Social Solidarity Economy in Greece: A priority agenda

Why is Social Solidarity Economy on the rise in Greece? Why is it on the priority agenda of Heinrich Böll Foundation Greece?

This article sheds some light on recent developments in the field and overviews the main activities and projects implemented by the office of the foundation in Greece.

solidarity mural

Recent trends and developments

Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) in Greece is on the rise. Whether formal or informal, sustainable or not, out of will or out of need, SSE has recently become a catchword. The crisis was a trigger factor given that a growing part of the population had to secure employment and social provisioning resorting to means other than the conventional market and the retrenched welfare state.  Other factors also played their role such as the need to find a positive meaning when representative democracy and/or traditional forms of political action reach an impasse, the travel of ideas and practices related to the commons and new forms of cooperativism spreading through countries and localities, the quest for a new narrative accounting for socio-economic transformation.

Greece has had a history of cooperativism mainly in the agricultural sector which was, however, highly discredited owing to a certain statist attitude towards this sector and widespread clientelistic ties between coops and political parties for the appropriation of public grants. Apart from these experiences which gradually declined in the 90s, integration into the EU has been a trigger factor for the exploration of the cooperative form in other areas such as the empowerment of women in rural areas through the development of women agro-tourist cooperatives, and the social inclusion of people with mental health problems through the development of Social Cooperatives of Limited Liability. All in all, these, as well as other legal forms of cooperatives (such as civil cooperatives, forest cooperatives, etc.), hardly materialized into a growing sector with distinct characteristics from conventional market enterprises.

In the context of the crisis, the first legal framework on social economy was introduced bringing a new legal form into existence: the Social Cooperative Enterprises (Law 4019/2011). This legal form provided a vehicle for all those wanting to move along cooperative lines albeit for different reasons. Some opted for this legal form because it required neither registration with the self-employed social insurance fund nor the associated cost at the member level. Others did so because it allowed for the explicit recognition of collective ownership and horizontal decision-making procedures. Others, because they thought that this legal form might constitute a vehicle for the privatization of municipal social services sidestepping competition regulations and austerity measures. And some, because they expected European funds to arrive soon.

The recently introduced legal framework in Greece (Law 4430/2016), attempted to address problems arising from the implementation of the previous Law on Social Cooperative Enterprises while broadening up the scope of SSE initiatives so as to include other legal entities (civil cooperatives, agricultural cooperatives) as well as other legal entities fulfilling certain criteria. The good intentions of the policy makers are highly contested on the ground, because of the brief period of formal public consultation, the alleged overregulation in certain areas which seems to deter the ability of SSE entities for self-management, the stinginess of support measures in the context of the austerity memorandum, etc. 

It is evident that the expanding reality of SSE initiatives, especially in their institutionalized form, does not constitute a coherent field, sector, let alone social movement. They do not share a common identity nor common goals. They have not managed to develop synergies with each other to an extent that would foster their sustainability and independence vis-à-vis the state and/or the conventional market. Recently, there has also been an interest in developing networks of collective organization. The first endeavours at least in the sub-field of Social Cooperative Enterprises, involve the set-up of regional networks such as the Regional Network of Social Cooperative Enterprises in Central Macedonia and the Coordination of Social Cooperative Enterprises of Attika.  Other informal groupings have also formed in an attempt to collectively organize the more radical examples, such as the Network of Worker Collectives in Athens. The Social Entrepreneurship Forum came into being with the participation of members of social enterprises (defined boreader than the legal form of Social Cooperative Enterprise) and experts in the field, who organized several fora in Athens and other Greek regions, produced a common code of conduct for social enterprises and elaborated common theses at the advocacy level.  

Recently, SSE initiatives in Greece have been trying to identify and build a common trajectory through the creation of a Panhellenic Network of cooperative initiatives. The first three meetings were held with varying degrees of participation but with an interest in promoting a common language and other forms of synergies through democratic procedures.

Heinrich Böll Foundation Greece contribution

HBF Greece was one of the few foundations with an explicit commitment to explore the potential of social and solidarity economy since the beginning of its existence in Greece. Initially, such a commitment was based on an intuition that this field offers a promising road in many fronts relevant to the Greens’ strategy. Indicatively, the ability to link environmental and social questions through the development of socially innovative practices (i.e. renewable energy cooperatives), the ability to broaden the scope of democracy in economy by re-aligning the latter in the service of social needs (socio-economic transformation). In other words, SSE seemed to be the missing link in the quest for ecology and democracy, the two main axes of HBF Greece intervention.

In this framework, HBF implemented a number of projects which address the need to promote SSE in multifaceted ways.  

First, by increasing the visibility of the field through the production of relevant audiovisual material such as the documentary “Social Economy: An Alternative” which displays the variety and richness of SSE entities in Europe and the documentary “Developing social economy in Karditsa; A social ecosystem” which projects the gradual building of a number of initiatives in the region of Karditsa through a community economic development approach.

Second, by disseminating useful information and tools through the production of a Guide on the Development of Social Enterprises which addressed in a practical manner the lack of information and counseling services in a number of areas such as internal organization, selection of legal form, accounting and labor relations issues, etc.  The guide is received with great interest from the wider community. It is currently out of print due to heavy demand but can still be downloaded under creative commons license.

Third, by strengthening the capacity of SSE initiatives through the organization of training programs and workshops for potential and/or existing members of social enterprises, for NGO members, for refugees and migrants, for practitioners able to act as facilitators enabling the multiplication of other initiatives in the future. The more systematic and broad training seminar was implemented in Athens in 2016 in partnership with the Hub for Social Economy, Empowerment and Innovation. The new training program is scheduled for October 2017 in Thessaloniki.

Fourth, by supporting the collective organization and representation of the field. HBF Greece has been one of the founding members of the Social Entrepreneurship Forum in Greece and the main supporter of its actions including 3 national fora in Athens, 3 regional fora (Central and Western Macedonia and Thessaly). HBF Greece is also following the procedures of the Panhellenic Network of Cooperative SSE initiatives, as an external observer.

Fifth, by creating public spaces where collective organizations of SSE entities and policy-makers can exchange ideas and views on public policies related to SSE development in Greece. This area of intervention involves the systematization and dissemination of knowledge related to the new legal framework in Greece and the consultation process leading to its institutionalization (SSE policy report project currently under way), the support of the co-production of two position papers by the Social Entrepreneurship Forum aiming at the necessary modifications in the existing legal framework as well as a proposal providing with operational guidelines for the function of the future publicly-funded support centers.

Sixth, by actively participating and supporting all major events bringing together relevant actors and stakeholders. As such, HBF Greece was the main collaborating partner of UniverSSE 2017, the 4th European Social Solidarity Economy Congress held in Athens, 9-11/6/2017. UniverSSE 2017 was the product of a collaborative process which involved 6 months of preparation, 7 thematic zones, 50 panels/sessions/workshops, 50 missions from 22 European countries and activities/initiatives from other countries, 240 participating initiatives and networks, 187 speakers, 637 registered participants in the Congress with 1,200 persons attending various sessions and 1,500 persons through live streaming. HBF Greece participated in multifaceted ways in the organization and implementation of the Congress. It undertook the organization of specific workshops/panels within its overall strategy to facilitate the dialogue and consultation process between the government, policy makers and the field of SSE.  HBF Greece also supported the organization and implementation of the communication campaign, the construction of the site, the production of graphic and promo videos (promo video 1, promo video 2, promo video 3), the targeted dissemination through social media channels, the printing of promo flyers and the catering needs of interpreters and volunteers during the 3 intense days of work. All in all, the Congress was a success on various fronts: a) richness of issues and themes examined, b) participation and interest expressed by initiatives and involved stakeholders from Greece and abroad, c) inclusion of all approaches expressed in the field and from all types of stakeholders (institutional, movement type, etc.), d) consolidation of collaboration between members of organizational team and supporters, e) development of new synergies in Greece and abroad.