LISBON. SEPTEMBER 2013.   By Jordi Estivill

Lisbon was the chosen scenario, at the end of September, for holding the first meeting on “solidarity economics, finance and social incubators”. A group of students from the Lusófona University in Lisbon along with teachers, professionals and activists, have recently been trying to implement the concept of social incubators; this is already practiced in some Brazilian universities. They are grouped in the Association «Innovar Desenvolvimento». They are trying to make academic knowledge available to the local solidarity economy’s initiatives, embodying the very often forgotten slogan, of a University serving the society’s needs.

The Congress looked at two dimensions. There was a more theoretical approach in the morning followed in the evening by the discussion that considered more specific issues. After an introductory speech Jean Louis Laville (France), Genauto França Filho (Brazil), Rogério Roque Amaro (Portugal), Jordi Estivill and Jordi Ribas (Catalonia) all took the floor, and reported on the state of solidarity economy in their countries as well as highlighting the main challenges.

The question of whether the solidarity economy movement is barely in its infancy or if it has already reached a certain degree of maturity is recurrent, as is that of whether there are productive forms, organizational values, ideals and common challenges. Some of the key challenges that arise in each country as well as at the international level are dealing with the current crisis, providing realistic alternatives, to help create a new political culture that facilitates dialogue with public institutions and policymakers, and increase their strength and their role as actors. The role of networks (RIPESS-Europe and RIPESS-intercontinental, XES, ANIMAR, CRESACOR…), of forums such as the one that was organized in Brazil and multiple forms of transnational collective organization are increasingly important.

In the afternoon, the interventions of Pedro Hespanha and Silvia Ferreiro, Genauto França Filho and Mr Monteiro, respectively from the universities of Coimbra, Bahia and Beira Interior, focused on the role that solidarity economy can play in promoting social innovation and local development. This led to a lively debate moderated by Paula Guimaraes, from the Foundation Montepio Geral, the main Portuguese mutual insurance company.

The interventions and discussions that followed showed that capitalism has many tentacles, one of which is related to moralism, and involved in concepts such as corporate social responsibility, social business as well as the concept of social entrepreneurship. These concepts originated in the United States and came to Europe through England and the European Commission who integrated them into their programmes. We also need to add social innovation, as the right solution to the crisis.

Solidarity economy exists as a set of popular and collective practices that attempt to meet needs that have been worsened by the crisis. Local development is the best travel companion to solidarity economy: recognition and territorial grounding, acknowledgement of short producer to consumer circuits, mobilization and citizens’ participation.

The second day was devoted to the speeches and debates focused on the principles and ways of organizing the incubators which, following the Brazilian example, have become transformed into true “living laboratories” and drivers of local solidarity economy networks. This implies being able to mobilize the academic world and change many of their habits in order to have an egalitarian dialogue with solidarity economy actors, recognize their needs and be at their service.

These movements already exist in some Brazilian universities where interdisciplinary teams of students and teachers have put these learning and participation processes into practice. The same situation exists in a few French schools. In France, there is an association of the social and solidarity economy’s lecturers as well as an association for those elected officials who defend solidarity economy. At the University of Coimbra and Lisbon they have started similar experiments.

In the afternoon of the second day and during the third day alternative finance initiatives, such as Coop 57, community banks and self-funding groups were presented…

The relevance and usefulness of this meeting was welcomed, as shown by hundreds of participants, the quality and intensity of interventions and debates, the involvement of the young Portuguese organizers, the presence Portuguese social and solidarity economy organisations as well as the international dimension – with the participation of a large delegation from East Timor, a country in which the development of cooperatives and the process of national independence is closely related. Towards the end of the meeting, Rogerio Roque Amaro and Jean Louis Laville stressed the importance of the fact that for the first time, the history of social sciences is no longer Eurocentric, thanks to the birth of solidarity economy, and has become polyhedral (Latin America, Asia and North Africa). This ensures the wealth, the intercultural dimension and the diversity of the debates.