First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 20

What can the social and solidarity economy do for recovery?

31 May 2022

These are uncertain times. Inflation has returned. A post-Covid recovery is under threat. These problems will need innovative solutions.

One option attracting attention is the social and solidarity economy, which will be the subject of a discussion at this year’s International Labour Conference.

The Social and Solidarity economy is sometimes described as a third sector; neither private or public sector enterprises, but an approach in which economic activities and projects are founded on the principle of solidarity.

One of the better-known forms of solidarity economy activity is the cooperative. These are enterprises that are owned, governed, and run by their members. What are the challenges that cooperatives face to operate well? How can cooperatives contribute to building resilient economies?



-Hello, and welcome to this edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Sophy Fisher.

These are uncertain times.

Inflation has returned, the shoots

of post-COVID recovery are under threat, and we're told

that the global economy faces its biggest tests

since the Second World War.

To face these problems, we're going to need innovative solutions.

One option attracting attention is the so-called social

and solidarity economy.

In fact, it will be a subject of a discussion

at this year's International Labour Conference in Geneva.

The social and solidarity economy is sometimes described as a third sector,

neither private or public sector enterprises,

but an approach in which economic activities and projects

are founded on the principle of solidarity.

One of the better-known forms of the solidarity economy activity is

the cooperative.

These are enterprises that are owned, governed, and run by their members.

Joining me today is Nadine Moawad.

Nadine is co-founder of the Dikkeneh Consumer Cooperative

in Beirut, Lebanon.

Nadine, welcome to the Future of Work podcast.

-Thank you. Thanks for having me.

-Thanks a lot for joining us.

Tell me, first of all, how did you get interested in co-ops?

It's an old model, but it seems to be having a new revival.

-I actually got interested in cooperatives as an alternative to NGO organizing,

because I started off in a feminist movement,

organizing either informal collectives or formal non-governmental organizations.

We noticed that NGOs fit into the global capitalist order

and that you have to rely on external funding.

There's all sorts of labour relations between the owners of the NGO

and the staffing and the employees and the volunteering.

It didn't really live up to our goal of reimagining economic alternatives.

We started exploring the cooperative model as a basis for organizing around 2013

and we had an active feminist cooperative that pooled resources to have

a shared space, shared resources, and that was

when we started really this exercise of understanding how people

can organize together on an economic basis for their economic interests to achieve

a goal that they can not do individually and independently as well.

That you can make decisions that are not tied to funders or banks

or landlords, or any of these factors.

That's where we really started to explore the importance of cooperatives

in the vast array of understand-

I don't think there's a single perfect model of cooperation

under this economic order we live in, especially in small tiny countries

like Lebanon, but any attempt to challenge forms of organizing

that are oppressive in and of themselves is needed now more than ever, I think.

-Tell me, how exactly does Dikkeneh work then?

-We've had an economic crisis since 2019, not very unsimilar to most crises

that have happened in Greece or Argentina.

Our banking sector has collapsed.

Food security is a major problem now with the hyperinflation and also

with the build of our economy is one where everything is imported more or less,

including our food.

We needed to think of, "How can we help each other buy food sustainably,

not only relying on aids packages?"

Because that's what happened during COVID and with the hyperinflation

and the crisis.

All of the activist community went towards these food packages.

We would pack food into boxes, and we'd go deliver them to people

without a job, or unemployed, or struggling.

I was part of these efforts and something about this aid model didn't quite resonate

with me.

I didn't find that it built actual class solidarity

like we wanted to.

It didn't solve the problem more sustainably.

It was a band-aid solution.

Me and a bunch of people who were working in aid at the time decided to try and open

a regular grocery store that would provide food at cost price

for people. We would go buy in bulk,

and folks would pay a membership fee

and join the cooperative and be able to buy all of their needs at bulk prices,

so much cheaper than the market.

-You basically handle food, is that right?

And other domestic items like cleaning products and so forth?

-Yes, exactly.

It's a food cooperative. Exactly.

-You buy the supplies for the cooperative on the commercial market,

or do you buy those directly from individual suppliers,

farmers and so forth?

-That's a really good question because our hope

is that we can buy directly from farmers and directly from other cooperatives.

The challenges now infrastructurally in Lebanon are tremendous.

It's either an electricity crisis, or fuel crisis.

We used to have suppliers that are far away from Beirut we used to go to,

but then with the fuel crisis, those prices became a lot more expensive.

There's a lot of new products in the market that are much cheaper

but the quality is not up to standards of the members.

To deliver from regions like the mountains or villages also is costly.

We've been working out custom solutions here

and there to be able to achieve this goal.

Our main challenge is that there is a lack of infrastructure in the country

that supports cooperatives that provides connections, logistics,

operations that can compete really with the corruption that happens

in the food sector among supermarkets and traders.

It's very hard to be a single cooperative in any space, the whole point of that.

-I was going to say, it sounds like you can't

for example benefit from the economies of scale

that supermarkets usually say they can benefit from.

How do you manage to keep your prices low?


We've tried our best to keep the prices through getting bulk deals,

through working with particular suppliers, through hunting for suppliers always.

Now the folks working at the Dikkeneh have made tremendous effort to hook up

with farmers and other co-ops.

There's been a lot of initiatives since the start of the crisis,

as you can imagine in this solidarity economy space

and we're getting much better at it.

We're getting much better than when we first started

because it's been a learning experience.

Hasn't been easy because a lot of the shortcomings we couldn't foresee

but now that we've gone through a lot of these iterations, we've stabilized.

It's been about a year and a half now.

The model is is doing well but it still needs several years.

We've had some visits from folks in Geneva and Paris and London,

people who run consumer co-ops have passed by, visited Beirut.

They come over and they always tell us it's going to take you three to four years

until you can sustain.

Our goal is to eventually have the membership fees cover the bulk

of the operations while paying fair salaries

to people working there, and that's a huge challenge.

-I was going to ask you, what do you pay the people who work

in the cooperative?

Do you pay them the standard wage for the job or are you working

on volunteers?

-No, we pay everyone who works there and we've tried to pay-

because our currency crisis is that our local currency, the lira,

devaluates every other month.

Now we're in a free fall.

The Lebanese lira has lost a lot of its value, at least 20 times its value.

We try to keep our payments in dollars to the workers,

so that they're not affected by what happens in the currency

but the bulk of our membership pays in Lebanese lira.

We've asked folks to support us, folks who can earn better wages to pay

in dollars, their membership fees so that it balances out,

so the hope that we've got enough people paying

in dollars and enough people paying in Lebanese pounds

so that it can balance it out.

-What about to your farmers and direct suppliers,

are you paying them in dollars or are you paying them in lira?

Can you match the prices that they get from the biggest supermarket chains?

-Matching the supermarket chains is challenging

because what the big chains do is that they increase their profit margins

on fancy products and decrease their profit margins

on the basic necessities.

That's why they can offer bulk prices or discounts or special offers

that our size doesn't quite allow us to do.

The future of where we see this project going is

that either we have to open several points of sales, several similar Dikkenehs,

or we have to try and find suppliers that are local, that have good prices

that would also be part of a networking initiative

that can be part of a cycle of economy where the benefits are for both of us.

All the local pricing happens in Lebanese liras.

This has also been a major challenge that the prices change every day almost.

When we first started, I remember we put

in so many hours putting price labels on the food items,

and then it would change every day, eventually we stopped putting price labels

on the items. This is the case for any grocery business in the country,

because of the fluctuation of the Lebanese lira.

It's an economic exercise, but it's also

a community-building exercise.

The goal is for enough people to have an interest and a stake

in this food cooperative, that they can make also decisions

on how it's run and where it sources from, and that there's

a collective intelligence that's trying to solve these problems.

-You see yourself as offering more than simply low prices to people

who have very few financial resources.

It's more than that, is it?

-It has to be, for sure.

I mean, that alone doesn't constitute a cooperative.

There's a necessary element of governance decision-making

collaboration that was a bit harder for us

to get going because we had to understand

the business model first and that took a lot of time

and because of COVID restrictions, it wasn't easy to call for meetings

or to visit people or to have collective discussions.

That's also something that we're getting better

at gradually now, and we've survived thanks to the help

of organizations that work in agriculture or aid or development.

We've sourced little amounts of funding because we didn't want to get

into the funding cycle, because I think once you get

into it's very hard for you to get out.

We've sourced a lot of donations, a lot of technical support.

There's an organization in Lebanon called Mada Association

that gave us accounting support, accounting software.

When we started, it was a paper pen kind of thing.

Helped us buy a barcode reader, helped us buy that instrument

that measures the weight of groceries.

We've been trying to get technical support here and there,

but there's still quite a long way for us to go.

-Before you are an economically sustainable entity.

-Yes, and before we have proper decision-making systems

in place that really engage the members beyond what you mentioned,

which is the financial benefit.

-Do you think-

I can see that a cooperative model is an attractive proposition,

particularly in economies that are fragile or beset by crises for whatever reason,

but in those circumstances, particularly when you have

the currency fluctuations that you have described

whereby you are paying out in a harder currency and getting money

in a softer one,

I wonder to what extent the model does actually function?

-Well, two points about that.

One is I don't see what other choice we have, but to try,

and I don't see a better vehicle to try than through cooperatives

because what you have now in this situation you've described is

a booming of NGOs of aid sort of humanitarian organization,

distribution of food, donation-based, and that doesn't build solidarity.

It doesn't build a future where we come out of this crisis stronger

or with stronger institutions that kind of can sustain no matter what happens,

because I don't know at the end where--

Today is a very difficult moment in the country.

There's lots of strikes happening.

I think there's going to be a return to protests.

In these difficult circumstances we have to organize collectively,

we have no other choice.

We have to depend on each other.

We have to make decisions together.

It is of no value for people to make individual decisions.

How do I manage in this crisis?

It has to be, how do we manage in this crisis?

Of course, it's a huge financial challenge and you ask questions

about what do you compromise?

How do you make it happen?

We can see the steps that we need to take.

We can see how to get there, but also it's been emotionally

a very difficult period for most of us, exhaustion, frustration, depression.

Hasn't been easy, there's been massive immigration

of folks leaving.

It's a challenge to get through your daily life and also to try

and build collectively, but there's no other option

than to do this.

-I mean, it is true, what you say about economies that get

a great injection of aid money, that it is often said that we can-

so the social structure and the economic structure

and drives indeed small providers out of business.

I guess that's one of the things that you are trying to work against.


There's been, we also had the explosion a year and a half ago now.

After that- this was the port explosion in Beirut.

There was a lot of aid that keeps coming in

and that's how the people survive.

No, it's their remittances.

It's the assistances, IMF is coming in now.

There's going to be, undoubtedly, a period of austerity.

Within these structures, if you keep your relationship with folks

around you as a donor and recipient relationship,

you are not challenging the economic order at large,

you're not building real solidarity because what does solidarity mean?

How do we understand it?

It means that folks come together to take a shared risk, to say, "Okay,

I'm going to put whatever abilities I have on the table

and you put whatever abilities you have.

It doesn't have to match mine and it doesn't have to influence

our individual power within this collective.

We're going to pool our resources and our intelligence and our abilities

and our money together and we're going to try and do something

where everybody benefits."

Because the model where I benefit from social capital because I go

and help people, and I post a photo on social media,

that's also exploitation.

That's still anti the spirit of cooperatives.

-Do you think it's better at delivering direct grassroots support then,

than larger, and different kinds of operation?

-For sure, because it builds relationships.


Your cooperative at the moment basically handles food

and domestic products, but there's a lot of talk at the moment

about changing the economic model.

This has actually been going on since the global financial crash

more than a decade ago.

You've talked a lot about the problems that you have with the cooperative,

but there's obviously a lot of potential there as well.

Do you see it-

potentially this model being able to be used in other aspects of the economy

as well as simply domestic products?

-For sure, and there's been a lot of initiatives here.

I'll give a few examples.

The Beirut Hostel, for example, that was a business that stopped running

after COVID and a small bunch of people who've worked

in the service industry took it over, and now they're running it

as a cooperative, also facing a bunch of challenges,

but that's a good example of a business that tried to close that's now a co-op.

I'm part of a facilitation cooperative.

We've been trying to support also workers cooperatives

in the unemployment numbers because they're very high.

Also, I think we've been turning a lot of attention to the gig economy,

because we've noticed also that these corporations come in

and overtake any national laws, ministry of labour laws, unions.

There was a big protest yesterday against a car driving application,

a taxi application by taxi drivers here

saying that it's not fair.

It puts them at a disadvantage.

We've also started to think about platform economies

and what's going to happen with gig work and then automation,

what's going to happen to the classical idea of labour rights.

I don't think we can think of this new surveillance capitalism phase

that we're in, in the same terms that we used to think

about more classical capitalism, the way we understand it.

My parents' generation, they worked in the same job for 40,

50 years.

They retired, they got pensions.

Now in Lebanon, their pensions are worth pennies.

My generation, we hop from job to job all the time so you spend not three

to five years in a job, and then you move on to something else.

For the next generation it's going to be gig work.

It's going to be-

I'm not speculating.

This is what everything points to.


-It's going to be gig work, it's going to be precarious,

it's going to be exploitative of the new forms facilitated

by technological changes.

Our cooperative movement has to live up to this challenge.

We have to think about it now.

-New ways of working being supported by other kinds of new economic model.

Although, in fact, the corporative system is

a very old economic model but, perhaps I should say,

a reborn economic model.

-Yes, for sure.

We adapted to how the means of production and the forms

of organizing labour relations, these are changing and so we have

to change.

The spirit of cooperatives, the principles, these don't change.

We understand them to be democratic governance

and sharing of profit.

These are the two main principles.

I personally think the other five need a bit of updating

because they're 200 years old now, but the spirit of it is that people

can work free from exploitation.

If the exploitation today is mediated by these Silicon Valley corporations

that are built on an invasion of privacy and invasion of rights,

how do we think of cooperatives in this era?

I encourage folks to visit platform.coop, which is a consortium

of people today thinking about these questions.

-Well, that's a great note to leave it on.

Nadine Moawad, thank you so much for joining us today and telling us

about the cooperative in Lebanon, new forms of economic activity

to match new forms of work today.

If you want to find out more about Nadine's work,

please visit the podcast web page on the ILO website.

You'll find some links and other information there.

For now, let me wish you all goodbye.

Please join us again soon for another edition

of The ILO's Future of Work podcast.


Nadine Moawad stands in front of shop window of Dikkeneh Consumer Cooperative grocery store.

Nadine Moawad stands outside one of the Dikkeneh Co-op grocery stores in Beirut, Lebanon, which she helped to found.

© Rita Kabalan/The Public Source
Dikkeneh Consumer Cooperative shopkeepers attach a sign in Arabic, which reads "natural and local", to a shelf lined with pickled food in glass jars.

Dikkeneh Consumer Cooperative shopkeepers attach a sign in Arabic, which reads "natural and local", to a shelf lined with pickled food in glass jars.

© Rita Kabalan/The Public Source