On the Social Economy – Insights from a European Social Economy Awards winner

João Salazar Leite, social economy activist and former Director of International Relations Department at SEE member Cooperativa António Sérgio para a Economia Social (CASES), Portugal, shares with us his insights following the first edition of the European Social Economy Awards in October 2021. He was awarded a prize for his career devoted to the promotion of the social economy in Portugal and across Europe. 

I would like to briefly develop the ideas I presented during the  European Social Economy Awards 2021 Gala held in Ljubljana.

These are concerns that I would like the European Commission and the Member States to study and consider. 

Three out of my four major concerns have been voiced. The fourth one has been omitted because, following my interventions at the previous GECES (European Commission Expert Group on Social Economy), the Commission agreed to include it in the future Social Economy Action Plan, which will be ready next month (December 2021).

If you consult the previous GECES initial proposals, they talked about introducing teaching about the social economy at Universities, which I considered insufficient. In my opinion, social economy education should start from primary school, and not only at University-level. Our values must be known and practised by the youth at an early age, not only after years having received education which has exclusively valued traditional enterprise as the ultimate approach. Our position has been well taken and adopted by GECES, and I sure hope that DG Education and our Governments are keen to follow through on this evidence.

Let’s move on to the other three topics.

In its Constitution of the Republic (1976), Portugal adopted three sectors of the ownership of the means of production: the public, the private, and the cooperative and social sector. The Members of Parliament recognised the ideas of António Sérgio (leading cooperative theorist from the 1920s to the 1960s), who had learnt from Georges Fauquet (see the book The Co-operative Sector).

Speaking of a real cooperative and social sector implies inter-cooperation between its components: cooperatives, mutuals, associations, and foundations. Most of those who read me do not have such a sector in their countries, and the components of the social economy are considered part of the private sector.

Yet, if there is true inter-cooperation between our components, the social repercussions of our activities will show the potential we have in the current challenges of society. These challenges comprise issues such as poverty, various inequalities, reception of immigrants, pandemic diseases, social security for all, full access to health services, laws that harm or discriminate our companies’ and organisations activities.

Why not provide health insurance to members of cooperatives at more favourable prices, or allow members of mutuals and associations to buy food stuffs from consumer cooperatives at a discounted price, or access cooperative and mutual credit unions through cooperatives and associations. We can multiply examples of this cooperation; what we cannot accept is that the different social economy actors work without knowing that similar organisations exist and are part of the same fight for human development. We must know each other and try to find ways to collaborate to serve the people around us.

This challenge is of greater importance in the less developed regions of our countries. Our organisations are mostly small and locally based. They exist only with the support of local populations; the cooperative principle of community interest was recognised in the last revision of the principles by the International Cooperative Alliance. Making local people members of our organisations is a task of the utmost importance.

But membership must also be open to collective members, from the social economy sector, but also from public and private sectors. In the interest of all those who sit and work locally, everyone, from the City Hall to the citizen, can access the services and productions they require.

It is, therefore, necessary to revive the Local Social Economy Centres with a double function. First, it will concentrate in a single space the administrative services of our organisations, allowing to dig up lists of members and propose several solutions. The space could be an old building that the City Hall can recover (the cost of this recovery will be its initial capital), with several rooms that will give access to cultural and other social offers. Second, it will serve as incubator of  social economy enterprises, locally considered as necessary, after a needs’ diagnosis by the local populations. There are already a few examples of this in the North of France and Canada. These new Centres can make use of the legal figure of the régies cooperatives that Bernard Lavergne (1927), and later António Sérgio, theorised. I only have one issue with the old model. In my opinion, the State (either central or local) should be part of the régies (to be read as Centres in our context) until the private sector can reimburse it for the initial capital it subscribed to. The cooperation with the local authorities must continue, however, for the good of the people.

Finally, I talked about the absurdity within the European Union that still exists in border regions. In the field of social economy, if a citizen can be better served by an association or a cooperative on the other side of the border, one cannot impede this citizen by fiscal or other arguments.

It is not necessary to create European cooperative societies or European mutual societies or associations to corporatise these services. It will have to happen without using legal procedures. If I produce wine grapes and the only cooperative winery that exists in my region is 100 kilometres away from my production area, and if there is a winery only 10 kilometres away on the other side of the border, we cannot ignore proximity offered based on the elimination of physical borders. The same logic goes for a retirement home, a hospital service, etc. The social economy is at the forefront of this united Europe that we want to build further.

Author: João Salazar Leite

Original version in French: Translation into English and Editing by Reine Cernero

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