Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Interview with Yvon Poirier, Special advisor on advocacy and governance at the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS)

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths in the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Yvon Poirier, who has assumed different roles in the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS) over the last two decades.

Article | 20 October 2023

Could you tell us about yourself? How did you get involved in SSE work?

Even if not called the SSE until 1998 in Quebec province where I now live, the SSE has been part of my life since my childhood. The first 20 years of my life was in a French speaking Acadian minority community in Prince Edward Island (the smallest Canadian province). Cooperatives were the tool of the community, which was relatively poor. My father was one of the founders of a fishing cooperative (mainly lobsters), a credit union, a cooperative grocery store. Fittingly, his funeral was organised by the funeral coop he helped setting up and my mother was living in a cooperative elderly people’s home until she died.

When I came to Quebec City to study Political Science, I became involved in the student’s union and in different social movements such as protests about Vietnam war. After university, I became a teacher in a college (students aged 17-19 years old). And right away, I became involved in the teacher’s union which led me to participate in regional and national (Quebec) meetings.

For me, it was natural to become a member of a credit union. I became a member of the Caisse d’économie solidaire Desjardins when it was founded in 1971. This credit union was created by the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN). The purpose was to have the savings of unionized workers, as well as the unions themselves, pooled together to improve the lives of the workers. For example, they were one of the first lenders for housing cooperatives since the traditional banks, and more traditional credit unions, found this too risky.

Could you provide a summary of the Quebec SSE movement history?

What we now call SSE has a long history of cooperatives. In the first half of the 20th Century, cooperatives became the tools of the French speaking population in Québec province, representing approximately 80 per cent of the population. Knowing history is important. After the British conquered what was called New France in 1759, all the control and development of the economy was dominated by the English-speaking financial bourgeoisie that emigrated from the United Kingdom. All the banks and all manufacturing and commerce were under the control of this financial sector.

This led Alphonse Desjardins to create the first credit union in 1897 so that the francophones can have access to banking services. In the following decades, this spread to all regions in the province and were developed around the parishes. In addition to the credit union, there was the creation of farming cooperatives, and a cooperative grocery store. Besides such types of cooperatives, workers’ unions initiated mutual health insurance until health insurance became a public health service in the late 1960s.

In the last 50 years, especially after 1970, a new wave of social economy organizations emerged to respond to the needs people had. Many were created as not-for-profit organisations. One outstanding example is day-care for children as many women had joined the labor market in all fields and day-care had become essential.

The strong development of this innovative approach, combined with the renewal and growth of new cooperatives such as workers cooperatives and multi-stakeholder cooperatives, were instrumental in having social economy adopted as an important strategy by all the social partners (government-employers-unions and community sector) at the Socioeconomic Summit of 1996. Growth and expansion have continued up to today. The Social Economy Act of 2013, unanimously adopted by all political parties at the National Assembly, has helped strengthen a whole social economy ecosystem. NB. Even if the expression in use is social economy, this is explained by the fact that SSE was for most an unknown concept in 1996. However, in practice, the social economy in Quebec is in close alignment with SSE, as defined in the ILC and UN General Assembly resolutions on the subject.

What is RIPESS?

In the period between 1970 to 1995, there were strong social movements criticizing what is called neoliberalism. With the outsourcing of production of goods to China, unemployment rose. In Africa and Latin America, with dictatorships such as in Brazil in 1964 and in Chile in 1973, inequality grew rapidly. In Africa, the Structural Adjustments Programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund destroyed most of social services in education and in health, Financial and agricultural cooperatives were also struck hard, or were dismantled. More generally, acompanying unilateral trade liberalization conditionalities also significantly undermined productive capacities in many economic sectors, especially in agriculture.

At the same time, what we now call the SSE grew in all parts of the world, often out of sheer necessity to survive. Gradually, in many countries this transformed into a movement. At the same time, researchers and other intellectuals provided analysis to help civil society and the emerging SSE understand the roots and fundamental causes of poverty and exclusion, inequality within and between countries. There has been a clear explanation that this is related to how the dominant economic system works. In other words, the profit dominant economy, by definition, will not invest if no profits can be made beyond what should be reinvested according to democratically determined objectives. This is why vast sectors of our societies are left behind.

This momentum resulted in social movements and SSE organisations to hold a first international meeting Lima in July 1997. From then on, the movement grew since there was a strong commitment and enthusiasm to develop a people’s centered economy.

This led, after a second international meeting in Quebec City in 2001, to the official creation of the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS). We use this acronym since we also have a name in French and in Spanish for our network.

It is important to mention five important characteristics of RIPESS:
  • Using intercontinental instead of international implies that we are a decentralized network, and our governance process puts on equal bases north-south and east-west.
  • The main criterion for our Board of directors is equal representation from each continent as well as gender balance.
  • Our continental organizations are in turn based on national networks which are themselves based in organisations at the grassroots.
  • We don’t use “and” between the expression «social solidarity». This implies that the economy we promote needs to adhere to principles/values of both.
  • The promotion of the SSE is our «raison d’être». People can do many remarkable things at the local level. However, unless we also act at all levels: namely, national, continental, and global levels, the development of the SSE will be hindered.

How does RIPESS work?

As most organizations, we identify key priorities for our work at the global level. In turn the continents adopt priorities related to the context and specific situations such as the stage of recognition or the SSE in the continent. In different countries and sub-national states or provinces in federations, adaption to the context is essential.

There is one example, which we are proud of, that I would like to share. In 2012, at the Rio+20 meeting, RIPESS decided that the priority would be the inclusion of the SSE in the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We participated in the civil society consultations where we gathered support for the SSE. Our representative at the time participated in the High-Level Political Fora (HLPF) of 2013 and 2014. At the 2014 HLPF, we presented proposals endorsed by 500 organisations from around the world. Our spokesperson spoke on behalf of civil society in front of 130 country delegations.

However, as everyone knows, Agenda 2030 does not mention SSE. The only small reference is to «cooperatives» under SDG 17 which is only a part of the SSE movement. However, we continued to press for the SSE. Not because we are stubborn, but because we knew that the SDGs could not be achieved without leveraging the SSE. Time has proven we were right. Even if it took us eight more years of work, in collaboration with all stakeholders and allies, this was formally recognised with the adoption of resolution A/RES/77/281 by Member States. We do think, as the main SSE international network, with a strong presence in all continents, and in at least 75 countries, that we had a significant contribution to this success.

What is the involvement of RIPESS in the UNTFSSE?

After the initial meetings on the SSE organized by the ILO in 2009 in South Africa and following our participation at the May 2013 UNRISD research conference organized with the ILO at ILO headquarters in Geneva, we endorsed the project of creating a UN Inter-Agency Taskforce on the SSE. We knew that working together with such international institutions, could create an impetus for dissemination of knowledge on and the promotion of the SSE, so essential to the people at the grassroots. This is why we participated in all activities and contributed to all products of the task force including regular meetings, symposia, position papers, the knowledge hub, sharing experiences, research, and the SSE Encyclopedia to name a few.

SSE organisations by themselves would not have convinced Member States to propose an SSE resolution. The UN Agencies alone would not have succeeded either. By working together as partners, a breakthrough came in 2022 when a group of countries decided to move towards a UN resolution. The adoption of the ILO resolution on decent work and SSE in June 2022 was a major steppingstone toward the successful adoption of the UN General Assembly resolution in April 2023.

The next decade will be as important, even more so, since we know all the SSE ecosystem, namely countries supporting the SSE, UN Agencies and SSE organisations, will need to fully engage for implementing the UN Resolution. This is the only way that we will fulfill the SSE’s fundamental role in sustainable development.

What is the importance of the UN resolution on promoting the SSE for sustainable development?

The UN recognises that the world is not on track to achieve the SDGs. Even worse, the world is going backwards on many Goals. Scientific evidence suggests that in 2023, the temperature of the planet will probably have increased by 1,5o. This is even faster than predicted.

Clearly the SSE is not a panacea. The SSE can, if well supported, make great strides towards sustainable development. The reason is simple. Unlike governments or corporations, SSE is based on mobilization of people and communities to organise the economy to fulfil their basic needs as stipulated in the Declaration of human rights. A sense of ownership, in democratic organisations, is essential. The world will change from the bottom up and not bottom down. Governments and international institutions, need to support and create enabling environment for SSE with legislations, and policies. Public finance institutions, as well as Multilateral Development Banks, need to provide the necessary capital.

I will end with a quote attributed to Gandhi. “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.”