Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Social Enterprises or Solidarity Economy?

From Towards the Economic Democratization
Miguel Yasuyuki Hirota
April 21, 2010

As I’ve been trying to link East Asian players of solidarity economy with their counterparts in the rest of the world, recently I’ve come across quite a few people who work for social enterprises and I realised that this term is much more popular here (in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and recently in China too) than solidarity economy. These two movements seem to pursue similar goals but I’d like to make clear the fundamental difference between these two concepts.

It’s quite important to remember the fact that the first initiative of social enterprise emerged in United Kingdom and that this spread into other countries, especially other English-speaking ones. On the other hand, the use of the word “solidarity economy” is quite common in those countries where one of Romance languages is spoken, such as France, Italy, Spain, Canada (especially Québec), Latin America and Senegal. And this explains why the term “solidarity economy” remains almost unknown in Asia, as nowadays the use of French, Spanish and Portuguese is very rare, if any, in this continent.

The key concept of social entrepreneurship is that you run a business with social and/or eco-friendly goals, such as creating jobs for the handicapped and providing microcredit to financially-excluded poor communities, not necessarily challenging the conventional capitalism. That is why thousands of private-owned corporations with some social goals are also regarded as social enterprises, which is little plausible in case of solidarity economy. And I found a conference on social entrepreneurship with HSBC as sponsor, but I can’t imagine this multinational financial institution working together solidarity economy. Maybe they’re concerned rather about building a sustainable capitalism than about achieving social justice.

Solidarity economy, on the contrary, has been promoted as an alternative to the neoliberal globalisation, especially at World Social Forum, the counterforum for World Economic Forum, and players see any sort of capitalism as exploitative. So workers’ coops and other sorts of cooperatives are the main players of this economy, although some social enterprises can fit into this category too.

I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that these two different cultures have promoted different terms as these two are based on different socioeconomic values. Nobody doubts that capitalism has been developed at best in Anglo-Saxon countries, and social entrepreneurship is much more convenient than solidarity economy for, at least, some people there since this will keep the very structure of capitalism intact while those with Latin passion tend to question it. And in this sense Asia is so Anglo-Saxonised that the élites find it much easier to deal with social enterprises than solidarity-based cooperatives, also with the aim to preserve the capitalist principles.

Maybe I’m biased, but for me this is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced with as promoter of solidarity economy, as Asians tend to prefer English-speaking world to the Latin world. What can we do to trigger a paradigm shift here?

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