Blog: The Co-operative College and the Solidarity Economy

What is the ‘Solidarity Economy’, and where do co-ops come in to it? Project development Manager Dr Sarah Alldred reflects.

Over the past 18 months the College has been engaged in a European Commission funded Solidarity project (SUSY) spanning over 20 countries, with the primary aim to promote the ‘Solidarity Economy’ from across Europe and the Global South (www.solidarityeconomy.eu).

As the College shifts its lens more and more to issue of social justice and the co-operative response, this has been a superb project to be involved in, and has given me opportunity to learn more about this movement and its close affinity to the global co-operative movement.

So what is the Solidarity Economy? To try and find an answer to this, in October I attended a brilliant roundtable event held by the New Economics Foundation on Community Economic Development and the Solidarity Economy, with guest speakers including Jason Nardi from Ripess (www.ripess.eu).

What came out of this gathering of feverishly passionate minds was:

  • The Solidarity Economy approach to business tends to focus on the need for profit to facilitate the social agreements made with a range of their stakeholders. This is opposed to the focus on free trade, shareholder profit-led agreements attributed to the more traditional economic business models, where profit is the sole function.
  • The Solidarity Economy can be seen through two lenses:
  • Weak solidarity, which includes philanthropic models, including social businesses, where the governance is almost identical to the traditional business model with shareholders at its heart, but the decision of the founders and Board members is to put part of the profits towards the ‘social good’ as they determine it.
  • Strong solidarity, which has a fundamentally different governance model that is democratic, mutualist and reciprocal. People who own these businesses tend to be either the workers, the producers or the customers. Co-operatives sit at the heart of this model.

It‘s the latter that most solidarity economy businesses identify themselves with, as evidenced in the vast range of co-operative case studies chosen for the SUSY project (see website). The governance and decision-making tends to be participatory and democratic, rooted in the needs of the members.

  • Scale matters: for any meaningful ‘Solidarity Economy business’ to be successful, it must reach scale and then multiply and replicate, as opposed to keep growing. Too much growth dilutes the purpose of why the business was established, and the values and principles ultimately suffer at the expense of being lured by the hypnotic charm of more influence, more profit, more power. Governance is key here, as is a clear understanding of what is a healthy understanding of scale, as this will differ for each business.
  • Culture, place and people: all of these factors are key in a needs based solidarity economy. The culture of the place will determine the form the business will take place (i. rural/inner city; affluent/poor etc) and the people who step forward and engage in setting up the business will ultimately influence its shape.

There is obviously so much more to say, but this is just a snapshot. As the College becomes more and more outward looking, I wanted to share this snippet of learning about the emerging term ‘Solidarity Economy’. Interestingly when the Co-operative College held a roundtable discussion on the Solidarity Economy in October, one conclusion was that the term ‘People’s economy’ was more understandable, meaningful and democratic.

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