May 2020: Thoughts on mutual aid


It’s been an unforeseeable couple of months. As you’ve probably seen on our social media, we’ve been working furiously since Greece went into lockdown to deliver meals to people shut in without food. As Athens went into lockdown in mid-March, most of the services that had previously been serving food to people without access – such as charities Caritas and Ankaa, as well as the Athens municipality–- went on pause. This left a lot of people without food, just as any income from informal work they might have had also seized up.

We joined forces with our old friends at Khora social kitchen to distribute hot meals and supplementary dry food for people with their own kitchens. They’re all volunteer organisations who are doing this with very limited funds – donate to help them buy food if you can! We helped translate text messages, collect addresses and then whizzed around the streets of Athens in the old van delivering food. The days have been long and and our field co-ordinator Becka has been an absolute superstar in covering it – so here’s to Becka.

Now we’re coming out of lockdown, and opportunities to run library sessions are opening back up. We’ve been running (socially distanced) library sessions at the women’s shelter in the Attica region, twice a week to satisfy desires for English classes. And just in this last week of May we got news that we can begin sessions in Korinthos camp and Malakasa . We can’t wait to lend out books and see old friends again.


What the Athens Food Collective is doing can be described as mutual aid: “when people get together to meet each other’s basic survival needs”, as defined by Big Door Brigade. The organising tool comes from anarchist thinking on ‘dual power’: a ways of getting away from oppressive structures from big capital and states by simply doing it ourselves: “we have a shared understanding that the systems we live under are not going to meet our needs and we can do it together RIGHT NOW!” 

This is what’s been happening in Athens: the Greek government and the inter- and intra-national NGOs have closed down their services that attempted to meet refugees’ basic, with mutual aid groups left to pick up the pieces. UNHCR – with its inadequate and limited cashcard system and million euro budget for Greece – has had the cheek to refer people to the Athens Food Collective for food during lockdown.

This has made us think about the way our library works during ‘normal times’. In many ways, it accurately describes how we run:

  • We work in solidarity: as we tell all our new members, we work together with our library community to support one another. This means listening to what people want and need, and providing a space to collectivise and come together. 

  • We run on minimal costs, often through crowd-funding, and don’t take big money from governments or corporations

  • We are all volunteers, and many of us have direct experience of displacement (same as our library users)

But in other ways, ECHO’s structure sometimes smells like that of a charity that Mutual Aid is usually contrasted with:

  • Our two coordinators receive a stipend of (currently) 400euros per month to cover living costs, which amounts to nearly half our running costs 

  • We started taking grants in 2018 as a tactic for ensuring the stability and reliability of the library service – but these grants come with requirements (like focussing on education, and writing impact assessment reports). Does this end up guiding our decisions in what we do?

  • And so a significant chunk of our coordinators time is spent looking for grants and performing the administrative work required of nonprofits by the Greek government (where we operate) and the UK government (where we’re registered). And this work requires skills in English language and formal professional communication, putting she who does it in the position of a gatekeeper.

We’re somewhere in between the two: charity and mutual aid.

You could feel this tug last autumn when we accepted regular support from a Foundation for the first time. When they visited us to check on how we were using the grant, they saw that we were working to support some of our library users who’d recently been evicted from their informal housing and sent to isolated camps. Outside of library hours we were using the van to transport people’s belongings, sanitary supplies and information about the fragmented communities between the new camps they’d been sent to. The funders were not impressed: their remit as grant-makers was education, and education alone. Anything else failed to meet their requirements – even if it didn’t use any extra resources they didn’t want it to happen and didn’t care about what the needs of our community are. They’ve since ended their support. This means that we could respond fast when the COVID-19 crisis hit – WE decided what was most important to us on the ground: not people in far away offices who hold purse strings.

But crowdfunding isn’t easy. As sessions begin again our running costs are rising, and we’re back to applying for small grants from foundations. In many ways it feels like an inevitable catch; in order to reach the people stuck in camps a certain amount of officialdom is required, and a certain amount of money. Perhaps the best that we can do is accept money from distant foundations and then work together to minimize the adverse effects; from consensus decision-making in meetings to acting as a support pillar for less bureaucratic projects (like the self-organised schools in Malakasa and Korinthos).

Let us know what you think in the comments.

By Keira Dignan

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