SUSY: Social and solidarity economy project underway

Ruth Holtom with MEP Julie Ward and members of her team discussing the social and solidarity economyThe Co-operative College is working with development education charity Think Global on a new, international project promoting the role of co-operatives and the ‘social and solidarity economy’ in development, poverty alleviation, and the provision of decent living and working conditions.

The three-year project, which is bringing together 46 partners from 23 countries in Europe, as well as nine countries in the global south, is known as SUSY, short for ‘SUstainable and SolidaritY Economy’.

Participants in the EU Coop Campus project visit Manchester co-operative 8th DayThe social and solidarity economy is typified by people coming together to meet their needs in a way that presents an alternative to the economic system which tends to prevail currently.These alternatives put people, not profit first. Examples of successful solidarity-based initiatives, many of them on a local scale, include house and garden projects, consumer-producer communities, local exchange trading systems, giveaway shops, open-source projects, repair cafés and lots more.  People who are involved in the solidarity economy might use Fairtrade products, produce goods and services together or own assets and resources collectively. They might get together in local exchange trading systems, or make use of networks to organise and inform themselves.Unicorn worker co-operative, a highly successful example of the social and solidarity economy in North West England

The College and Think Global are the UK partners in the project. The College brings to the project extensive experience working to capacity-build among co-operatives in the developing world, as well as its involvement in international co-operative networks and partnerships with transnational bodies. The College also has experience in a number of successful European projects, including EU Coop Campus, the Cooperatives Europe Development Platform, the iMove vocational mobility project and the IRENE.T European social enterprise training network. Think Global’s vision is for all citizens to understand the global challenges facing us all and develop the capabilities to create a more just and sustainable world, through work encompassing training, resources, research and advocacy. Their work includes working to raise teachers’ awareness and effectiveness in development education, and creating global learning resources for schools.

The first stage of SUSY is to compile and share best practice case studies from the different areas involved in the project, and to map the social and solidarity economy by highlighting key initiatives and agencies in these regions. In the UK, Think Global has been compiling case studies of co-operatives and social enterprises in London and the South East of England. Meanwhile, the College has been interviewing and meeting with members of co-operatives and other organisations interested in the social and solidarity economy in the North West and the North East of England.

The College's Ruth Holtom with MEP Julie WardIn addition to interviewing people active in projects relating to the social and solidarity economy, interviewees have ranged from co-operative support organisations to members of the European parliament capable of promoting co-operatives in policy, to local authorities interested in co-operative models. Interviewees have included Julie Ward MEP as a stakeholder for the project, to get her perspective on co-operatives in the regions. She is an enthusiastic supporter of the co-operative movement and is keen to get involved on a national and European level to advocate for the social and solidarity economy. Another interviewee was Gareth Wright of Co-operatives UK.

As part of the project, the College is also overseeing parallel research into the social and solidarity economy in India. This is being undertaken on behalf of the College by local researcher Veena Nabar, who has extensive experience working in the Indian co-operative sector. The focus of this work is co-operative activity in the Andaman & Nicobar territory, a group of 572 emerald islands, islets and rocks in the Bay of Bengal, off the East Coast of India. The islands stretch 700km from the north to the south. Thirty six of these islands, with a total population of around 350,000, are inhabited and home to aboriginal tribes, who derive their basic livelihood from forest produce, as well as settlers from the mainland. The Andaman and Nicobar territory faces a number of challenges, including isolation and economic and social underdevelopment. It is separated from mainland India by 1,200km of ocean, which makes communication and the movement of people and goods between the mainland and the islands difficult.

The College has been working with the central co-operative marketing society, Ellon Hinego, in Port Blair, the territory’s largest town, since 2006 to promote development for indigenous people through the social economy. Ellen Hinego is a secondary co-operative, with 15 primary co-operatives, known as Panam Hinegos, as its members. The co-operatives occupy a central part in village life, and have benefited their members in ways such as providing access to education and health facilities. Ellen Hinego works to further the interests of its member co-operatives in marketing, consumer goods, cottage and small-scale industries, fishing, transport, credit, supervision, co-operative education and training, postal services, tourism, construction and recreational activities. It provides help in marketing member co-operatives’ produce, such as copra (dried coconut) and Betel nuts. It distributes consumer goods and merchandise, and carries cargo, essential commodities and freight between Port Blair, the mainland and other islands, providing further help with loading and unloading cargo. It is also involved in construction, supply of petroleum products, and employing youth in a workshop and transport division. Ellen Hinego also works to create job opportunities for its members and youth, and has other benefits for its members’ lives and wellbeing such as helping increase income and business opportunities.

However, in 2004 disaster struck when Ellen Hinego lost practically everything in the tsunami which hit the region, including its managing director, as well as infrastructure, village shops and showrooms. Post-tsunami, the College has been involved in a project to promote post-disaster reconstruction through co-operatives. The tsunami, which virtually decimated Ellen Hinego’s assets and wiped out large settlements, showed the power of co-operatives to demonstrate solidarity and concern for community in periods of calamity and trial. Co-operatives spared no effort or expense, opening their homes to villagers whose houses had been washed away, and eventually rebuilt an economy that was all but wiped out.

The College's Ruth Holtom and Think Global's Faaria Ahmed at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, birthplace of the global co-operative movementStaff from the College and Think Global recently met in Manchester and Rochdale to share their findings from the research undertaken so far, and to discuss the next steps. The meeting included a tour of the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, widely regarded as the birthplace of today’s global co-operative movement. During the tour, Think Global’s local researcher Faaria Ahmad was introduced to the rich heritage of co-operatives in the North West. The tour highlighted both the impact co-operatives had on people’s lives in the nineteenth century by providing services such as groceries, education and housing, and the ways in which they continue to empower and support people today.

The initiatives and co-operatives highlighted as examples of best practice will be shown in short films bringing together the interviews and research undertaken by SUSY’s project partners. The films, which aim to increase not just public understanding of SUSY but to inspire more people to see the benefits of the social and solidarity economy and to get involved, will be shown at public events over the coming year.

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