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My journey to the Social and Solidarity Economy

By Ilcheong Yi,
Senior Research Coordinator, Alternative Economies for Transformation Programme.
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

In 2012, Peter Utting, then Deputy-Director of UNRISD, went to Rio De Janeiro to attend the session on green economy at Rio +20 to make a speech on social dimensions of green economy which was an output of the UNRISD research project on Social Dimensions of Green Economy and Sustainable Development (2011-2012). And he seemed to encounter a political economy model very much aligned with what he had been arguing for: moving away from “business as usual”, solidarity, democracy within and beyond organizations, and social movement etc. After coming back from Rio, he told me that “It was phenomenal!”. He looked like shouting out “Eureka”.

I, a staunch statist researching macro-level policies, had some doubts about transformative potential of small group of people scattered around in various value chains structured by market system. I had a strong belief that it should be the state that transforms the society and economy by addressing root causes of poverty and inequality in multiple dimensions including environmental one and could not think the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) could really “move beyond its fringe status in many countries and regions” (Utting 2015), or move beyond the micro-, project or community level, and multiply and expand locally, nationally, regionally and globally.

After Peter’s Eureka in 2012, we had a long discussion on the roles of the state and the SSE in transforming society and economy, and their limitations and potentials. I raised questions and Peter answered them. In the meantime, Peter started thinking about a UN level conference on the SSE, which could enlighten people like me who were ignorant of the SSE. With very limited financial support from UNRISD, he and his two brilliant interns (Nadine van Dijk and Marie-Adélaïde Matheï) explored uncharted territory of SSE within the UN system and created a space in 2013, that is, an UNRISD conference co-hosted with the ILO: “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. That was the first-ever UN level conference on the SSE. 50 speakers presented papers and side events and a large and varied audience of about 300 participants attended the conference (UNRISD 2013). His exploration continued and UNRISD went on to co-found and initially chair the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on the SSE that was established in 2013.

Although I learned a lot about the SSE from the discussions with Peter, my research interests were still placed on the macro-level policy issues, particularly national level policies. And the SSE, especially its role in transforming society and economy sounded like a pipe dream. My Eureka moment came to me when I met all those practitioners on the ground in the 8th edition of Social and Solidarity Academy in Seoul in 2017. I was invited to give a lecture on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the ILO SSE Academy, but could see the real power and potential of the SSE from the passions and commitments of SSE practitioners to the transformation. Those passions and commitments connected dots scattered in the macro and micro levels and showed a big picture of transformation of society and economy. That was more like a moment of conversion to the SSE and I became an advocate of the SSE.

Since my conversion to the SSE, my research focus has shifted from macro level policies themselves to the linkages between macro level policies and micro-level dynamics, in particular those of the SSE. I assumed the role of the lead of the SSE programme (changed to Alternative Economies for Transformation in 2022) and implemented various research projects aligned with my new research focus. UNRISD launched the Localizing the SDGs through Social and Solidarity Economy project (2017-2018) to enhance the understanding of SSE as a means of implementation of the SDGs through case studies on cities. An in-depth case study on Seoul, Republic of Korea, examined how the local social economy had contributed to achieving the city’s SDGs. Collaborative research was also designed in the same way.

In 2018, UNRISD assumed the role of the implementing agency of the UNTFSSE’s SSE Knowledge Hub for the SDGs, an initiative that contributes to the body of knowledge on SSE as a means of implementation of the SDGs, and established the Knowledge Hub’s online archive and developed research projects on SSE and the SDGs.

In 2019, UNRISD as the implementing agency of UNTFSSE’s Knowledge Hub, organized the 1st UNTFSSE Global Conference  Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: What Role for Social and Solidarity Economy? .

As part of the research initiative of the UNTFSSE’s SSE Knowledge Hub for the SDGs, UNRISD launched the Opportunities and Challenges of Statistics on Social and Solidarity Economy project (2019-2021).The aim was to provide an overview and analysis of current statistics on SSE and to make recommendations for their improvement, given the lack of statistical information to design evidence-informed policies to support the development of SSE.

In 2019, UNRISD also started the Promoting SSE through Public Polices: Guidelines for Local Government project (2019-2021) to propose a set of guidelines that policy makers could use in their cities to design, implement and assess public policies and institutional frameworks that support SSE organizations and enterprises. The project concluded in early 2021 with the publication of Guidelines on Policies for Social and Solidarity Economy  which is supported by seven in-depth case studies  in countries in the Global North and Global South. Its impact has been documented in various public policies of national or local governments that have drawn from UNRISD’s research to promote SSE—in particular Senegal’s Framework Law of SSE and its implementation decree.

In 2021, UNRISD, as the implementing agency of the UNTFSSE Knowledge Hub, also launched the SSE Encyclopedia project to provide policymakers and academics with a reference tool on a wide range of topics associated with SSE. 70 scholars from across the world participated in this project as editors and authors.

In April 2022, the open-access version of the SSE Encyclopedia containing 57 entries on various aspects of the SSE was released. The entries provided substance for discussion on decent work and the SSE at the 110th International Labour Conference (ILC) of the ILO in June 2022. The debates and negotiations at the ILC advanced progress towards a global consensus on a definition of SSE and policy orientations to scale up its impact around the world. UNRISD published a report in January 2023 on discussions and this historic breakthrough at the ILC.

The high point of all these works came on the 18th of April, when the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution on promoting the social and solidarity economy (SSE) for sustainable development which signals the official recognition of the SSE and acknowledges the work of the UNTFSSE and the contributions of UNRISD.

The Resolution marks a beginning of new phase of the SSE, and UNRISD’s research on the SSE. And it surely involves both challenges and opportunities. As is often the case with any UN resolutions on concepts and practices, there will be many different interpretations involving cooptation or isomorphism. There may be even a turf fighting, the very denial of the solidarity spirit of the SSE. The 9th CIRIEC International Research Conference on Social Economy, the first international conference after the UN Resolution on the SSE will be held in Seoul from 4 to 6 July 2023. I hope the challenges and opportunities of the UN Resolution, and what the SSE community and its players should do to fully capitalize on the UN Resolution will be discussed at the Conference.

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