Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through Social and Solidarity Economy: Incremental versus Transformative Change

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United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Social and Solidarity Economy
Peter Utting

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through Social and Solidarity EconomyIn a context where an increasing number of governments are promoting policies that aim to support organizations and enterprises that make up the social and solidarity economy (SSE), this paper assesses the effectiveness of such support. It does so from the perspective of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by considering whether the uptake of the SSE agenda by governments can scale up and enable SSE in ways conducive to realizing the ‘transformational vision’ of the SDGs.

In assessing progress, a distinction is drawn between incremental and transformative change. While government efforts to provide technical and financial resources for SSE, and a more conducive regulatory and governance environment, can enable piecemeal and partial gains associated with incremental change, various constraints arise that dilute or distort the SSE agenda and divert attention from the root causes of exclusionary and unsustainable development, thereby constraining transformative change.

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How might we guard against such risks? Our contention is that a policy agenda that is cognizant of these risks and adopts effective measures to address them is one that leans towards transformative change. Divided in two parts, the paper first examines the opportunities and tensions associated with mainstreaming SSE in the policy arena. It provides a conceptual analysis of how mainstreaming can redefine the contours of SSE through two processes. The first is ‘instrumentalization’. This refers to the ways in which powerful state or market institutions employ SSE to advance specific goals. The second is ‘isomorphism’, namely, the ways in which SSE organizations and enterprises assume behavioural features of the mainstream institutions with which they interact. These two processes are key for understanding both the opportunities and limits associated with incrementalism.

Part 2 examines the effectiveness of public policy that promotes SSE in relation to specific SDGs. These include food security and sustainable agriculture (SDG 2), social service provisioning (SDGs 3 and 4), gender equality and women’s economic empowerment (SDG 5) and employment and decent work (SDG 8). This section identifies the tensions and challenges involved in promoting policy change and identifies the differences between policy approaches that foster incrementalism versus those that push the envelope of transformative change.

A concluding section sums up the main findings related to the opportunities, risks and dilemmas that arise when SSE becomes the object of public policy. It reflects on the implications for positioning SSE as a key means of implementation for the SDGs and for realizing the ‘transformational vision’ that Agenda 2030 purports to uphold.


Part 1: The Opportunities and Risks of Mainstreaming SSE
     Institutional isomorphism
     SSE and the ‘fourth sector’
     Transformative change
Part 2: SSE and the SDGs
     Food security and agriculture
          Tensions within the Fair Trade system
          Promoting food sovereignty through public policy
     Social services and assistance
          SSE and the welfare state
          Overcoming dependency and bureaucratisation
     Gender equality
          Women’s empowerment in Nicaragua
          Women’s empowerment in Kerala, India
     Employment and inclusive growth
          Jobs versus capabilities and decent work
          SSE versus SMEs and the fourth sector
          Social sector employment versus multi-sectoral development and the future of work
Concluding Remarks

International CED
Social Economy & Social Enterprise
Sustainable Development

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