Social and Solidarity Economy: real alternative to neoliberal development or just another intellectual fashion? A Note

Norman Girvan


Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) is said to refer to a

“ a broad range of organizations that are distinguished from conventional for-profit enterprise, entrepreneurship and informal economy by two core features. First, they have explicit economic AND social (and often environmental) objectives. Second, they involve varying forms of co-operative, associative and solidarity relations. They include, for example, cooperatives, mutual associations, NGOs engaged in income generating activities, women’s self-help groups, community forestry and other organizations, associations of informal sector workers, social enterprise and fair trade organizations and networks.”    (Utting 2013)



The roots of SSE are often traced to the cooperative movement that sprung up in Europe in the 19th century in response to the excesses of early industrial capitalism. However, in the Caribbean SSE is a tradition that goes at least as far back as to the mutual aid practices in free villages formed by newly emancipated persons after 1838; and similar practices of formerly indentured labourers. Caribbean community development movements and cooperatives of the 1930s-1950s were based essentially on these principles (Girvan 1993). But in its essence, SSE was in fact a feature of many, if not most, methods of organising economic acitivities in human society prior to the emergence of full-blown capitalism. The late Karl Polanyi distinguished three types of society, historically,  in their economic aspect:  those based on the principle of reciprocity, redistribution and exchange (Polanyi 1944: Ch. 4). Reciprocity is an essential attriubute of what is now called SSE.  


SSE has now become a growth sector in the international development discourse, stimulated by the growing disenchantment with neoliberal economics and its worship of unfettered markets, as a result of the on-going global financial and economic crisis. Recently (on May 3-6) SSE was the subject of a major international conference, convened by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRSID) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that attracted over 300 participants. Perusing the conceptual presentations[1], it is apparent that SSE has both a ‘ reformist’  and a ‘radical’ wing. The former emphasises SSE organisations that address the downside social impacts of neoliberal development—such as the need for poverty alleviation and social protection—and the possibilities of SSEs participating in global commodity chains (which are usually controlled by transnational firms). The radical wing focuses on SSE as providing the ethical system and the guiding organisational principles for new ways of organising economic life that is an indispensable alternative path to that of market society, if our species is to live in harmony with itself and with Nature.   As you might have guessed by now, this writer is firmly in the latter camp.     


In this regard, I particularly liked the presentation by Prof. Anup Dash of Utkal University in India (Dash 2013) . Dash points out that In its purest form, SSE strikes at the very heart at the ontological and methodological assumptions made by neoclassical economics—that human society is constituted by essentially utility-maximising, instrumentally rational individuals pursuing material gain as the primary motive and focus of their existence. As he points out in his presentation, SSE is—or ought to be—based on an epistemological foundation rooted in a social rather than an atomistic ontology; on the concept of  relational man/whole man rather than rational man (amoral man); and on substantive rationality/multiple logic rather than instrumental rationality. (See especially Slide 9 of his presentation; but reader beware, this is a heroic summary on my part; there really is no substitute for reading the whole of Dash’s presentation and the accompanying paper.)

In the 1980s—1990s we had a proliferation of NGOs and community-based organisations in the Caribbean; many of them donor-driven, that have embraced much of the language of grassroots development. WINFA, the Windward Island Farmers Association, is often hailed as an example of genuine empowerment of small farmers and successful adoption of international Fair Trade alliances to promote better terms for farmers. Does this development hold out the promise of a real alternative to the neoliberal/IMF path of development to which our governments appear to be committed, whether by choice or coercion? I was not able to find a Caribbean case study from the list of presentations at this Conference. A pity. It would have been good to know how Caribbean scholars and SSE practioners view the potential and limits of SSE. But if anyone from the Caribbean participated; or is minded to review the many interesting presentations that are online, please let us hear from you at

May 23, 2013        






Dash, Anup 2013. Towards an Epistemological Foundation for Social and Solidarity Economy. Paper and Presentation to UNRISD/ILO/UN-NGLS, 6-8 May 2013, Geneva;$file/PowerPoint%20-%20Dash.pdf, and$file/Dash%20draft%20paper.pdf

Polanyi, Karl (1944). The Great Transformation. New York, Rineheart.

Girvan, D.T.M., 1993 Working Together for Development: D.T.M. Girvan and Community and Cooperative Development, 1939-1968. Compiled and Edited by Norman Girvan. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications. Utting, Peter (2013) What is Social and Solidarity Economy and Why Does It Matter?

[1] See papers presented in Session 1, Conceptualising SSE, available at