Social Enterprises or Private Wealth?

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Writing for the ‘Derry Journal’, Creggan-based community development worker Conal McFeely, of Creggan Enterprises, speaks of the economic challenges ahead and reinforces the view of newly elected Irish President Michael D. Higgins that the only way ahead is to break away from the pattern of ‘putting profit and greed before the common good’ and to instead embrace the social economy.

As we await the publication of the next Programme for Government (PfG) by the office of OFMDFM based in Stormont Castle, I have no doubt that we will all be told by our politicians that these are challenging times, that we cannot ignore the financial constraints, economic challenges and other issues facing the local economy.

The key focus of the PfG will be on economic recovery and we will see the scramble by many of our political and business leaders towards supporting a huge reduction in corporation tax, which is a coded message for cutting public and community services. We will also be told that we must be competitive.

But what, in reality, does being told that we must be ‘competitive’ mean?

Competition has been sold to us as the key to a more productive and wealthier economy, an economy in which the strong will be successful and the weak will fall by the wayside.

Competitiveness and the lowering of corporation tax will be sold as a panacea for all our economic ills, putting us in line for much greater levels of investment, leading in turn to more and better jobs.

I would argue, and positively fear, that both will have a completely different outcome – that of widening the chasm between rich and poor, between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

The newly elected President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins vowed recently to lead Ireland in a transformation away from values based on private wealth and has called for a greater connection between the person, the social, the community and the nation. He is correct in his analysis because many citizens throughout this island, north and south, are suffering from the fall-out from the financial crisis caused by those who put profit and greed before the common good.

If the people of Northern Ireland are to be a part of a society that is valued on principles other than private wealth then we must embrace the idea of co-operation, the cornerstone of the social economy challenges that rejects the notion that only the strong survive.

There are quite a few examples of very different social and economic systems where the emphasis is put on each of us giving of our best as a member of a team or a group, united by ‘the common good’.

It was the English Quaker John Bellers who first devised the idea of Colleges of Industry in the late seventeenth century to address the problem of unemployment.

A hundred years later, the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen set up ‘villages of co-operation’ in New Lanark in Scotland. This initiative influenced the Rochdale Pioneers, who embraced the co-operative ideal, took these ideas forward and made them real.

Ireland has made its own contribution, producing the 19th-century moral economist and social scientist William Thompson (a Corkman, described by James Connolly as the first Irish Socialist) and a century later Horace Plunkett, the founder of the Irish Farming Co-operative Society, which still operates successfully today.

We owe a huge debt to these pioneers who rejected the belief that only the strong should survive. The Social Economy movement throughout Ireland has made immense strides forward since Bellers. Its strength lies in the essentially democratic nature of its organisation and in the fact that it does not involve the exploitation of those who work for it or those who use its products and services.

I would suggest that those individuals working within the Social Economy today are following in the footsteps of Bellers, Owen, Thompson and Plunkett.

Why is it that we still allow governments, the banks and large private-sector organisations – which were responsible for the recent global financial disaster – to dismiss the Social Economy movement (that’s you and me, by the way) as a bit-part player when it comes to the economy?

Ask yourselves this: what would happen if the Social Economy went on strike and all the services it provided – formally and informally – were withdrawn? It would be disastrous. The fabric of society would start to unravel. The unifying thread of social responsibility helps hold humanity and communal order together.

It is through co-operation – and the principles and values which underpin the Social Economy – that we can best see the enduring human values of mutual respect in action. As time goes by, I believe we will see more and more people recognising its merit and working for an extension of its influence.

But there remains a major bias against those involved in advancing the Social Economy model. There is still a resistance to an approach which empowers local communities and workers. It is viewed with suspicion, if not hostility. There is a mind-set out there among many of our politicians, the academic world, the mainstream job-creation agencies and so-called ‘consultants’, that the private sector model is still best.

That is a battle which we have to fight day and daily.

The North West has long suffered from high unemployment and major deficiencies in economic infrastructure that are much more severe than in other parts of Northern Ireland containing large urban areas. These deficiencies relate, in particular, to transport, higher education, health and tourism support.

Those infrastructure deficiencies have a relationship to economic weakness in the North West which has severe problems with unemployment and economic inactivity. Northern Ireland’s highest rates of unemployment and economic inactivity are located in the North West.

Over the past fifty years, the Social Economy has played a significant role in developing community well-being and inter-community activity by addressing the issues of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.

The North West has numerous self-help projects, credit unions and community enterprises, many of which have proven track records in creating community economic success.

Derry has many successful social enterprises that are viewed as models of best practice for the Social Economy and are helping to lead the regeneration process, especially in deprived urban and rural areas.

Experience has taught us that any successful and sustainable economy in any village, town or city values people – the community – first and foremost. Who better to protect and defend the needs of the community, who better to promote community development, than the community itself?

The global economic crisis caused by corporate greed means that change and reform is now necessary. Experience tells us that the best change and reform comes from within communities, not from above.

We should always applaud the ‘can do’ attitude of people who champion the ethos of self-help and cooperation. We need to extend the ‘positive ethos’ of co-operation into our political structures, into our thinking; we should promote it in our schools and colleges.

It is important that we continue to foster and grow social enterprises. Most will emerge as a result of the energy, drive and commitment of the community, of workers and of voluntary groups. We should also be alive to building and nurturing the next generation of employee/community /user enterprises. There are success stories out there, there is potential all around us, which we should harness for the common good.

The big question remains: Will the next Programme for Government further impede the Social Economy sector or will it recognise, support, and allow it – or even better, assist it – to realise its full potential? Or will it continue to champion the private wealth model – the same tarnished model that caused economic destruction generated by corporate greed?

It is time for our Assembly and government structures to adopt the new EU Social Business Initiative that states: ‘Social enterprises seek to serve the community’s interest (social, societal, environmental objectives) rather than profit maximisation. They thus contribute to social cohesion, employment and the reduction of inequalities.’

Over one million people recently supported Michael D Higgins’ vision on the need to generate a society that is value based, not just built on the ethos of private wealth. The EU last month, through its new policy for the development of the Social Economy, is saying much the same.

The Irish Government’s latest Programme for Government outlines its commitments to promoting the development of the social economy and has instructed all State agencies to view social enterprises as important stakeholders in rejuvenating local economies.

The community, and those struggling to maintain its very existence, now wish to know if the next Programme for Government by our Assembly will support the formulation of an enabling policy framework and establish a Social Enterprise Unit to grow and sustain the specific interests and needs of the social enterprise sector.

Now is the time to provide social enterprises with the same rights and access to resources that are available to the private sector.

Conal McFeely

Creggan Enterprises