The Emerging Social Economy: a Different Kind of Currency
Article by Ian MacPherson, principal investigator of the Canadian Social Economy Hub at the University of Victoria
As Canada confronts another cyclical downturn in the economy, this time the “down” appears to be deeper than any in several decades. Perhaps it is a good time, then, to consider more fully than has been common in recent years the nature of the full economy: specifically, to understand all the ways in which people can work together for their mutual or reciprocal benefit and for the health of their communities.
Taking a broader, community-based approach can augment the emphasis on individual, rational choices that typically dominate economic discussions in Canada. It would engage other researchers within and without the academy, deepen alliances between universities and communities, increase dialogues between Anglophone and Francophone Canada, and encourage consideration of innovative approaches being undertaken in other lands, notably in Europe and Latin America.
From the early 19th century onward, scholars, activists, and some leaders of various people’s movements, particularly in Europe, have championed the idea of the “social economy”. It has produced a considerable body of thought and, most recently, a strong endorsement from the European Parliament as an effective way to address social and economic issues.
The social economy approach starts with social and economic issues and encourages people in communities to address them by working together for the common good. It encourages the development of community-based organizations that are operated democratically and independently of governments and other organizations. These organizations are primarily focused on providing services rather than speculative returns on investment, reward people for their participation, and have embedded concerns for their communities.
From an institutional perspective, social economy is particularly interested in three organizational types: associations (loosely, the not-profit sector, such as the kinds of organizations associated with Imagine Canada), co-operatives (such as Mountain Equipment Co-op, Vancity Credit Union, and The Co-operators) and mutuals (such as Wawanesa Mutual and Gore Mutual Insurance Company). These are institutions that are different because of the ways in which they are organized, but also because they share common concerns over social and economic issues and similar value systems. None of these three kinds of institutions has generally received the attention they deserve in the Canadian academy.
In Québec, however, many researchers within and without the academy as well as practitioners/acteurs within several organizations have been adopting the ideas and practices of the social economy for over 20 years. A formidable alliance embracing the Chantier de l’économie sociale, the mouvement Desjardins, numerous community leaders, and a rich mixture of academic researchers/acteurs from several universities has emerged to foster the development of the social economy. Today, that network provides effective coalitions for research and action, a developing and sustained research base for the sector’s development, and a capacity to work effectively with governments of different ideological commitments.
Three years ago SSHRC, recognizing the growing strength of the social economy approach in Québec and Europe, created a five-year, $15 million research project to assess the current roles and future possibilities of the social economy in all Canadian regions. Called the Canadian Social Economy Research Partnerships (CSERP), it includes six regional nodes and a national hub. The hub is physically located at the University of Victoria; it began as a shared project between the British Columbia Institute for Co-operative Studies and the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet). The co-directors are Rupert Downing, representing CCEDNet, and myself, representing the BC Institute for Co-operative Studies.
Collectively, CSERP includes over 300 researchers (from within and without the academy) and engagement by 79 universities. They are undertaking a remarkably wide range of research and public information activities as well as some training programs. Some of the more than 150 topics being pursued include: understanding the extent and nature of the social economy in Canada; the social economy and food security; public policy and the development of the social economy in Canada; social responsibility issues; an analysis of how and where the social economy is taught in the Canadian educational system; effective practices in the development of social economy organizations; the roles of women in the social economy; and the possibilities for the social economy among indigenous peoples. A remarkably wide range of individuals and institutions from social economy organizations are also involved, and the project is notable for the way in which it seeks to engage researchers and practitioners. CSERP is now producing a useful and extensive body of research findings and welcomes comments on its activities.
Anyone interested in finding out about the national project can do so through the National Hub website. More information on the regional nodes can be found by accessing their websites directly as follows:
Dr. Chris Southcott, Lakehead University, Principal Investigator
Dr. Leslie Brown, Mount Saint Vincent University, Principal Investigator
Dr. Jean-Marc Fontan, Université de Québec à Montréal, Principal Investigator
Southern Ontario Node
Dr. Jack Quarter, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Principal Investigator
Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Northern Ontario Node
Dr. Lou Hammond Ketilson, University of Saskatchewan, Principal Investigator
British Columbia and Alberta Node
Mr. Michael Lewis, Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, Principal Investigator