Social economy in EQUAL round 2

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Four angles of approach in a larger second round

Overview of social economy activity in EQUAL round 2

The social economy theme goes into the second round of EQUAL considerably strengthened. Three new countries have joined, and the number of partnerships is up by two-thirds. Work focuses on four themes: improving the institutional framework, building better businesses, improving individuals' life chances and territorial development.

The social economy theme is considerably more popular in round 2 of EQUAL than in round 1: with 265 development partnerships – an increase of 67% – the theme is the third most frequently chosen. Following the enlargement of the EU, the most significant addition is Poland, and Slovakia and Wallonia have also joined the theme. The average budget per project has shrunk by 15% to €690,000, but there is a wide variety in size, with the average size of British budgets being nearly 11 times as big as those in Slovakia. Partnerships contain on average 7 partners, made up of a good mixture of public authorities, private enterprises and their federations, educa-tional institutions and NGOs representing disadvantaged groups.

Business development the key theme

The content of the partnerships’ work is along similar lines to that in the first round, but shows a sharper focus. Projects approach the theme of the social economy from four complementary angles.

Social economy development partnerships - main themes (N=265)<big/>
* Business development     60%
* Individual development   22%
* Institutional framework  13%
* Territorial development   5%

1. The first angle of approach, taken by three-fifths of the projects, is to improve the quality of social enterprises considered as businesses. The largest group of these projects plans to operate ‘incubators’ to nurse new firms into life, while other clusters focus on promoting specific trade sectors such as the environment, tourism, care and neighbourhood services, or on improving quality management in existing social enterprises.

2. In second place, nearly a quarter of the projects look at social enterprise primarily as a way to improve the life chances of disadvantaged individuals, especially those who are disabled or long-term unemployed, by offering them the chance to carry out a productive activity – often in the recycling or personal services sectors – in a sheltered environment. These concern so-called WISEs or social firms.

3. A sixth of the projects are tackling the institutional framework within which social enterprises operate, for example improving the way public procurement works, developing new tools to measure the quality and impact of new approaches, or building the capacity of NGOs.

4. Finally, a dozen projects, in both rural and urban contexts, take territorial development approaches. These are based essentially on encouraging the participation of local residents, and building partnerships between different local organisations to manage the process of improving skills, creating new businesses and improving the quality of services.

This typology clarifies the underlying logic of the intervention, although of course in most cases the same activity serves a number of purposes. For instance a project to set up a co-operative providing care for elderly people might have the simultaneous objectives of improving the quality of social services, creating new businesses, providing jobs for women, and integrating immigrants.

Tighter focus

In this second round of EQUAL, it is noticeable that many of the projects’ self-descriptions are more to the point and obviously show the benefit of the experience of the first round. Being part of a European Union programme has enabled a good deal of learning to take place, as is seen by the generally higher level of analysis the partnerships demonstrate. There is some evidence of convergence between countries in their analysis of problems and solutions, and a raised level of transnational consciousness. For instance certain concepts that were developed during round one have filtered through and now form part of the mindset of the promoters in the second round, among them public procurement, social franchising and public-social-private partnership. A number of partnerships make explicit reference to outputs from the first round such as the workshops held in Brussels and the Strengthening the Social Economy conference held in Antwerp in May 2004.

Despite this greater coherence, national priorities still vary greatly among different countries. The social economy continues to be seen as having a contribution to make in a wide range of policy areas:

  • business creation – especially for disadvantaged groups
  • efficient business replication (e.g. through consortia, licensing and franchising)
  • the creation of new services, especially neighbourhood services
  • the launching of industrial sectors, especially in the environment
  • tourism development
  • upskilling of the workforce
  • empowerment and inculcation of a spirit of enterprise
  • inclusion, especially of the more seriously excluded groups
  • adaptation of public services and welfare state reform, especially in care services
  • local development, both rural and urban

National panorama

Looking at the themes in each country, the following overview may be given:

  • Austria continues to develop the sector by establishing clusters and new models of public-social-private partnership, while Belgium continues to focus on quality, management and stimulate corporate social responsibility;
  • The Czech Republic is focusing on labour market integration and care, while Germany is addressing these two issues as well as neighbourhood services;
  • Greece is devoting more resources to the theme, and continues to support a combination of systemic and sectoral projects. Finland also has a very balanced portfolio of projects;
  • France continues to pursue care and neighbourhood services, with an eye to equal opportunities;
  • Italy, with 42% of the projects, is addressing integrated welfare systems in the north, SME development in the centre and agriculture, tourism and migration in the south;
  • The Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia focus on the integration of difficult groups, although Poland has a strong systemic element as well;
  • Portugal’s emphasis is on improving management;
  • Britain focuses very much on making social enterprises better businesses and on reforming their relationships with the public sector.

In the new Member States (Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) the context for the development of the social economy is very different from that in the old Member States. The concepts of collective enterprise and of co-operation, whilst they long predate the advent of Communism, have become tainted by association with it and have not yet fully received their reputation. Equally, the ideas of civil society and citizen initiative have yet to be securely embedded. EQUAL can be expected to play a key role in filling this gap in the balance of the social fabric. The full document on second round Social Economy DP analysis can be found at: