12th Academy on Social and Solidarity Economy - Plenary Session 1: Social and Solidarity Economy: an overview, values and principles

News | 12 January 2022
The first plenary session of the Academy took place on November 16th. It focused on the main values and principles characterising SSE around the world. The keynote speaker was Ms. Bénedicte Fonteneau (IESSID-HE2B, Belgium), followed by several discussants: Mr. Juan Martinez Louvier (INAES, Mexico), Ms. Beatrice Alain (Chantier de l'Économie Sociale, Québec, Canada), Mr. Eduardo Graça (CASES, Portugal) and Ms. Kerryn Krige (ILO, South Africa). The session was moderated by Ms. Valentina Verze (ILO) and facilitated by Mr. Martin Gasser (ITC-ILO).

Ms. Verze, technical officer on the SSE and decent work at ILO, opened the session by highlighting the need for establishing a clearer and more coherent picture of SSE at local, national, regional and international levels. The SSE is manifested differently across regions and countries. Its context-specificity, and diversity is one of its added values. However, a convergence towards a common understanding of the SSE is slowly emerging based on legal, policy and conceptual initiatives around the world. Following this international momentum, the ILO will hold a general discussion on Decent Work and the SSE during the next International Labour Conference (June 2022). One aspect of the debate will be to provide guidance on a definition of the term “social and solidarity economy”, its associated principles and values. Despite the impossibility of finding a universal definition fully capturing the essence of SSE, this “would represent an important step forward to provide policy guidelines for member States wishing to establish a conducive environment for national development of SSE ecosystems”.

The keynote speaker of the session Dr. Fonteneau, professor at the Department of Social Work at IESSID-HE2B in Brussels, provided an overview of SSE through ten main questions. The first and second questions dealt with the definition of SSE. The speaker clarified that there is no consensus on this core concept, due to the great variability of practices, historical traditions and different conceptual approaches in the field. The first necessary step is to agree on “the objective that we are looking for by defining SSE”, which according to Dr. Fonteneau “is that organisations that share operating principles and economic and social goals can recognise each other and work together to demonstrate their differences or complementarity to other existing models in the economy”. However, it is not important to standardise all the existing definitions, but rather “to be able to identify what unites this diversity of enterprises and organisations around the world, while recognising their particularities and the possibly different visions they may hold”.

The third question Dr. Fonteneau posed, focused on the purpose of SSE organisations, which are both economic and social. SSE units have an economic purpose because they produce goods and services on a permanent basis, but it is possible to differentiate between market-based SSE units and non-market-based SSE units. The SSE is also characterised by a social purpose, which must be clearly identified at the organisational level. The equilibrium between the two purposes is not always easy to find, but it can be reached by ensuring participatory governance and the primacy of labour over capital. The fourth question Dr. Fonteneau presented, related to clarifying the profit or non-profit nature of the SSE. SSE units do not exclude profit-making as a purpose, but this should not be the primary purpose and the returns on capital are limited, to allow for investments that are aimed at collective or general interest.

The fifth question from Dr. Fonteneau investigated how SSE practically puts people at the centre. She noted that this happens for three reasons: first of all, because SSE emerges as a response to real needs of people, often with the direct participation of these people; secondly, because it seeks to create meaningful jobs thanks to its economic vocation; and thirdly, because its principles imply ensuring good conditions of operation for everyone involved in its activities. The sixth question she posed reflected on the main legal forms of SSE, concluding that no legal form can fully guarantee that an organisation is operating according to SSE principles. In her response Dr Fonteneau highlighted the importance of shedding informal practices and networks between organisations. The seventh question focused on the democratic character of the SSE, usually expressed in terms of participatory decision-making. However, participatory practices do not always entail the belonging to SSE, if they are not characterised by: a) the transparency of the rules; and b) the possibility of formal control of the addressees of decision-making action over the decision-makers. Collective ownership was addressed in question eight.This feature, common in traditional SSE organisations, has been questioned by the emergence of social enterprises, that present different ownership and management models.

In answering the ninth question, Dr. Fonteneau investigated the relation between the SSE and public authorities: SSE often intervenes to provide essential services and to implement public policies, in return for state subsidies and support. This relation is fruitful and impactful as long as SSE units preserve their autonomy and independence. Finally, the last question addressed the role of SSE in the ecological transition. Although historically SSE did not consider environmental issues, its commitment is becoming increasingly evident, for several reasons, among which its rootedness in addressing concrete societal challenges and its pioneering role “in responding to the crises of the meaning of work, employment and inequality”.

Dr. Fonteneau’s presentation is available here: eng - es - fr - pt.

Following the keynote speech, Ms. Beatrice Alain, Executive Director of the Chantier de l’économie sociale, provided a picture of the development of the SSE in Quebec. In Quebec, she noted the Social Economy has always been a societal project, stemming from the local communities and connoting democratic management, she noted. It accounts for 11,200 enterprises, 22,0000 workers and 19,000 volunteers, half of which are women, and one fifth is youth. She also reflected on the growing presence of “social enterprises”, which often lack collective and democratic management, and which are not framed by a specific legal framework in Quebec. While social enterprises are a direct expression of the mainstream economy, in terms of organisational and management models, she concluded, they can nevertheless play a role in addressing the major societal problems of our times, by fostering the socio-economic inclusion of marginalised individuals and groups of people in society.

The table presented by Ms. Alain is available here: eng - es - fr - pt

Ms. Kerryn Krige, ILO Chief Technical Adviser on SSE policy in South Africa, informed the plenary on the SSE scenario in her country. The South African SSE landscape is mainly characterised by individual and micro enterprises, who are very well rooted in the local communities. Despite the generalised lack of capital, these enterprises play a big role in addressing inequalities and poverty. They often operate in a context of informality, which is a major issue in the country. Nevertheless they provide a gap between the formal and the informal sectors of the economy. Ms. Krige said, it is very important to support SSE at the national level by making these enterprises sustainable and by creating an enabling environment. To this aim, it is essential to understand the local contexts in which policy-makers operate, to develop policy and legal frameworks that can truly address the local needs of people, communities and organisations.

The Director of the Mexican National Institute of Social Economy (INAES), Mr. Juan Martinez Louvier, presented the Mexican case, which is characterised by two main dynamics. There is firm political and institutional support for the SSE. This is demonstrated in the 2012 Law on the SSE and the seventh paragraph of Article 25 of the Constitution. In addition, the Mexican society has a vibrant ecosystem of SSE practices. The Mexican Government frames SSE as a “Third Sector” alongside the public and private sectors, and it recognises its importance in generating wealth. Against the aggressive neoliberal dynamics that characterised the private sector in the country in the past decades, Mr. Louvier called for an increase in the support and cooperation of the public sector with the SSE sector, to contrast the competitive and profit-oriented dynamics of the market.

Finally, Mr. Eduardo Graça, President of the Board of CASES (Portugal), talked about the established tradition and reality of the SSE in Portugal. This is demonstrated by its early inclusion in the Constitution of 1974 and by the unanimously approved 2013 Law on Social Economy, that specified concepts and legal forms of the SSE. This sound legislation is also well aligned with the EU strategy and policies on the SSE. The weight of SSE in the country is important, corresponding to 1 per cent of the total paid employment (in full-time job equivalents). Mr. Graça underlined the overwhelmingly non-profit character of SSE organisations, that are focused on prioritising people over capitals. In conclusion, he stressed the importance of protecting SSE from the influences of the market ideology and, on the contrary, to boost the SSE capacity to influence the society and the economy.

The session was concluded with an interactive exercise where the participants shared the most important principles and values of SSE in their territories.

Click here to watch the recording of the session with the original audio, or interpreted in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

For more information on the 12th edition of the SSE Academy, click here.