Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Social Solidarity Economy and The Challenge of Sustainable Development

Published Date: 
Friday, August 21, 2015

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SSE refers to the production of goods and services by a broad range of organizations and enterprises that have explicit social and often environmental objectives, and are guided by principles and practices of cooperation, solidarity, ethics and democratic self-management. The field of SSE includes cooperatives and other forms of social enterprise, self-help groups, community-based organizations, associations of informal economy workers, service-provisioning NGOs, solidarity finance schemes, amongst others.The Task Force believes that SSE holds considerable promise for addressing the economic, social and environmental objectives and integrated approaches inherent in the concept of sustainable development. This paper illustrates this potential by examining the role of SSE in selected issue areas which, we believe, are central to the challenge of socially sustainable development in the early 21st century. They include:

i) The transition from informal economy to decent work

SSE is a complementary pathway to tackling the ongoing growth of precarious employment and acute decent work deficits connected with the informal economy. Within an enabling policy and institutional environment, cooperatives and other social enterprises can play a key role in realizing the goal of decent work. From an aggregate point of view, cooperatives are among the largest employers in many countries in both the global North and South. SSE organizations can facilitate access to finance, inputs, technology, support services and markets, and enhance the capacity of producers to negotiate better prices and income. They can reduce power and information asymmetries within labour and product markets and enhance the level and regularity of incomes. The low capital requirements needed for forming certain types of cooperative can be beneficial for informal workers seeking to engage in enterprise activities.

ii) Greening the economy and society

From the perspective of environmental protection the challenge of decoupling growth and environmental impacts, and crafting economic transitions that are both green and fair, SSE organizations have a number of fundamental advantages over conventional business. There is little, if any, imperative to externalize environmental and social costs or fuel consumerism as part of profit maximization and competitive strategies. Such organizations also tend to have lower carbon footprints due not only to their environmental objectives but also to the nature of their systems of production and  providing locally accessible and affordable routes to improved healthcare in areas such as ageing, disability, HIV/AIDS, reproductive rights, mental health, post-trauma care, rehabilitation and prevention. While SSE should not be perceived as a substitute for state provision of healthcare, it is well placed to play a complementary role in health service delivery, given the proximity of SSE organizations to their members and the communities they serve.

viii) Transformative finance

Financial crises, limited access to affordable credit on the part of SSE organizations and the commercialization of microcredit all point to the need to transform financial systems. SSE has a significant role to play in this regard. Large financial cooperatives have become important sources of funding in several regions of the world, and have proven to be resilient in times of financial crisis. SSE promotes responsible financing or investment through strengthening the investor’s accountability for social, cultural and environmental impacts. A variety of alternative finance schemes such as community-based savings schemes and complementary currencies are playing an important role in community risk management and local development. While they often operate best at local level and on a small scale, these and other SSE initiatives point to the potential for crafting a more stable and people-centred monetary ecosystem embodying a far greater plurality of currencies and financial institutions. 

Enabling SSE

The integrated, people-centred and planet sensitive approach inherent in SSE resonates with the post-2015 development challenges identified in the SDG process. Numerous constraints and tensions, however, impede progress in realizing the potential of SSE. At the micro level, SSE organizations often start with a very weak asset base; core labour standards may not be upheld and the presence of women as members is often not reflected in leadership positions. Closer relations with market forces and state institutions may facilitate access to resources but also cause SSE organizations and enterprises to deviate from some of their core values and objectives. Given these concerns and challenges, what should governments be doing? It is important that they recognize not only the potential of SSE but also that the organizations and initiatives involved often operate in a disabling policy and legal environment and on an unlevel playing field vis-à-vis private enterprise.


Associated with solidarity and cooperation at the level of SSE organizations need to be matched by solidarity and redistribution through the state via social, fiscal, credit, investment, procurement, industrial, training and other policies at different levels of government. In recent years, several governments have adopted significant legal, policy and institutional reforms aimed at enabling SSE.

Much can be gained

From inter-governmental and multi-stakeholder learning and dialogue about such initiatives. Policy-makers can support the generation and dissemination of knowledge about SSE that maps and assesses experiences in different regions. An enabling policy environment must also reinforce the conditions for safeguarding the autonomy of SSE from states. This requires both respecting rights such as freedom of association and information, as well as channels and forums for effective participation of SSE actors in policy-making and implementation. Furthermore, policy-makers should reflect on current development priorities. These have tended to focus on enabling conventional enterprises, empowering individuals through entrepreneurship and targeting the poor. A focus on SSE suggests the need to also target or enable groups, communities and collectivities; as well as enterprises that give primacy to social objectives. In the context of the post-2015 development agenda and the 2014 International Year of Family Farming, members and observers of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on SSE emphasize the need to: 

1. Recognize the role of SSE enterprises and organizations in sustainable development;

2. Promote knowledge of SSE and consolidate SSE networks; and

3. Establish an enabling institutional and policy environment for SSE.

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