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Social Economy, an economy that prioritizes people over profit, the economy the world needs

The many and recurrent challenges the world is facing requires system change in the way we produce and consume. Economic profit and growth can no longer be the only driving force of our enterprises and governments. This has been recognised by the UN and its members through the development of SDGs, and the recognition of Social Economy (SE) organizations and enterprises as important contributors to these goals, through their economic models that put the primacy of social objective over profit[1].

In fact, profit driven focus of mainstream enterprises pushes them to lower costs (all resources, including labour) and maximise profit, most of which is redistributed to financial investors. Through these practices, devastating ecosystem is not accounted for, and the percentage of wealth going to labour is continuously shrinking. This is the framework that led us to global climate change and increase in inequality globally, as well as within States, between those who have and those who don’t. These trends have societal and environmental costs, that in the end are paid by society and the States.

Nevertheless there are alternative models that allow the rapid and profound system change our planet and communities need to survive and even too flourish harmoniously. Through focus on social objectives rather than economic profit, SE provides diverse economic models that are sustainable for people, communities and the planet. It is an economy of care that has survived in a world of tough economic competition and wide-spread exploitation of people and natural resources, because it has responded to unmet needs of people. For the SE haven to become an economic norm, two concomitant strategies should be deployed: strengthened intercooperation amongst SE practitioners as well as fundamental changes in the legal and regulatory frameworks.

Regarding the first strategy, it is crucial that cooperation between different actors of the SE value-chain is strengthen and even proactively planned. It is necessary to reinforce the capacity of collective entrepreneurship through dedicated funds (investments, loans, economic support…), adapted enterprise incubators, but also collaboration with public and especially local authorities and communities. Why? Because another principle of SE is to reinvest most of the surplus in the social objective, which means less profit to be redistributed, and therefor lesser appeal to investors, who are mostly focused on high and fast return on investment. But also because SE is active in all sectors of activities and therefore has the capacity to be self-sufficient, if only it had that objective. On the other hand, strong cooperation with local authorities would allow citizen-lead initiatives to blossom to answer territorial needs thanks to democratically governed and locally rooted organizations. Such an approach reinforces democratic practices, trust in public authorities while somehow recognizing, at least in the western world, the outsourcing that has happened in the last decades of public services to 3rd parties, and often SE organizations.

SE is often very active in education and training as well. Stronger cooperation with researchers should be encouraged to adopt better impact measurement and build a strong narrative, through facts, figures but also qualitative approaches that demonstrates how SE participates in social innovation and how important the weight of SE is for the fair green & digital transition. This is essential as many for-profit companies are surfing the social and green wave through strong marketing and little action. There is no time for marginal changes, what the planet and communities need is structurally socially and environmentally sustainable production systems.

The second strategical axe is about changing the legal and regulatory framework to enable the flourishing of truly sustainable businesses. In this area, recently there have been major improvements in terms of recognition of the value of SE and the need to improve legal frameworks. It took over a decade of structured dialogue with governments and major international organizations to achieve this. The bottom-up Social Economy Task Force of the United Nations was officially set up in 2013, brings together SE organizations, social entrepreneurship organizations, UN national agencies and international institutions (such as ILO & OECD). The work of this Task force and the strong commitment of some governments led to the UN resolution on social and solidarity economy. At EU level, in the last 20 years or so, many active working groups were set-up with various EU institutions such as: GECES (the Social Economy Expert Group of the European Commission), the Civil Society Liaison Group of the European Economic and Social Committee, as well as the Social Economy Intergroup of the European Parliament for which SEE runs the secretariat. SEE has actively participated in all of these working groups, as well as maintained strong links with the Monitoring Committee of the Luxembourg Declaration which was set-up at the 2015 SE event in the frame of the Luxembourg presidency of the EU. This is a group of States that commit to supporting the SE ecosystem within the EU and their countries. All these participated to the development of the European Social Economy Action Plan (SEAP) which was adopted in 2021 to set guiding lines for the development of the SE ecosystem over a 10 years span. One of the latest outcomes of this workplan is the political agreement on the EC recommendation to Council on developing social economy framework conditions. SEE was a strong actor of the outline of the SEAP and it continues to be a driving force of its implementation.

Now that SE is in the spotlight and benefits from strong recognition by many institutions, it is time to translate these political intentions into concrete actions. SEE, together with its members and partners, is pushing governments and institutions to commit to their promises and all the network is there to support these actions through exchange of experience, knowledge and implementation of concrete action. For instance, at EU level, SEE is coordinating together with Euricse the Large-scale Skills Partnership (LSP) for the “proximity and social economy ecosystem” (the 14th industrial ecosystem of the EU). Within this frame (and other projects) the objective is to identify educational, training and skills needs of SE actors in order to pursue the fair twin transition (green and digital). In the coming years SEE will focus on capacity building of the SE ecosystem and the unravelling of the political commitment of member states and international organizations.

To learn more about what is cooking in the SE world, and the state of the art of all these policies and actions, SEE is organizing together with the Spanish Government (in the frame of the EU Presidency) a conference entitled “Social Economy: People, Planet, Action” in San Sebastian November 13 and 14. For those who cannot make it, don’t miss the next SE conference that will be organized under the Belgian Presidency of the EU, February 12 & 13 in Liège (Belgium).


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