simel esimWe talked with Simel Esim who leads the ILO’s portfolio on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy for the past decade. Simel will also be the lead expert from the ILO for the general discussion on “Decent work and the social and solidarity economy” that will take place at the 110th International Labour Conference. A political economist with over 30 years of experience in international development Simel comes from Turkey. She has done research, policy advocacy, capacity development, and development cooperation work in close to 50 countries. Her work has provided her with opportunities to collaborate with social and solidarity economy units whether she was working on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, informal economy, or migration issues. Before joining ILO COOP in 2012 (the UN International Year of Cooperatives), Simel was based in the ILO’s Regional Office for the Arab States for eight years as a Senior Regional Specialist on Gender Equality at Work and Women Workers’ Rights. Prior to joining the ILO, she worked in Washington, DC as a researcher in a number of institutions, including the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Women in the Informal Economy Globalizing Organizing (WIEGO) for more than a dozen years.

Could you tell us the background of the “Decent work and the social and solidarity economy” report?

Before responding to your question, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share the work of the ILO on this portfolio with you. I think this report is timely for Turkey, on account of the growing interest and momentum around new generation cooperatives, social enterprises, and wider social and solidarity economy initiatives around the country.

Coming back to your question, in March 2021, the 341st Governing Body decided to place on the agenda of the 110th Session of the International Labour Conference in 2022 an item related to decent work and the social and solidarity economy (SSE), for general discussion. The general discussion will be the first comprehensive discussion on the SSE at the ILO, and also the first high-level debate in the UN system around the development potential of the SSE.

simel esim

The Report has been prepared by the Office to inform ILO constituents, and SSE partners ahead of the discussion. To date, it is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Russian and Spanish. Translations of the report in Hindi, Indonesian Bahasa, Italian, Japanese, Mongolian, Portuguese, Tagalog, and Turkish will follow shortly.

The Office Report is organized into five chapters, as follows:

  • Chapter 1 delineates the contours of the SSE around the world, elaborates on the building blocks of the concept and proposes a definition for discussion. It also presents regional overviews of the SSE.
  • Chapter 2 provides evidence of the contributions of the SSE to the global development priorities defined by the Decent Work Agenda and the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda).
  • Chapter 3 discusses the relationship of the ILO’s tripartite constituents with the SSE, using examples from around the world.
  • Chapter 4 describes the Office’s work on the SSE, with a specific focus on historical background, current programmes, development cooperation policy and partnerships, and capacity-development activities.
  • Chapter 5 discusses the way forward in terms of strengthening the contribution of the SSE to decent work and sustainable development. It stresses the importance of promoting a conducive environment for the SSE, discusses the linkages between the SSE and the future of work, and proposes avenues for future Office work on the SSE.

In Turkey, the term SSE is not preferred in policy deliberations including laws instead the discussions are centered on individual units such as cooperatives, and social enterprises. What do you think about the importance of using the SSE term?

Indeed. This is not the case only for Turkey. In fact, there is not yet a universal recognition of the term SSE. Other terms closely associated with the SSE are used in different parts of the world: ”social economy”, “third sector”, ”social enterprise”, “non-profit sector”, ”solidarity economy”, ”alternative economy” and ”popular economy”. The different terms reflect the diversity of traditions. Depending on the context, they may be interchangeable with the term “social and solidarity economy” or differ to various extents in their referents and connotations.

Although the term “social and solidarity economy” and its variants may not have universal acceptance, around the globe solidarity and mutualism-based self-help initiatives have existed across time. Some regions, notably Latin America, Southern Europe, and West Africa have a rich and diverse history of the SSE, where solidarity-based practices date back to a period before the establishment of the modern State.

Although the SSE and the organizational forms that are subsumed under it are not new, its policy importance and visibility have grown significantly since the turn of the century. The SSE has gained further recognition for its role in creating and sustaining jobs and providing services for members, users, and communities during the global COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when calls for new ways of doing business are growing, the SSE can provide a basis for a model of enterprise that fosters inclusiveness, sustainability, and resilience. Hence the importance of this report and the upcoming general discussion on decent work and the social and solidarity economy.

A conducive environment is needed for economic units, like cooperatives, mutual associations, and social enterprises that are based on values and principles to thrive. The elements of such an enabling environment include appropriate legislation, policies, programmes, and support institutions that can provide financing, legal advisory and referral services,  and business incubators. Having a more systemic approach to these value and principle-driven initiatives, through a social and solidarity economy framework would help enhance their role in building resilience in local communities, and advancing decent work and sustainable development.

Given the rising importance of the SSE, there is an obvious need for further clarification regarding its definition, measurement, size, impact, limitations, and potential. How does the report contribute to these areas? 

Although a universally agreed-on definition may not fully capture the diversity of the SSE around the world, its absence impedes the adequate representation of the SSE in international development policies and strategies. It also impedes the compilation of comprehensive, reliable, and internationally comparable SSE statistics.

As noted in the report, since the turn of the 21st century, legislation on the SSE has been adopted in at least 20 countries at the national and local levels. National legislation on the SSE has been developed in Bolivia, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Djibouti, Ecuador, France, Greece, Honduras, Luxembourg, Mexico, Portugal, Romania, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain, Tunisia, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Other countries, such as Brazil, the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Korea, and South Africa, are currently preparing national SSE policies. Certain countries, including Argentina (Entre Rios, Mendoza, and Rio Negro), Belgium (Brussels and Wallonia), Brazil (Minas Gerais, among others), Canada (Quebec), and Italy (Emilia Romagna, among others) have adopted SSE legislation at the subnational level.

A close and careful review of the above-mentioned legislation point toward the key building blocks for a universal definition of the social and solidarity economy. The legislation from these countries specifies who does what, how, and why (in other words, its agents, activities, principles, and values). A shared understanding of the SSE can emerge from the development of legislation and statistical frameworks on the SSE. While there may be a convergence emerging on the values and principles of the SSE, there is no universal agreement on the organizational forms that are subsumed under it.

The proposed definition in the report is based on an analysis of the SSE legislation. It builds on the values, principles and organizational forms outlined in the legislation. It is only a proposed definition for discussion at the International Labour Conference by the tripartite Constituents, namely governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations from 187 countries.

What does ILO do to advance the SSE? What are the near-term plans or projects?

The ILO is the only UN agency with a dedicated organizational unit working on the SSE (Cooperatives Unit). This Unit, which is responsible for ILO activities on the SSE, was established in 1920 by a unanimous decision of the Governing Body at its third session. Since then, the Unit’s scope, size, name, and organizational position have evolved in response to changing realities and approaches. One constant, however, has been the reference to cooperatives and cooperation in its name over time. The Unit was originally established to carry out research and to provide information and legal advisory services related to cooperatives. In the 1960s, when many developing countries gained their independence, the unit embarked on an ambitious development cooperation programme. By the end of the 1960s, it held the Office’s third-largest extrabudgetary portfolio and remained so until the 1980s. During this period cooperatives were seen as key development actors, and hence many ILO initiatives were aimed at directly setting up cooperatives in developing countries.

During the 1990s, with the changing role of the State in socio-economic development in favor of for-profit private enterprises, resources allocated to cooperative development declined sharply. In this period the Office focused on establishing a conducive environment for cooperative development, working mostly at the macro and the meso levels through larger, interregional programmes. ILO’s Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation No. 193 adopted in 2002 sparked renewed interest in cooperatives as agents for poverty alleviation and development.

The term “social economy” also appeared occasionally in ILO documents as far back as 1922. Since the adoption of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization in 2008, ILO constituents have increasingly turned to the Office for assistance and advice related to the SSE. Before then, the ILO had promoted a wide range of SSE units without necessarily labeling them as such. Across the years, the ILO has designed and implemented a number of initiatives with or through SSE units.

In the last decade, the Office has responded to requests by the constituents regarding the SSE through a number of development cooperation projects for instance in Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, and in East and Southeast Asia. The ILO has also been at the forefront of the promotion of cooperatives and the wider SSE within the UN system. In addition to multilateral partnerships, the Office has bilateral partnerships and memoranda of understanding with a range of international organizations of the SSE. These notably include the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the International Centre of Research and Information on the Public, Social, and Cooperative Economy (CIRIEC).

The 110th International Labour Conference will hold a general discussion on “Decent work and the social and solidarity economy. I think that is a historic move and I am wondering, after the conference what is next? 

The expected outcomes of the general discussion are conclusions and a resolution to provide further guidance for the Organization. These expected outcomes are to:

  • provide a universal definition of the term ”social and solidarity economy”, including its associated principles and values;
  • assess the contribution of the SSE to decent work and to managing and promoting the overall support for people through the transitions they face throughout their working lives;
  • provide policy guidelines for the Member States wishing to establish a conducive environment for the national SSE;
  • equip the Office with guidance on how to engage in the promotion of the SSE worldwide, including through development cooperation; and
  • encourage the Office to establish and maintain a wide range of partnerships with institutions, organizations, and agencies representing the SSE, or involved in the promotion of the SSE.

Once these conclusions are adopted the ILO will develop an office-wide work plan to put the recommendations emerging from the conclusions into action.

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