Those with the means must do more, says Stavros Niarchos Foundation director

Those with the means must do more, says Stavros Niarchos Foundation director

Andreas Dracopoulos is the president of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), a man known for his resolve, his unorthodox ideas – often with an anti-systemic ring – and his incredible energy. The nephew of Stavros Niarchos, he took over the helm at the foundation that was founded following the death of the shipowner and benefactor in 1996 and has been incredibly successful in managing the trust and its activities ever since. The SNF had made worldwide donations worth 3 billion dollars since 1996, more than half of which have gone toward initiatives and activities in Greece.

Dracopoulos avoids interviews and likes to keep a low profile when going about his business in public in Athens. Summer evenings often find him at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) or its adjoining park on Athens’ southern coast, where he enjoys attending many of its myriad events in order to keep a finger on the public pulse.

In this interview with Kathimerini, he talks about the foundation’s evolution. He also points to ways that Greece could change for the better and the improvement of its image from its handling of the coronavirus crisis. Lastly, he stresses the need for people with the means to do more to help society.

How do you think the world has been changed by the coronavirus crisis, which you experienced in New York?

There is no doubt anymore – for me at least – that people were gripped by fear, a fear of death. The worst thing was that we knew nothing about the virus, and this had far-reaching consequences. But I think that the problems we’re facing are not about the coronavirus; the virus was simply the catalyst that brought existing problems to the surface. It exposed us on a global scale. It exposed the weaknesses of the system, all the inequalities and, above all else – and I think this is something that will linger – it destroyed our sense of trust, in everything and everyone, even institutions such as, for example, the World Health Organization.

This is partly the fault of such organizations that say one thing one moment and another the next, of the political expediency attached to almost every issue and on the polarization seen on almost every issue – within the first few seconds of any conversation you are labeled as being on one side or another. We have lost the desire for a healthy platform where everyone can talk, analyze and accept – as doctors themselves have already accepted, even if some don’t want to admit it – that there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s so much about this virus that we don’t know. New evidence and studies keep coming out and it’s awful that people will accept or reject these finding depending on who is publishing them, when we should be learning from, listening to and looking at every side. Do genetics play a role? Does it only affect people with a certain blood type? The lesson for me was that we’re in for an even bigger bashing unless we change our ways. It is an opportunity to change, as societies too, to rebuild our institutions, and to push aside polarization. This was there before but it has grown into a cancer. At this rate, we’ll soon only be able to have a conversation with people who agree with us.

There’s a lot of discussion about the coronavirus being the result of hubris; that it’s the price of taxing the environment with our economic and other ambitions. Do you agree with this argument?

After a couple of glasses of wine, yes, this is something we could agree on, in the philosophical sense. But let’s not exaggerate. It is a wake-up call, a reminder that we need to adapt as a society and rebuild a way of life. But I’m afraid that this will be quickly forgotten, as it was with the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2001. I was in New York at the time and I remember how for months afterwards there was so much talk about how the downtown area would never be same again and how life would change. And things did change in terms of security and in how we lived in such an environment, but this was soon forgotten.

I think the good-case scenario now is that [the coronavirus crisis] acts as a wake-up call to focus on the health sector. It is time for a discussion about the role of the public sector and the role of the private sector. And I staunchly believe – and say so all the time – that we need cooperation between the two sides. Neither governments, nor states, nor the private sector are capable of dealing with major problems on their own anymore.

Have you noticed a shift among your circle in how Greece is regarded as a result of its successful management of the crisis?

Objectively, I would say yes. Greece responded quickly, the citizens followed the guidelines of the doctors and I think this improved the country’s image. On the other hand, we must remember that this is a time when things are forgotten fast. Everything we have accomplished can be lost if, for example, something bad happens on one of the islands this summer. If we’re not careful and we don’t abide by some of the basic rules and we start having outbreaks on the islands as well, the situation will be reversed. It’s not as if we have created something we can look upon in years to come. It’s a constant effort. So, the answer is: “yes, but.” And the “but” means that we need to keep acting seriously and responsibly towards ourselves and others.

I would like to talk about the SNF. Have the foundation’s aims, its vision, changed much since the beginning?

The foundation was established in 1996 following the death of my uncle. I always thank my uncle, Stavros Niarchos, because without him we wouldn’t have had the financial means to do all the things we do.

Many people want to know why your uncle chose you to head the foundation and not another member of the family or one of its business executives?

This is something we can all talk about when we join him “up there.” However, I worked for my uncle and was at his side for many years; we had similar views and we put in a lot of hard work. My uncle always talked about creating a foundation; it was a way for him to give something back. He was very fortunate in his life, but he also worked very, very hard, right to the end, and he saw the foundation as a way to give back to society as a whole, even after his death.

We have always been involved in a broad range of activities, from sports, health and education, to the arts, culture and social welfare. We have followed this model so that nearly all of our projects fit into one of these categories. It has always been our position that we complement, we do not replace. Our recipients are always our partners and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to contribute to society with some financial assistance. We do not engage in any business activities and this allows us to be entirely focused on our charity work, which I think is a great thing. And, as always, we let the work speak for itself.

We built the cultural center in the middle of the crisis in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and gave it to the public. In that time, we also made three donations worth a total of 300 million euros, which I think helped the country a lot during the worst of the financial crisis. Just recently we announced another donation of 100 million dollars for the fight against Covid-19, to which we have given an additional 60 million dollars or so to help the global effort as much as we can.

I believe that the [SNFCC] has benefited the country significantly, keeping hope for the future alive, and this is why people have embraced it. So I believe that we are very fortunate to have this opportunity to be at society’s side and to help to the degree that we can. There’s also something that I often tell my family and friends: Overestimating is just as dangerous as underestimating. This is something I’m very wary of; I never want us to be overestimated. Because, as I said before, we are here to complement, not replace.

How much of the foundation’s spending is made in Greece?

There are exact figures, but my uncle, who was born and grew up in Greece, and the rest of us, have always said that around half of the money needs to end up in Greece over time. However, because of the SNFCC, which was also the biggest donation we have made to date, we’re talking about much more than 50%. As with the Covid fund, we have reached 124 countries, but Greece was, is and will continue to be the main target of the foundation’s donations, for many reasons.

Greece has a history of important benefactors who have bolstered the country. Do you believe that the elite today is doing enough?

I gave an interview to Time magazine in 2015 that annoyed quite a lot of people because I had said that the haves could be doing a lot more… There has been a marked improvement since then… though I believe that people with the means can do a lot more. And not only can, but should. There has been a big improvement and a lot of people, publicly or anonymously, are helping, but I expected that the haves – as a group – would be doing a lot more to help. Let’s not kid ourselves, the private sector would have collapsed if it were not for the public sector, for the central bank. Everyone must help, everyone must assume a role.

Has the way that politicians regard the SNF changed over time? I remember, for example, there being reactions from the left when the foundation was first launched. I also wonder whether you are ever approached by politicians for favors.

We have inevitably experienced this but have decided not to let such demands influence us. We are not involved in policymaking and take no interest in politics, but we have a vision. I don’t want this to sound conceited, but it’s true. As I said when the Cultural Center was being built, from the time when the first memorandum for the project was signed during the government of Costas Karamanlis, to the time when we delivered it to [then prime minister] Alexis Tsipras, we went through seven governments, I think. And what I have always said – with no hint of arrogance, but simply from a practical standpoint – is that governments come and go but projects that are for the people and for society remain. Our strength lies in the fact that we don’t have any business interests and aren’t looking for anything in return – we only give. Of course, when we give, we want to make sure it’s done as properly as possible. This does not mean that we have all the answers, but we do have a way that we work and we always try not to allow external factors influence our final goal, which is to implement a project in the best way possible, meaning that it benefits society and nothing more than that.

Have you ever suffered the disappointment of missing a target or seeing a project undermined?

The truth is – and I say this as a Greek – that I am upset by the fact that we have had problems with some Greek projects. We have gone to 124 countries, have been around for 25 years and have contributed around 3 billion dollars – that’s big. But the biggest problems we have faced have been with Greek projects. Now I may be saying this because it bothers me more as a Greek and I’m being more critical. I must say, though, that our cooperation with every government in Greece has been very good and I think that everyone now understands that we’re not asking for anything, we’re not trying to get anything out of them. All we want is for the work to be done properly. There are a few projects that have been delayed terribly and it’s a shame, because it’s to the detriment of society.

I think the issue of bureaucracy is a deeper problem; it’s deeper than any government, because it has to do with the state and how it operates. I think that a lot more things could be done a lot more easily, and I think that way too much depends on individual people. If you’re dealing with a person who believes in the project and wants to help, they will make the effort and you will get results one way or another. But this needs to become a way of life, a mentality. And it troubles me that we haven’t managed this in Greece yet. There are highlights, there are good projects, things are happening all the time that are improving the situation, but there’s still a long way to go.

I imagine that you’re referring to the projects for the Fire Service coordination center and the overhaul of Evangelismos Hospital?

Yes. Let’s refer to a very good example and I’ll also assume our share of the blame. Two years ago, in the summer of 2018 with the [deadly east Attica] fires, we announced a 25-million-euro donation for the Fire Service. We’re still fighting for it to happen. Everyone is trying, including the people at the Fire Service, but we keep running into bureaucratic obstacles. Nevertheless, we’re going step by step, trying to get there.

The Evangelismos project is something I am very sad about, in the sense that we basically wanted to build a new wing and to add a park to the front, but there was so much red tape and the usual reactions of: “We don’t need the Niarchos Foundation’s help.” But we have helped now, we’re helping with equipment and with intensive care beds. We could have said, “If you don’t want our help, we’re out of here.” But we can be stubborn too. It’s just such a shame to think that things could be done so much faster, especially when we’re talking about projects that help society.

Do you have any major project that you’d really like to see happening in the future?

Look, we did the Cultural Center, which I think was a very big project and included a new home for the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera. I also think that it elevated the entire cultural scene in Athens and Greece, if not worldwide. Now we’re in the middle – apart from the Covid fund – of the Health Initiative, a health project that comprises a lot of educational programs. It also comprises three new hospitals – in Komotini, a pediatric hospital in Thessaloniki and one in Sparta – so I think this will be a big help for the health sector in Greece.

So we have already carried out major projects in the areas of culture and health, and we are carrying on with everything else, of course. We always keep an open mind and, as I often say, listen to everything and try to create initiatives that we believe will benefit society. The people who are running all of these projects also work very hard and share our vision. We haven’t got something big apart from the health project right now, but that will take a lot of work. It’s not just about money, but the work that will need to be done over the next two or three years. And because we are not an ATM – as I like to say, half-jokingly – we don’t have unlimited financial resources, everything must be carefully weighed.

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