How philanthropy can help tackle violent extremism


Writing in Alliance magazine, SCI Director Martin O'Brien and Greek activist Eleni Takou, examined how funders can draw lessons from the defeat of the far-right Golden Dawn group in Greece.

Extremism seems to be on the rise internationally, even in societies where it had appeared that far right politics could never move beyond the fringes.

What can be done to oppose it and in what ways might philanthropy respond?

A recent report by the Social Change Initiative and HumanRights360 draws lessons on how Greek civil society successfully opposed such a threat which could be of value to those facing similar challenges.

Far right party Golden Dawn rose to prominence during a period of economic crisis in Greece, winning 18 parliamentary seats in 2012, while its gangs were attacking minorities on the streets.

In October 2020, following years of activism led by civil society groups, a trial declared Golden Dawn a criminal organisation and jailed its leaders.

Golden Dawn’s tactics included demonising minorities and portraying itself as the ‘protector’ of communities who felt abandoned by government, but its growth was fuelled by a wide range of factors. A failure to deal with the legacy of historic violence, combined with economic recession and a widespread toxic rhetoric on migration, created a seedbed for extremism.

The gathering of illegal wealth also motivated Golden Dawn leaders, while questions remain over the corrupting influence of wealthy oligarchs who benefited from social upheaval.

Defeating Golden Dawn involved gathering credible data on its violent activities, creating a broad coalition of support, working with national and international watchdog groups, creating a narrative that gave a voice to victims and mounting effective strategic litigation. Civil society groups formed a network which gathered data on 383 racist attacks, which included loss of life. It found innovative ways to raise public awareness, such as mapping the attacks.

Key challenges included influencing an initially uninterested media, gaining a deeper understanding of Golden Dawn tactics on the ground and ‘following the money’ to identify financial interests.

Ultimately, the campaigning work forced a state response, but even then activists had to use social media to set up their own reporting system to keep the five-year long legal proceedings in the public eye amid patchy media coverage. During the hearings, lawyers representing victims worked pro bono. Their strategy saw them push victims of Golden Dawn violence to the fore, delivering powerful testimony which gave ‘an image and a name to the victims and to the families’ and swept away the party’s claims that the hearings were a show trial.

What role did funders play and what can other philanthropic organisations do in similar circumstances?

Support human rights defenders

Activists in Greece faced a violent, well-resourced organisation, which took years to defeat and required a substantial level of commitment over a long period, amid considerable risks. This experience underlines the need to put a broad range of support in place for human rights defenders working on the ground.

Flexibility from funders proved crucial to enabling Greek activists to be responsive and innovative.

Funders who proved most effective were those who went beyond funding a project, to funding a cause. They backed activist organisations that they trusted to do what was needed to defend human rights in a crisis. It was also important that the funding was long term.

Tackle the cause, not just the symptoms

The issues that drive support for extremism within communities – such as inequality and poor public service provision – need to be understood and addressed.

This requires support for research, lobbying and grassroots campaigning to empower affected  communities to press for positive change which improves lives and removes an avenue for exploitative politics.

The power of journalism in the public service

Individuals in Golden Dawn benefited financially from their involvement, while the organisation was supported directly and indirectly by oligarchs and big business.

Support for independent journalism meant that the campaign could follow the money and highlight the beneficiaries.

The traditional role of news media as the Fourth Estate has been undermined by industry decline. Supporting independent journalism, while promoting best practice in media, can restore its capacity to hold power to account.

Storytelling as a tool for change

Giving a voice to victims can humanise the impact of extremism and break through the noise it creates to disguise the consequences of its divisive politics.

It is crucial that the victims’ stories are firmly to the fore to highlight state failure, inform the public and press for accountability and justice.

Reaching the ‘middle’

Extremism seeks to polarise opinion and aims to drown out moderate voices.

Supporting work that raises the standing of mainstream opinion and accentuates what unites us rather than what divides us can be an important counter to the extremist agenda.

Strategic litigation

Strategic litigation can be a powerful tool for change, especially when allied with campaigning that empowers communities affected by extremism, though legal victories require follow-up action to ensure they deliver real change.

Golden Dawn’s rise to prominence pushed the political mainstream to the right. Despite the fall of the party, some of its members are seeking to create new political vehicles.

The final lesson of the Greek experience is that, while movements can be defeated, their ideologies can endure. Combating extremism is a long-haul challenge.

  • This article was first published in Alliance magazine here.
  • Download SCI's report 'Golden Dawn: Lessons From Greece in Tackling Extremism' here.