Women worldwide celebrated International Women’s Day on Thursday, and in some places we celebrated all week, recalling the many advances made over the last few decades in achieving some parity between men and women in nearly all areas of endeavour. But, progress and regression are bedmates and the special day reminds us, annually, that it is work in progress and that we are part, as individuals, of the evolution to a fairer society.
I was still a teenager when feminist thinkers of the last century first argued that political and societal structures were responsible for holding women back, rather than women’s own personal actions. I remember feeling great relief that I was not culpable for so much that I could not explain. Accepting that women were intrinsically bad, inferior and mere sexual objects in need of protection was difficult, and feminist arguments helped me get a perspective on the rationale of our situation as female beings.
That awareness of an overarching power made possible by the way in which society was ordered and the culture emanating from it influenced many women of my generation, informing our view of the world and the ways in which we have operated in it. One came to realise that the guiding hand was not divine and that change was possible. Many of us were inspired by the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara’s warning that the revolution was not an apple that fell when it is ripe, but had to be made to fall. That is not to say we were ardent revolutionaries who took up arms but, rather, we understood that we had to be in control of our own destinies and also had responsibility for shaping the world in which we live. We learned too that it was impossible to effect change on one’s own and that collaboration and partnership were vital: Collective action for a collective solution.
With that in mind, it was coincidental that, last week, I attended a stimulating workshop called Re-Imagining Trinidad and Tobago: There is an Alternative. Its aim was to work towards achieving a new compact between civil society and the for-profit private sector by bringing together a wide range of people who work in both sectors and believe in sustainable development, have a hope for the future and want to help find alternative ways of fixing the troublesome breakdown in our contemporary economy and society. It is clear to everyone that the political and economic systems that worked for decades and brought wealth and development to many people across the world are in crisis.
The Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) is a helpful model that has been put to very effective use elsewhere, and the workshop provided an opportunity to begin exploring SSE in our context. Political scientists and economists have long advised of the benefits of co-operation and solidarity to address market failures and press for change. Sociologists have stressed the benefits of social cohesion, identity and job satisfaction derived from acting as a group. In TT, civil society has always played a role alongside Government in developing the country and its people and the organisers of the workshop believe that TT’s non-governmental sector needs now to be transformed into a more robust, lively and sustainable social entrepreneurial sector.
SSE comprises social enterprises, foundations, co-ops, mutual funds, associations, credit unions, banks and citizens and is attractive because it includes both economic and social [including environmental] objectives. Most NGOs in TT do not focus on macro economics although they create jobs, are socially responsible and generate economic activity, but they are not usually commercially minded. They could, however, play a key role in diversifying the economy by realising their huge potential to contribute handsomely to the national economy, by working with for-profit enterprise using financing methods that effectively connect the community with capital.
The SSE is buoyant. In Canada, two million people work in NGOs that contribute 8.1 per cent of GDP, greater than the retail sector. A 2011 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – one of the workshop convenors along with the Green Market Santa Cruz and UNDP – showed that in Britain 62,000 social enterprises contributed $37.1 billion to the economy and employed 800,000. In Europe, two million SSE organisations accounted for ten per cent of all companies and in India the largest food co-operative had annual revenue of $2.5 billion.
There are exciting opportunities but they require structural change, which needs individual social action, informed public participation and sustained support to advocate for some calculated risk-taking in our ultra conservative banking and investment sector and for Government to create the right investment – including taxation – environment.