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Cooperatives strengthen the social economy

By Bruno Roelants, Director-General of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) between 2018 and 2023

Cooperatives are one of the main actors of the social economy (or social and solidarity economy – SSE) as it is now called in the UN system), which, as the name itself indicates, is an economy, an economic space. According to the European experience, where the concept of social economy was created and elaborated, the promotion of the social economy should be based on both the promotion of its various actors (cooperatives, mutuals, associations etc.), and the establishment of strong alliances and partnerships among them. This is what we did at the European level two decades ago from CECOP, the European confederation of industrial and service cooperatives, where I worked until 2018: through CECOP, the European cooperative movement created with other actors what later became Social Economy Europe, spearheaded the European Parliament Social Economy intergroup, and organised a series of European social economy conferences, which have now become regular. As a result of these initial efforts, the European Commission recently launched an action plan for the social economy.

In 2019, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) included the promotion of the social economy as one of the components of its new 10-year strategic plan. Cooperatives indeed have a special responsibility in the social economy at global level because of their sheer numbers (over 3 million enterprises without counting the millions of SMEs and micro enterprises that are members of cooperatives), their employment impact (about 10% of the employed population), their sectoral diversity (from banking to industry, from agriculture to high tech), their impact on the economy (5% of the 10 largest economies’ aggregate GDP, and significant market shares in key economic sectors such as agriculture, banking and insurance), their global coordination (only one global institutional system around the ICA), and above all their benchmarking role due to the international standards grouped in the Statement on the Cooperative Identity.

These international standards, which represent a global consensus among all cooperatives, were included in full in the ILO Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (n°193), and thus became part of the international standards of the UN system, shared by the international community. I happened to coordinate a group of representatives of cooperative accredited to be part of the negotiations on this Recommendation at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in 2001 and 2002. I still consider this to be my main ICA-related achievement although it happened many years before I became ICA director general in 2018.

20 years later, in 2022, I was again at the ILC to contribute to the discussion leading to the ILO Resolution on Decent Work and the Social and Solidarity Economy, after we had created the International Coalition of the SSE (ICSSE) with other global representative organisations of the social economy (GSEF, SSE International Forum, AIM and ICMIF). Although this ILO Resolution is an important first step in tentatively defining the social economy globally and elaborating public policies for their promotion, much remains to be done to have a clear picture of the social economy globally: statistics can only be elaborated based on a clear and shared definition and standards. In turn, statistics, or at least rough quantitative estimations, are necessary to propose and elaborate active public policies and regulatory proposals for the promotion of social economy at global level. Whereas cooperatives have managed to move significantly in this direction, we are still far from it for the wider social economy.

In addition, in order to define the global impact of the social economy, it would be important to estimate the percentage of the economy it represents, but also its interaction with the rest of the economy, and in particular SMEs and microenterprises. This is particularly clear in the case of agricultural cooperatives, which group a significant proportion of the microenterprises of individual farming families. Secondly, it will be fundamental to measure the impact of the social economy on local development: the capacity of the social economy to retain jobs, investments and businesses in the local communities, in particular in rural and remote areas, and, based on it, the capacity of the social economy to work proactively towards equality, positive peace, social justice and the protection of the environment, all of which are key components of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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CIRIEC-International CIRIEC-España Social Economy Europe Ministerio de Trabajo y Economía Social Unión Europea