Erasmus Mundus Social and Solidarity Economy Conference: Personal experience and insights

By | December 23, 2015

Following the recent conference about social enterprise and cross-sector collaboration at York St John University, UK, here are some reflections from participant Sorina Antonescu. This will be the first of several posts which report on and draw out themes of the conference. The conference video can be seen here.

Information about the presentations, round tables, the social economy fair and the learning workshops is on the conference website.


Round table at the conference

Round table at the conference

There are many pressing issues in the world. The list is not exhaustive but to name a prominent few, there is widespread endemic poverty and destitution, in part exacerbated by the widening gap between the few rich and the many poor in industrialised and developing countries alike; we hear of local wars and sectarian conflicts in Europe, the Middle East and Africa which perpetuate social and gender injustice, generating mass-scale human suffering locally and across entire regions of the globe; we become more aware of the creeping environmental devastation prompted by hundreds of years of unhindered industrial development, made possible by the major extractive industries and the spike in the burning of fossil fuels globally; we experience heavy urban pollution in high population density areas which, in conjunction with all the above, contribute to the increased unpredictability of our changing climate, the formation of water stressed areas and regional crop failure; we witness tense diplomatic relations and a hardening of people’s views and attitudes to migration, echoed in the governments’ response at the mass exodus of refugees fleeing unrest in their war-torn countries.

All this, operating in a global economic system that has led to unprecedented flow of capital and resources to a select few while exposing entire economies to a fragile global market, adapted to suit a neo-liberal ideological framework that has enriched a concentrated elite at the expense of the environment, of the people and of the planet’s biological systems as a whole.

There is a consensus amongst leading economists, academics, world leaders and numerous ordinary citizens that we tolerate a global economic system that is unsustainable and we acknowledge the need to reform it in line with environmental and human needs.  From this realisation, arises a mutual understanding that any alternative economic models capable to cater for human and environmental well-being must necessarily tap into human ingenuity for finding innovative solutions to bring people together in a common enterprise for a sustainable future.

One of the many possible solutions for a more equitable future is the creation of social entrepreneurship cultures. According to Davies (2002, p.4), there is no one single definition of social entrepreneurship and any attempt to do so would be an injustice to what is a historically complex and multi-faceted concept. In support of her view, she quotes Stanford Professor Gregory Dees (1998) who states that ‘In common parlance, being an entrepreneur is associated with starting a business, but this is a very loose application of a term that has a rich history and a much more significant meaning’ (as cited in Davies, 2002, p.4). Yet attempts have been made to capture some of the finer characteristics of social entrepreneurship in academic and popular circles. ‘People now combine notions of innovation, catalysing change, seizing opportunity and demonstration resourcefulness into the definition. Often people ascribe a particular ‘mind-set’ to entrepreneurs that exhibit common traits such as single-mindedness, drive, ambition, creative, problem solving, practical, and goal-oriented’ (ibid).

Davies continues to add that the concept was further refined in the 20th century when entrepreneurs began to be described as innovators and as drivers of change in the economy by tapping into new markets and finding new ways of putting ideas into practice. Nowadays, the function of entrepreneurs has expanded to encompass those who ‘reform or revolutionise the pattern of production (…) by exploiting an invention, or, more generally, an untried technological possibility for producing a new commodity or producing an old one in a new way, by opening up a new source of supply of materials or a new outlet for products, by reorganising an industry and so on.’ (ibid). However, the expansion of social entrepreneurship cultures into fully fledged economic global systems is no small feat. It presupposes perseverance, innovative thinking, and the ability to overcome ideological and practical hurdles.

This is where the three year-long Erasmus Mundus Project led by York St John University, steps in to address the need to promote social entrepreneurship cultures for sustainable development. The culmination of this ambitious project was a three day International Conference on Social and Solidarity Economy which took place at the beginning of September 2015. The Erasmus Mundus Social and Solidarity Economy Conference, which brought together delegates from Latin America, Canada, Europe and Africa, provided a much needed platform for entrepreneurs, academics, students and others, to partake in developing solutions, sharing ideas and exchanging insights into the challenges as well as opportunities available to promote the practice of cross-sector collaboration.

Having attended this momentous event, I would like to relate some personal insights into the knowledge derived and to attempt to re-create the atmosphere generated by some outstanding people, a great deal of intellectual exchanges, challenging questions, delicious food and friendly banter. As a member of the audience, I want to share my experience and how it opened my horizons to a world that in the wise words of Indian novelist Arundhati Roy ‘is not only possible, she is on her way’ (World Social Forum, 2003)

I will then begin by introducing what was in essence the theme of the conference, namely,

How can higher education foster interactions between the current economic systems (public, private and social) to promote social enterprise cultures for human-centred, sustainable development in our communities?

According to Forrer, Key and Boyer (2014), the notion of cross-sector collaboration, refers to a multi-party combined effort, which includes professionals from various fields ( which can be academic in nature, economic, social and/or environmental), who use their personal experience, insights and expertise to find solutions to current socio-politico-economic issues (as cited in the conference manual, 2015, p.4) . At the heart of cross-sector collaborative efforts lies an implicit demand for ‘mutual respect, solidarity, common good, and respect for the environment’ (ibid).

In this context, universities were identified as central to ‘enhancing the studies and practice of social and solidarity economy in higher education’’ (ibid, p.7) by tapping into the notion of cross-sector collaboration for social aims. In other words, universities play a fundamental role in nurturing core human values and making the best of their available resources to set up, develop and let out into the world graduates with an alternative vision of how we think of entrepreneurship. This includes long term and lucrative social projects which place human well-being above a purely market-driven economy. To various lengths, HEIs are a self-contained microcosm able to look in retrospect, experiment and challenge pre-defined societal values, values which, at least in the context of the industrialised world, have, for over 30 years now, been primarily defined by a neo-classical laissez-faire economic mind-set. Perhaps the greatest paradox lies in the fact that while we live in a highly globalised world, where the exchange of goods, consumables and resources is without precedent, we lack the kind of interconnectedness required to raise the millions of people currently living in abject poverty in what has become known as Les Tiers Monde (Chari & Corbridge, 2008, p.6).

Some of the main objectives of the conference involved ascertaining new ways to enhance effective collaborative practices among different professionals. Whether they appertain to the world of academia, the business sector, or  whether these are self-driven individuals, the aim was to figure out ways to enable different actors to work together on the development of a social and solidarity economy that can be applicable at a local, national and international scale. In order to do so, the conference encouraged the exchange of research, studies and real-life examples of cross-sector collaboration practices that are currently being promoted by universities and organisations across Latin America, Europe, Canada and Africa.


Chari, S. & Corbridge, S. (2008). The Development Reader. London: Routledge.

Davies, S. (2002). Social Entrepreneurship: Towards an Entrepreneurial Culture for Social and Economic Development. International Board Selection Committee, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. Prepared by request for the Youth Employment Summit, September 7-11, 2002.

Erasmus Mundus. (2015). Universities Developing Social Entrepreneurship through Cross-Sector Collaboration Conference, York St John University, York.

Roy, A. (2003). Life after Capitalism, World Social Forum. Porto Allegre, Brazil.