Cooperatives, resilience to crises

The Greek Magazine Efsyn interviewed ILO specialist on Cooperative, Simel Esim, on the role of cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises in crisis response including with regard to refugees.

Analyse | 12 décembre 2016

Can the social and solidarity economy to help countries like Greece to overcome the already protracted economic recession?

It has been observed across the world that in times of economic crisis the existing cooperative and other social and solidarity economy structures grow in terms of numbers of members, supporters, volunteers, beneficiaries and service users.

This applies equally to different types of cooperatives, for instance financial, retail and housing cooperatives, among others. New social and solidarity economy initiatives are created during such times at local levels. Governments and development agencies also rediscover cooperatives as part of timely and relevant community driven response strategies to these challenges.

But the social and solidarity economy cannot, and in fact should not, be expected to assume the role of the state in the provision of goods and services. It would be unrealistic to imagine the social and solidarity economy as a magic wand that once activated will put an end to crises. The formula is more like that of tens of thousands of initiatives, big and small, public and private, some more successful than others, converging together in partnership toward creating a critical mass that reaches a tipping point.

Yes, but are not cooperatives themselves beaten by economic crisis?

The International Labour Organization has conducted research documenting how cooperatives have fared in terms of their resilience to the global economic and jobs crisis. This report reviews the performance of financial cooperatives, looking in particular at the aftermath of the 2007-2008 crisis and the continuing long austerity period. It documents ways financial cooperatives have proven to be more resilient tha their non-cooperative counterparts pointing to the specificities of the cooperative model of enterprise.

How can cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises support refugees in a sustainable way?

The number of refugees has reached record levels around the globe. Many host country governments' systems in provisioning goods and services have become overwhelmed. So it has become necessary for national and local governments in host countries to partner with local community based solutions. Provision of goods and services through local cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises can help refugees escape the vicious circle of poverty and find a job, while distributing the available resources more fairly within the local economy and for the local communities.

Are there any specific examples?

There are examples of cooperatives that have been set up specifically for refugees, or refugees joining existing cooperatives in growth oriented sectors of the host country’s economy as workers and members.

We have seen refugee women, for example in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon come together in business groups to market their products in local community markets in Lebanon which helped generate incomes and create bridges between refugee and host communities.

In many countries, existing cooperative have moved to assisting refugees. In Italy alone, social cooperatives provide services to 18,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with services and projects in 220 welcome centres and 170 dedicated housing structures.

The UN World Food Programme has been procuring staple items for emergency food assistance to refugees through producer cooperatives in 20 countries.

In Germany, housing cooperatives have started reserving larger homes for refugee families and consciously renting them to Syrian refugees to help them integrate and benefit from the social support system.

Another example are 200,000 of the nearly one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who have settled in the Akkar region in the north of the country, doubling the population of one of Lebanon’s poorest regions. Here, the agricultural sector constitutes a major source of income, employing one-fourth of the workers. UNDP and ILO have supported the establishment and growth of a Green House Nursery cooperative, which treats, grows and sells seeds at an affordable price in the region. The cooperative benefits 200 Lebanese farmers and Syrian refugees.

Recently the Greek lawmakers voted for a new law on social and solidarity economy. Are you aware of the changes the new law brings? Did the ILO make any proposals?

The very tight deadlines for consultation around the drafts was not sufficient to allow the ILO to provide an official response on the law. Clearly it is the Greek people who own this law. Hence the national consultations between the government, social partners and cooperatives and social and solidarity economy entities, networks and platforms are critical. It was therefore great to hear Dr Rania Antonopoulos, the Greek Alternate Minister for Combatting Unemployment, indicate her readiness to engage with the Greek cooperative and social economy partners to further improve the law.

A number of European cooperative and other social and solidarity economy partners provided inputs to the Greek government on the draft law. In fact, cooperatives and other social economy actors from around the world continue to show great solidarity with Greece. The Italian cooperative movement has indicated its readiness to support Greek government in its work on developing legislation on worker buyouts. Spanish and Argentinian worker cooperatives, and French financial cooperatives also have declared their willingness to engage.

It is worth noting that the enabling environment for cooperatives and social economy is not just dependent on passing of a law but include activation of implementation mechanisms including the establishment of financing tools, development of technical assistance programmes and building new institutions and reforming existing ones.
The Greek government, social partners and cooperative and other social economy enterprises have the continued support and commitment of the ILO in this important endeavour.

The following article has originally been published in Efsyn Magazine in Greek, and has been translated into English from the original.