Euro Zone Crisis

Crisis-hit Portuguese town holds ’solidarity bazaar’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 3:47pm

Packets of pasta and lentils, cartons of milk and other staples pile up at the entrance to the cultural centre in the Portuguese town of Benavente.

The food has been donated for the “solidarity bazaar” and is destined to help some of those who’ve been hardest hit by the country’s gruelling financial crisis.

“Too many people are in need. We have to help them,” says Jorge Almeida as he drops off three bags of food in the centre’s theatre, decorated with garlands and children’s drawings.

In exchange for the food, recipients are given coupons they can use to obtain all manner of donated jumble, including toys, cuddly animals, trinkets and books.

“It’s a way of encouraging mutual aid. People meet up and together help those in need,” says 40-year-old Eugenia Edviges.

Benavente is a town of about 10,000 people, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Lisbon.

Edviges is happy to take part in the initiative to fight back against the crisis that has left nearly 16 percent of the workforce and 39 percent of young people unemployed.

Leonora Parracho, 53, a local council official who organised the bazaar, knows the effects of joblessness.

Her 58-year-old husband lost his construction job. Like many Portuguese, he is trying his luck overseas and has moved to Martinique to try to find work.

“Businesses and shops are closing. People are moving to try to find cheaper homes. The young people have no work,” says Parracho, who fears things will get even worse in the future.

In return for a debt rescue in May 2011, Portugal has undertaken a tough programme of budget correction and structural reform of the economy, including steep austerity cuts coupled with tax increases set for 2013.

“The measures will hit families who until now had been spared. The middle class will be affected,” Parracho says.

“The situation risks becoming unmanageable, so we must certainly increase this type of initiative,” she adds.

Organised for the first time last month, the solidarity bazaar is now helping about 40 families who had been identified by the city as needing help.
In a couple of weeks, the struggling families will discreetly receive the donated food.

“Many are ashamed to admit needing help, so ask to remain anonymous,” says 60-year-old pensioner Jorge Almeida.

With salaries dropping, taxes rising, indebtedness and bankruptcies, the crisis is pushing increasing numbers of Portuguese to help each other.
According to Eurostat, 2.6 million people, or 24.4 per cent of the population, risked poverty or social exclusion in 2011.

In a sign of increasing solidarity, on the first weekend of the month, food banks received three tonnes of food at the end of a campaign involving 1,700 supermarkets and a dozen cities, including the capital.

While these initiatives are on the rise, anger at the government is also increasing.

“It’s lost all sensitivity. The social functions of the state are disappearing,” Parracho says, pointing in particular to healthcare and education cuts.

“The government should help people in need, but alas it’s not managing to do so,” Edviges added.