Schwarz has both Greek and German heritage. So he's familiar with the part of the German constitution which states that property entails responsibility. That's something the 29-year-old, whose family made money in the pharmaceutical industry, agrees with wholeheartedly.

Antonis Schwarz Guerilla Foundation
Antonis Schwarz founded the Guerilla Foundation to support activist initiatives, start-ups and sustanable social changeImage: ImpactHub Athen

"To me this means great power comes with great responsibility," he said. "As a person of wealth, you have the ability to get certain things rolling. Like a kind of silver bullet that lets you change society for the better." He is of the opinion that anyone not taking action, despite having the necessary resources, is being grossly negligent. Schwarz, for his part, decided to give something back by establishing the Guerilla Foundation in 2016. It supports various activist and social movements throughout Europe.

Greek startups have a hard time

 After years of hardship, the Greek economy seems to be slowly picking up again. And Prime Minister  Alexis Tsipras has repeated again and again that as of August, his country will not need any new loans. Nevertheless, Greece still has an unemployment rate of 20.6 percent – the highest in any EU member state. People just starting out in their careers are having a particularly difficult time finding work. Many Greeks have been moving abroad to find employment, despite a wealth of untapped economic potential at home. The more entrepreneurially minded are often discouraged, securing a loan is very difficult in Greece.

Read more: Despite the data, little relief felt by ordinary Greeks

Alexis Tsipras
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says Greece is ready to go it aloneImage: Reuters/C. Baltas

"It is really hard to get that initial loan that you need to develop a 'minimum viable product' to see how it does on the market," said Schwarz. "Foundations prefer lending money to established organizations. So it's tough when all you've got is a good idea." That is proving detrimental to the country's otherwise booming startup scene. While the EU provides €400 million to support this sector, those funds alone do not suffice. "What we need are philanthropists and seed funding to support fresh business ideas," Schwarz said.

No need to invest in the arms industry

He says this is where the wealthy should be playing a part. "I wish they would get more involved," he said. Schwarz is already leading by example. The Guerilla Foundation's annual report indicates that in 2017, Schwarz contributed €360,000 to foster various European activists working to build a more ethical and democratic market economy. Schwarz supports systemic transformation processes, conscious consumerism, and eco-friendly capitalism: "You can make the same returns on investments in sustainable businesses that you would get from regular investments. That means you don't have to put your money into oil, gas, weapons or nuclear power to make a profit."

Schwarz thinks the reason many of his wealthy compatriots aren't doing this is simply because they're not well informed. Often it's investment managers unfamiliar with unconventional business sectors who are calling the shots. Schwarz is working to bring both sides together – not for altruistic reasons, he says, but out of political necessity to save a Europe that has been shaken to its core. Schwarz is convinced that championing democratic principles and reviving the tenets of the social market economy can keep nationalism and radicalism at bay.      

Trust requires transparency

But the Greek economy is also suffering from another problem. Impenetrable ties between Greek business figures and politicians are putting additional strain on the country's budget. Add to this exorbitant tax rates that make it difficult for the self-employed to honestly report their full profits to the tax authorities. "There's also widespread tax evasion by big corporations," said Schwarz, referring to the 'Luxleaks' scandal that revealed misconduct by telecommunications provider WIND, for example. He says it's unfair for small and medium-sized enterprises to face an excessive tax burden, while big companies often avoid paying the taxes they owe.   

Greece economy growing

Schwarz says more transparency is needed. Which is why in 2014, he began supporting an organization by the name of Vouliwatch. The internet platform keeps tabs on the country's political class, monitoring from whom parties receive donations, and which laws gain support in parliament. It also details the parties' core beliefs, and provides a forum for citizens to put questions to parliamentarians. Schwarz stresses that citizens must get involved. "We should not get too comfortable in our shared European home. Liberty necessitates constant vigilance. Because when we do not get involved, things can soon go awry."


Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece