In October 2013, the Transition national hubs of Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Latvia and the Netherlands joined forces with the UK’s REconomy Project to explore what REconomy might look like in each country. We formed a working group that met only online, and we all enjoyed the wonderful experience of learning about different countries and situations.
There’s something amazing about sitting in my study in Totnes, Devon and speaking with, and seeing, friends in 5 other countries around Europe at the same time. ‘What’s the weather like over there?’ was one of my favourite questions – well, I am British!
The plan was to each produce a high level proposal exploring how a REconomy type project might be initiated in each country. They also staged a regional or national REconomy event to gain input from a range of Transitioners, and similar organisations. Each hub also found at least 5 examples of Transition-oriented enterprises relevant for their country, and created a small report which are summarised here. Some funding was provided for each hub via the TN.
We hoped this approach would: (a) help each of the hubs begin to create a viable strategic approach for REconomy, which can then be used in funding bids; (b) build a peer support group to help us shape and deliver our plans; and (c) give insight into common themes, as well as differences, at the national level such that the Transition Network can better support the work of the hubs.
We are delighted with the results and thoroughly enjoyed the process! We’ll be sharing all our learning and outputs in a series of blog posts here over the next few months. If you can’t wait, then here’s the full report with links to all outputs.
To begin, here’s some national context from some of the hubs that highlights the differences and commonalities within this group of European countries. This is followed with some common issues that arose, and what we learned about working together as a group that only meets online…
Some context about the national economic situations
Italy is a diverse country with extreme differences between North and South and many local idiosyncrasies – overall the economic situation is continuously, progressively worsening, there’s over 40% youth unemployment. Middle-class income levels are decreasing, with a cascade effect on consumption which is eroding, above all, the small and local business. All levels of government are suffering shrinking revenues. The EU’s Stability and Growth Pact has an amplifying effect, even ‘healthy’ administrations are barred from accessing resources. Italy’s highly complex and inefficient regulatory system, appears apparently designed to make substantial reforms difficult, if not downright impossible, at least in the short-term. The presence of a strong organized crime network, with considerable financial powers, is all-too-often capable of interfering with the distribution of public and private resources.
Belgium, with its 11M inhabitants (25% not native), is considered to be one of the more dynamic and wealthier countries of the European Union. 60% speak Dutch, the rest French. But economic growth and foreign direct investment dropped in 2008, the forecasted growth rate is close to stagnation (or below); public debt-to-GDP ratio increased from 84.2% in 2008 to 99.8% in 2013, and unemployment increased from 7% to 8.5% during 2013. The rest of the country is facing important challenges both demographic and economic. There is a divide with the Flemish North having higher employment than the Walloon South. The Walloon government is taking important (growth-oriented) steps to attract new industries such as IT and biotechnology to stimulate growth and generate new jobs. But it’s the greater Brussels area and a few other prosperous centres that are able to attract the investments and the labour force. Less than 2% are employed in agriculture.
The REconomy project is initiated by the Réseau Transition Wallonie & Bruxelles, the francophone Belgian part of a global grassroots movement of communities seeking to strengthen their resilience to problems including climate change, rising energy prices, economic uncertainty and inequality.
Aims: The Projet REconomie aims to inspire, encourage and support communities building new livelihoods and economic activity that is locally rooted and inspired by the Transition model. The REconomy-project is seeking to raise interest among political decision makers and potential partners for community-driven approaches creating economic activity and potential jobs.
The Latvian economy had a property bubble crisis in 2009, which along with the global financial crisis in 2010, resulted in an unprecedented 25% fall in GDP. An emergence from crisis came in 2011-2013, thanks to a 4.5 billion Euro international loan, changes in public administration and drastic budget reductions. The state claims this to be a success story which resulted in the introduction of the Euro in January 2014 – however most inhabitants do not feel economic improvements in their lives. Most of the 2M inhabitants get a very low salary (under 700 E pm), there’s a big gap between rich and poor and no middle class – yet goods and services cost the European average. 15% of the population have left for the UK & Ireland for better money. More than 70% of Latvia’s population lives in urban conditions. At the same time a fairly large part of society would like to return to rural areas, if it were only economically possible.
The aim of Transition Latvia‘s REconomy project is with a practical approach and tested examples, to outline for Latvian society a positive vision regarding the direction and development of an alternative economic model and the possible preservation and strengthening of local communities.
Croatia is still heavily affected by the 2008 economic crisis, and there is no sign of recovery. 15% of citizens are in severe poverty, another 20% at risk of becoming so. The crisis especially hits young people, causing unprecedented levels of unemployment and anxiety. Croatia is in a state of dependency on external inputs of energy, food, daily necessities etc. Yet it has many natural resources, unused quality agricultural land and traditional skills. Inequality and division in society is on the rise, breeding feelings of isolation and distrust especially of political and business elites. There’s also unequal regional development. Low levels of trust in other people, as well as in institutions, are closely related to low levels of democratic participation; that is why in Croatia only 5% of citizens are active in humanitarian or volunteer organisations and only 8% are active in any kind of political activity. There is an upsurge of community based economies across the whole country. Permaculture is increasingly recognised as a practical well-designed solution for the crisis.
Given this context the hub proposes a Transition approach to doing things because it encourages and teaches communities how to use local resources sustainably and efficiently, how to achieve better levels of resilience even in economically deprived areas, and how to bring democracy back to where it belongs – to the hands, minds and hearts of ordinary citizens.
The aim of Transition Croatia‘s Dobra ekonomija project is to strengthen the already-present community based economies and introduce new ones, as practical and inclusive economic models for a more resilient and sustainable Croatia.
The Netherlands proposal does not yet include specific context, this will be created as the need arises for specific purposes – here’s their aim…
Aim: The REconomie Project Nederland – investeren voor lokale veerkrecht (website under development) – wants to support the Dutch Transition Initiatives and similar bottom-up groups to make the economy of their communities more local, a true part of the community and ecologically sustainable.
Some common issues & questions that arose
What is it that differentiates REconomy?
It was noted that in many of the countries social enterprises, solidarity-based initiatives and/or concepts of a social economy already exist. When the hubs first went looking for the case studies, they found the ‘usual suspects’ – these are enterprises that are promoted as green/sustainable but that usually aren’t that great in terms of meeting Transition enterprise characteristics (as defined here by the UK at least).
It is becoming clear that the ‘old green’ thinking about businesses needs to be updated using more original ideas and wider systemic thinking as embedded in REconomy and Transition. We feel it may be useful to define a shared definition/statement of what makes REconomy different from what already exists in that country – though there will be national variation, in general this will likely refer to characteristics of localisation; strengthening resilience of the local community; social, environmental and financial gains; shared/community ownership; and profit-power allocation.
Nenad (Croatia) also suggests we could learn here from the Economy for the Common Good – their Common Good Balance Sheet shows the extent to which a company abides by values like human dignity, solidarity and economic sustainability.
Visibility of Transition and capacity to influence.
Transition is not so visible in these countries as compared to the UK. It’s harder to get attention at higher levels. Paul (Netherlands) is getting some funding to pull together a group of the top 10 influencers in this field – research orgs, sustainable business people, ‘green’ public sector etc. – to explore a common agenda, with an aim to having a louder voice and wider influence e.g. on central government. In the UK a number of groups and alliances are appearing in the ‘new economy’ sector with similar intent – a louder, aligned voice, a shared evidence base and greater lobbying power. We are all watching both these developments with interest.
An example from Belgium – the government is enabling lots of funding for studies and practical activities in Transition topics – this is good! But there are 4-5 well connected, large consulting agencies or other orgs that are well placed to access this funding. One in particular looks quite like Transition in what it does on the surface but it’s top-down in nature. There is a concern that they pick up on the good ideas of Transition then use them themselves – then Transition does not get a chance to compete or access the funds – or to do the work in the most effective way i.e. community led, grassroots. We see this as a question, but are not sure of our response yet.
Another possible issue, which we didn’t discuss much as a group, is around the range of legal structures available for social/Transition enterprises in each country. While we understand there is usually some sort of not for profit model available, these are not always a good fit – e.g. the Italians struggle to find something that meets their needs and have to make compromises. Latvians can use an NGO structure but hardly anyone uses a Co-op model, though it exists there. It feels like this area is very important to some of the countries, and at the moment we are sitting with this question of what, if anything, we want to do or can do. This comes back to our capacity to influence the overall system including policy and legislation.
All these issues are clearly related – if we can better define what REconomy means in each country and build evidence of what it can deliver; and link with others that are working in similar or complementary areas and build shared purpose; then it’s more likely we will be seen as credible and with something significant and useful to offer. We will be more able to influence, for example, the creation of more appropriate legal models; and be more able to compete for significant resources. We continue to reflect on these issues as we talk about how we take this work forward, both individually and collectively.
What we learned about the process & working in international groups
As already said above, we all really enjoyed being part of this group and project. Here are some things we feel worked well:
- The funding was essential, without this the work would not have been done at all for most of the countries, and done later and to a smaller degree in others.
- Being involved with this project has given the work a solid identity – each hub has their own ‘brand’ or identity emerging. People can then feel part of something bigger, it unites them.
- Gathering local case studies – this was essential as they provide evidence of change and what’s possible. Several hubs are planning to expand on this work.
- Having 1 person from each hub be the main, committed contact worked really well – that person was then the link back to the national team. Most people made most meetings.
- The gotomeeting online platform was pretty good, being able to see each other live was great (see right!), and the audio was mostly very good. One of the lovely things was speaking with people from 6 different countries at the same time, seeing their faces and having a connection from our shared passion.
- The outputs are of excellent quality and the project objectives have been well met, in fact exceeded as we added in 2 more hubs than initially planned including expanded case study work.
I just want to appreciate the willingness of the group to work in English and translate all documents for us to share more widely. This has added to the work load in all cases! I am in awe, as always, of the group’s multi-language skills.
What didn’t work so well or what would we do differently?
- The amount of time involved was more than expected – this is true for everyone! It is significant. Now we know what’s involved, we can be more clear with new group members about the required commitment.
- The budget did not fully cover the event/conference time and costs, which was a lot more than expected! Would be good to make this more clear to the new group, provide guidelines for organising an event of this scale.
- The Resourcing REconomy pilot training course felt important, but there wasn’t time to really assess this and make the most of the opportunity by all.
- Would have been good to have met in person, at least once, though the online meetings were as good as they could be. So we met at the hubs meet in Copenhagen in September 2014]
- Would be useful to start with a discussion about legal structure (for the hub), and how it might be possible to shape ongoing hub roles relating to REconomy, possibly with a focused funding discussion around these topics.
- Would have liked to include something around pathways for helping existing enterprises to transform – there was interest in this arising for some hubs.
- Case study templates did not work well as they were in Word, and not everyone can use these. Would be better to give option that hubs send text to UK and the designer there can apply templates etc.
- Now we know more about this work, for the new group it would be good to talk earlier about the outcomes/results of the work, and what can be done to maintain momentum.
The group members are continuing to source funding and implement their plans – please contact each hub for more information. We have just added 5 more national hubs to this group, as a second wave of activity – we’re really delighted to welcome the Transition hubs of Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Portugal and the USA. The photo below shows the recent meeting of most of our expanded group at the Copenhagen national hubs meeting (and yes that is a car park, which is a whole other story!).
They will follow a similar approach and create similar outputs so by the end of this phase (March 2015), we will have 11 countries represented from around the globe, all of whom have started some REconomy-type activity – we’re all really excited to see where this leads…
Fiona Ward, REconomy Project, September 2014.