Exploring the social and solidarity economies in Liverpool and Brazil

Carol (second on the left) with the Social Enterprise Network team and Cllr Rosie Jolly, Chief Executive of SEN and the Mayoral Lead for Social and Community Enterprise at the Liverpool International Festival of Business

Carol (second on the left) with the Social Enterprise Network team and Cllr Rosie Jolly, Chief Executive of SEN and the Mayoral Lead for Social and Community Enterprise at the Liverpool International Festival of Business

Having lived in Liverpool for a year, I can say how enriching the experience of leaving your individual comfort zone can be! I am Carolina Santos. I have been a Brazilian exchange student at the University of Liverpool for the last twelve months as part of the Science without Borders program, part of the Environmental Sciences degree. This is what I have learned…

Even after having spent some time in this lovely and vibrant city, it is still not easy for me to fully understand how deep the differences between Brazil and the UK – politically, socially, economically, culturally – actually are. While the UK has been at the heart of globalising processes since the Second World War – and the British Empire, with Liverpool at its heart, was central to global trade before that – the Latin American experience of deeply exploitative colonial processes both historically and, as Eduardo Galliano showed, today. This understanding profoundly shaped and intensified my experiences of living among such profound differences. The historical injustice of the legacy of global trade that is celebrated by Liverpool’s UNESCO World Heritage Status still matters, and I am very pleased that these ‘geographies of responsibility’ are properly grappled with by Liverpool Geographers.

During my time in Liverpool I was lucky enough to participate in a research project which examined potential learning between the British ‘Social Economy’ context and the Latin American ‘Solidarity Economy’ scenario, coordinated by Dr Peter North with Liverpool’s Social Enterprise Network. While it may seem a debate about definitions, basically the British Social Economy looks to use business skills and methods to do good and to meet social needs, while the Latin American Solidarity Economy context starts with a different question – how do we want to live with dignity, meeting both our needs, and those of the other species that we share this planet? How can we build an economy that helps us do that? While there are differences, both concepts put people before pounds or profit.

I found the differences between the UK and Brazil fascinating. You will have seen the million strong demonstrations in Brazil around the World Cup: was it right to spend money on stadia while people went hungry in the favelas a few miles away? Considering the current British socioeconomic condition of austerity and the continuing existence of highly deprived neighbourhoods (especially around Liverpool, close to the city centre), I could not help but feel that a dose of radicalism would be beneficial to British society, in order to build a stronger repudiation of the public sector cuts as part of a fight against deprivation and for a better society. Dr North told me that back in his day, Liverpool did see such a fightback, and it did not end well – are todays politicians right to be more pragmatic? As a Latin American, I’m not sure.

Indeed, it’s incredibly interesting for me to observe how people act in relation to economic crisis. Generally speaking: even though in both contexts there is a general historical tendency for people to get together in difficult socioeconomic times, it seems to me that Latin Americans explore and recognize their power as citizens able to make a difference and to fight for their rights more fully. They frequently make this explicit by taking to the streets far more regularly in order to pressure the public sector and fight for public policies or new agendas. The Solidarity Economy in this context can be considered a more radical anti-capitalist approach than Social Economy as it understands social issues as housing, employment, health and education are all connected as consequences of the same exploitative competitive system. The Solidarity economy is based on feelings of reciprocity, democracy and equality, and it works mainly through cooperatives.

In contrast, in the face of public spending cuts the British Social Economy or third sector has explored more market-based alternatives to stake funded provision. Social enterprises, for example, aim to tackle social issues as their main objective, and mainly differentiate themselves from private businesses by having their surpluses reinvested. I struggled to find anyone who had a good word to say about the Big Society! On the other hand, I was very impressed with the professionalism of and the commitment of the lovely friends I made at the Social Enterprise Network in Liverpool – their professionalism and expertise is something I will take back to Brazil.

That said, my Brazilian roots suggest that, no matter how developed the British third sector is and how great its social impact has become (especially around the very well-received “buy social, buy local” movement), it should also be important to keep a clear understanding of what social needs are and what social demands should be made to change things for the better, holding the balance between tackling social needs in positive, pragmatic ways while not accepting state withdrawal, especially in times of austerity, without a fight. We should not be complicit in the cuts, in neoliberalisation!

In this context, Brazilian experiences of public policies for the development of the Solidarity Economy consist of both massive popular pressure toward the public sector to win social benefits through a fairer economy for all, with concrete projects to make this happen. Ever since 2002 there has been a National Secretariat of the Solidarity Economy which supports solidarity economy initiatives nationally and locally. They focus on empowering people and communities with both technical and managerial support, and through supporting what we call self-management and direct democracy. They work to strengthen community cohesion and use educational methodologies developed by Friere which are part of a long-term process toward achieving a more representative and inclusive society. I suppose what I could not help thinking was that the British Social Economy movement could be more obviously part of a fight for a better world, not a way of making the cuts less ‘painful’.

Something else I could notice in the UK (more specifically in Liverpool) was the low involvement of the young student generation in political movements and social economy itself, and how little is made of the potential for running things in co-operative and solidaristic ways by student unions and even student guilds. They do not seem to do as much as I expected to organise political actions, even though the region has had a strong militant past by the 80s. This is a definitely different aspect from Brazil, where students still have a strong culture of political involvement, which is directly connected to the need for change and the fight for social equality, and, in this way, to solidarity economy principles. It all also shows how positive things could be could be if social enterprises got more support from universities, especially through student guilds and unions.

At this point, about to return to my home country, I am feeling fulfilled and thankful for taking back a huge bag full of learning and knowledge for life with me. Even though it has not been easy to live in a different place, noticing differences definitely has the potential to bring understanding between different societies and, consequently, to understand how both can make the world a better place in their own way.

Carol Santos, Science without Borders student, School for Environmental Sciences

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