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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Partner State and the Solidarity Economy

An In-Depth Look at Public Policy in Ecuador

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November 5, 2014
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[Editor's Note: This paper explores the concept of a Partner State  in relation to the social knowledge economy and the concept of the Good Life (Buen Vivir) as the basis for the National Plan for Good Living in Ecuador.  This paper argues that the proposed transition to an economy based on social knowledge and the implementation of "Good Living" requires a radical restructuring of the state apparatus in a direction that serves to promote the autonomy and meaningful participation of civil society, individual economic actors and small businesses.  While the paper is quite long, it presents a rare, holistic view of what a Solidarity Economy could look like, as well as what cultural and policy changes would be necessary to bring such an economy into existence.

This paper was orginally published on the FLOK Society websiteThis version has been edited for length and additional explanatory links have been added.  GEO recently highlighted a talk by John Restakis at Open Everything: A Collaborative Economy Convergence in Tipperary, Ireland.]

Executive Summary

When the government of Ecuador introduced to the world its visionary constitution and its bold plan for reframing the direction of development according to the precepts of Buen Vivir and the Social Knowledge Economy, it held open the possibility of a wholly new conception of governance and of the role of citizens in both defining and defending the common good. The new direction seemed to capture perfectly the spirit of the times. A national government was finally responding to the questions of environmental stewardship and economic sustainability through an engaged citizenry and the belief that governance is a shared responsibility and central to a new conception of the state and its role in stewarding the common welfare of its citizens.

This paper builds on this belief and explores the concept of the Partner State in relation to a social knowledge economy and the concept of Buen Vivir as the foundations of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living.

Drawing on both the theoretical and practical foundations of the Partner State as a model of governance, the paper argues that the proposed transition to an economy based on social knowledge and the realization of Buen Vivir requires a radical restructuring of the State apparatus toward a direction of increased empowerment and meaningful engagement of both civil society and economic agents in the small firm economy as prerequisites for this transition. [1]  In this context, the Partner State is presented both as the necessary vehicle for the fulfillment of Buen Vivir and as the culmination of this process. The idea of the social market is also advanced as a means of enlarging the scope of social economy activities throughout the economy and as a central aspect of a Partner State approach to empowering civil society.

Throughout the paper we emphasize the crucial roles of co-operation, social capital, and the common good. They are the ethical foundations of a State in which the civil principle is foremost. The practice of co-operation reinforces and cultivates further co-operation and we argue that a primary aim of the Partner State is the promotion of co-operative systems that replenish social capital and the attitudes and skills that promote sharing and the pursuit of social aims. A social knowledge economy is thus very much a co-operative economy.

Just as the vision of a social knowledge economy and Buen Vivir represent a radical departure from neo-liberalism, so does the Partner State represent a departure from the State as the command and control apparatus from which economic and social development proceed. The Partner State, in which active citizenship for the common good is a defining feature, is the political expression of a society in which knowledge, economics, and social policy are all in service to civic values and the common good.

The discussion that follows presents the theoretical basis for the adoption of the Partner State as the model that best corresponds to the aims of Buen Vivir and of the Citizen’s Revolution that brought Good Living into national, and international, prominence. It explores the means by which such a governance model might be applied, the basic policies and institutional structures that a Partner State would require for its operation, and those areas of economic and social policy where the Partner State model might best be introduced. Such a policy is indispensible for the construction of a truly plurinational body politic that combines the primacy of territorial and indigenous rights with subsidiarity, deliberative democracy, and the sustainable co-management of natural resources.

The final section of the paper addresses the urgency of securing the commons as the material basis for collective forms of living. We discuss the emergence of governance models dedicated to protecting and enhancing the commons through their co-management with civil society, and examine the example of Bologna as Europe’s first Commons City as a model for Partner State governance. We then extend the potential of this model to the co-management of natural resources as a form of commons on a large scale.

The paper concludes with a brief discussion on the cultural and institutional challenges that confront the transition to the Partner State as model of governance for Ecudaor.


For over thirty years now, the welfare state as established after the Second World War has been under constant siege, following the rise of neo-liberalism in the UK under Thatcher and then in the US under Ronald Reagan. Today, the corrosion of the welfare State is far advanced, fuelled by the continuing crisis of the global capitalist economy and the hollowing out of the public economies in Europe under the austerity policies imposed by the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. All of this has been conducted under the banner of a neo-liberal doctrine that rationalizes the disappearance of the State as a legitimate player in the economy along with the privatization of public assets and the colonization of the public economy by capital.

At a time when many are searching for viable alternatives to the traditional Welfare State on the one hand, and the emerging Corporate State on the other, the idea of the Partner State is a new formulation in which the State is both the guarantor of public welfare and the promoter of civic values. Combined with the interest of the Ecuadorian government to promote a new economic and social paradigm through the use of open knowledge and commons-based economic principles, the Partner State emerges as a model that marries the values of the Citizen’s Revolution and the 2008 Montecristi Constitution with the vision of the National Plan for Good Living.

Throughout Latin America, the rejection of neo-liberal policies by the region’s electorate has been reflected in the ascension of governments that are reclaiming and resurrecting the State as an indispensible player in economic and social planning. This is certainly true in Ecuador where according to Article 70 of the Constitution,

Recovering the State and its role in planning, administrating, executing, distributing and redistributing has … been vital to guarantee and open up opportunities for participation by persons, communities, peoples and nationalities in order to formulate, implement, evaluate and oversee public policies and public services.

The question that needs to be answered however is: what kind of State best reflects these values and principles?

The concept of the Partner State is based on the premise that in an era of unrestricted and flexible capital accumulation, the attempt to mitigate the deprivations of the worst off through social safety nets and short-term policies is wholly insufficient to bring about a fair and equitable socio-economic order. [2] This has been the experience and the lesson of the Welfare State. As World Bank analyst Ana Ravegna has remarked, short-term policies are designed to buffer the worst-off from shocks that are treated as incidental and temporary, not systemic. The consequence is that such policies are incapable of dealing with systemic problems of permanent poverty, inequity, and long-term unemployment – all of which have become defining features of capitalism today.

More to the point, the prevailing paradigm of the Market State, in which the apparatus of government is geared primarily to the protection of existing capital control over economic relations, means that the inequities and injustices of capitalist systems will continue to grow. Picketty’s book, “Capital in the 21st Century” shows this clearly. The contemporary Market State is an extreme extension of utilitarian notions of economics in which social relations are subjected to the priority of capital accumulation, and individual self-interest eclipses the interests of society as a whole. Personal worth becomes a function of personal wealth. Such a State and such an economic system are not only incapable of redressing the economic and social ills described above – they are the mechanisms by which these social inequities are perpetuated.

To achieve the kind of society envisaged by the National Plan, a fundamental reframing of the role of the State is necessary. This includes the implementation of structural policies aimed at providing all members of society with a far higher degree of socio-economic sovereignty and political agency so that citizens have “the wherewithal to operate normally and properly in… society without having to beg or borrow from others, and without having to depend on their beneficence.” [3] Access to the essentials of a productive and rewarding life are not a function of market power but rather of the rights of citizenship. Such a policy is also indispensible for the development of a society that is decent, which is to say, a society whose institutions do not humiliate its members. [4]  The emergence of a decent society is thus intimately linked to the democratization and humanization of its public institutions.

In this paper, we outline the features of the Partner State, its relevance for the National Plan, and the kinds of policies that would promote its realization in Ecuador. In particular, we outline policy recommendations in five priority areas:

  1. Democratization and co-construction of public goods and services

  2. Democratization of the economy & the productive matrix

  3. Social Income and economic independence

  4. Securing the Commons

  5. Co-operativizing the Culture

We also outline specific areas of application, both in the private and the social/solidarity economy, that seem most opportune for initial implementation.

The Partner State [5]

In its evolution, the idea of the Partner State proceeds directly from the principle that civil society is the source of political legitimacy in a democracy. In this view, the State is in the service of civil society as a vehicle to advance and protect the common good.

The Partner State is an enabling State. Its primary purpose is to maximize the capacity of civil society to create social value and to act as an equal partner in the formation and delivery of public policy for the common good. The enabling role of the State is not confined to the promotion of social value. It also entails the promotion of open access to the economy. It provides space for many models of entrepreneurship, including collective and commons-based forms of enterprise such as co-operatives and peer-to-peer networks, and the promotion of participatory politics. The Partner State enlarges the scope of personal autonomy and liberty while reinforcing the social bonds that build healthy communities and a vibrant civil society. Central to this process is the democratization of the State itself.

Traditionally, the State has been viewed as the final arbiter for the regulation and operation of three broad economic sectors in society – the private sector, the public sector, and the social/solidarity economy. [6]  Each of these sectors operates on a distinct set of economic principles and values. The private sector utilizes the principle of exchange equivalence (price) to create profit – its values are wealth accumulation and market efficiency; the public sector (the State) uses the economic principle of wealth redistribution to provide for public goods – its values are equity; the social economy utilizes the principles of reciprocity and mutuality to promote social aims. – its values are social utility and human solidarity whether they operate in the area of social goods and services or in the broader market economy.

In modern times, the regulatory role of the State has habitually swung from the promotion of either the private sector through support of the capitalist economy, or the redistributive function of government through State control of economic planning. The first submits the public and social economies to the requirements of capital; the second submits the capitalist and social economies to the needs of centralized State planning. Both models have come at unsustainably high economic and social costs. And while there have been varieties of these two models, mostly in some combination of public and private dominance, there has never been an instance in which the needs of civil society and the values of the social economy have predominated in the State’s management of economic and social policy. In theory and practice, the Partner State is the first State formation to do this.

Consistent with the values and operating logic of the social economy, the use of reciprocity and mutuality as central tenets of economic and social development transforms and re-orients the State toward civil society as the primary engine for the creation of social value for the common good. With social values, equity, and sustainability at the foundation of public policy the Partner State also re-orients the role of government toward the private economy and the operations of the public sector. The private and public sectors still retain essential functions in the national economy and in society. The profit motive and private business continue to play a role. The difference is that in the Partner State the respective roles and powers of the commercial market and the public economy are counterbalanced by the primacy of the common good as the framework within which public policy is formulated and enacted.

The institutions of civil society are thus central to the realization of this vision as is the development of public policies and practices that translate this vision into meaningful political participation from the level of local neighborhoods to the directing institutions of government itself.

How then, may such a model be made real? What are the policies and practices that are essential to its operation? Where are the examples that may serve as models for application in Ecuador?

Social Economy and the State

Before discussing how a Partner State would operate, we must first consider the economic, cultural, and structural differences that differentiate the State from the social economy. As outlined above, the state and the social economy are two very different types of economy.[7]  The State is structured in terms of bounties and levies and its principle source of income is taxation that is levied on behalf of the entire citizenry. Its services are generally free and administered through a highly centralized system of hierarchical control. In a representative democracy, the operation of state services depends on a ladder of accountability that reaches from the front line worker up through the departmental hierarchy to a Minister who is then answerable to a representative Parliament, or directly to a head of State.

This is a system that is characterized by a high degree of control over functions and behaviours and which has a built-in bias against uncertainty, innovation, and individual initiative. Power is imposed and flows from top to bottom and the legitimate exercise of this power rests internally with the designated managers of the civil bureaucracy and the Ministers they report to, not to external stakeholders, except as mandated periodically, and very indirectly, through the broader electoral process. [8]

The internal economy of this system is based on the negotiation of tax or debt-financed budgets that are bargained over by a small group of Ministers and senior civil servants. The main forms of control are over expenditures rather than outcomes (or desires), and insofar as power is exercised through control over budgets it is a system that encourages expenditure up to the budget allocated.

The social economy operates very differently. As Robin Murray states, whether it involves social ventures selling into markets, or grant based organizations, or informal associations of households, the social economy is impelled by a strong element of enthusiasm and a sense of vocation. It relies on the willing contribution of time, finance and ideas in pursuit of an idea or social mission. It is the quality of this idea and the capacity to communicate, inspire interest, mobilize resources, and realize the idea in practice that determines the relative magnetism of the venture. If the idea or mission grows stale and/or the hope of its realization ebbs, then the willing contributions of citizens will decline. It is this which acts as the discipline – similar in some ways to the discipline of the market – as against the disciplines of accountability in relation to budgets and political aims that characterize the state. The social economy is mission driven rather than cost controlled on the basis of budgets, as is the case with the state.

The structures, labour contracts, aims, and culture of the two systems follow from the above. And it is these differences that make effective partnering between State and civil society structurally difficult. The diagram below highlights some of the differences that need to be addressed for a partnership to function.

cuadro 1

Given these differences, it is easy to conclude that a working partnership – a new social contract in effect – is impossible between the State economy on the one hand and the social economy on the other. But this would be to ignore the fundamental commonality of purpose that is shared between the two systems. Both are concerned, and their legitimacy is derived, from a commitment to social as opposed to private goals. In this very fundamental sense, they are extensions of the solidary principles that constitute the operations and aims of the broader civil society that sustains and validates both systems. In pursuit of these civil aims, the State offers stability and scale while the social economy generates creativity and social connection.

All living things and all social systems, as with all matter, are a delicate balance of order and chaos. Order alone leads to entropy. Creativity alone leads to chaos. A State model based on public-civil partnership offers the potential of achieving a vitality and efficacy that each sector on its own is unable to achieve. The art is to establish a division of labour that corresponds to the aims and dispositions of the two cultures.

The state has the capacity to be a synthesizer and facilitator, to set the rules and provide a basic flow of core funds that allows a distributed system of social enterprises to flourish. It has the capacity to organize large projects, and at national scales. It represents the general interest, however mediated its mechanisms. The social economy on the other hand is a source of innovation, of distributed production, and in particular of relational production – something essential to the provision of human services. It is a space of personal and productive democracy in contrast to the state’s representative and deliberative democracy. In a very real sense, the two domains manifest the requirements of collective versus personal citizenship and each is the necessary complement to the other. A new social contract must be based on this fundamental framework.

How then, might such a partnership work? How can the interface between these two admittedly contrasting economies be made more permeable and productive? The following section offers some directions.

Democratization and Co-construction of Public Goods and Services

In our document “Public Policy and the Social Economy”, we explore the kinds of legal and policy instruments that are necessary for strengthening the institutions of the social/solidarity economy so that it is able to play the role of partner as envisaged in the Partner State. Chief among these are

  1. The development of a true social market that enlarges the scope of the social/solidarity economy and of social economy organizations throughout the economy;

  2. The creation of civil and community-based institutions that mediate between government and individuals for the creation of social goods and services; and

  3. The progressive democratization of public goods and services through the transfer of institutional control from State bureaucracies to democratically-governed civic bodies.

Elsewhere, we have written at length on the economic, social, and quality of life benefits that are made possible by the democratization and decentralization of public goods and human services. [9]  With respect to social care, these include the reduction of service costs due to the elimination of bureaucracy and rent-seeking; the increase in service quality and service innovation due to the involvement of users in the design and delivery of services; the increase in self-esteem and personal empowerment for service users through the exercise of their control rights; and most importantly the creation and expansion of caring relationships among persons as the primary purpose and outcome of social care systems.

Neither the privatization of social care, which instrumentalizes people for the generation of profit, nor the de-personalization of care by the State, which submits individuals to the impersonal requirements of bureaucracy, are capable of humanizing care or of responding adequately to the real needs of individuals and their communities. The creation of civil bodies, operating at local and regional levels, and providing a mechanism whereby individuals may directly determine the nature of the care they receive, is one indispensible condition for the operation of a Partner State model with respect to the provision of social care. The other is a mechanism through which government and civil interests can collaborate on the design and delivery of human services, at local, regional, and national levels.

The National Plan is explicit in its call for the decentralization of economic and social planning to the territories. The Plan recognizes the importance of local involvement by governing bodies and citizens in the implementation of the National Plan and in the ongoing planning decisions made with respect to both economic and social development. The use of subsidiarity as a key principle of inclusive planning is thus central to the reform of public services as a defining characteristic of the Partner State.

The legislation governing the creation and operation of co-operative and other social economy organizations is one area of public policy in need of reform. To this end, specific provisions that recognize and reinforce the role of social economy organizations in the development and delivery of social care to their communities are of paramount importance.

These provisions would include:

  • The recognition of social co-ops and multi-stakeholder structures as unique models for the provision of social care;

  • The recognition and promotion of mutual interests for serving the common good by local public authorities and social care co-operatives, with particular emphasis on social inclusion and service to the most vulnerable;

  • The implementation of tax and financing supports that support the operation of social co-ops and other social organizations as key partners in the provision of human services and the advancement of public policy;

  • The creation of local and regional councils that enable the collaboration and co-construction of human services through the joint participation of civil and governmental bodies; [10]

  • The development of participatory budgeting and the allocation of resources – including free and open access to government data – for the provision of human services at local, regional, and national levels.

Among the best examples of this approach to the decentralization and democratization of human services is to be found in Italy. [11]  In the Italian model, social co-operatives work closely with local government authorities to identify service needs, to design the provision of services, and to negotiate the terms for the delivery of services, including budgets and quality control measures. The co-design and delivery of social care services is supported through a system of subsidiarity that grants local authorities the power to identify service needs and to commission the provision of these services through accredited co-operative or other non-profit service groups.

Consistent with the National Plan, the progressive democratization of human services entails a new governance matrix that maximizes citizen participation in the design and delivery of human services at those levels closest to the actual provision of care.

In addition to facilitating a partnership approach at the local level, the matrix must also allow for efficient planning and governance of human services at regional and national levels. To this end, we propose the adoption of viable systems models (VSM) that maximize local decision-making and autonomy. Viable System Models enable scaling to higher orders of service delivery through the adoption of co-operative governance structures that engage both civil society and government in jointly controlled institutions at the provincial, canton, and parochial levels of governance. [12]

The co-construction of public goods and services through an institutional framework that fosters public-civic partnerships is at the heart of the Partner State as envisioned here. To this end, the following policies are proposed as an initial framework for recasting the role of the State from one of dominating control over the production of public goods and services, to that of promoting and enabling the civic production of goods and services as a form of protected commons. Indeed, many of these policies are proposed in the National Plan and in numerous policy documents of the government.


  1. That regional and local governments participate in a social procurement policy that promotes social economy organizations for the production of social and human services;

  2. That the provision of these services be designed and developed in collaboration with social economy associations in the local jurisdiction;

  3. That a review of existing procurement policies, including trade agreements, be undertaken to identify and remove existing barriers to social procurement by social economy associations; [13]

  4. That an office for social procurement be established to provide advice and technical assistance to government and social economy associations in the design, development, and procurement of public services.

  5. That a strategic review be undertaken by government (i.e. SENPLADES) to examine how co-construction of public goods and services might best be undertaken in Ecuador and in which areas.

Shared Services


  1. That the government, in collaboration with social economy organizations, identify specific areas in which services may be shared, and co-produced, by social economy organizations working in co-operation;

  2. That the creation of shared service consortia be supported to provide strategic shared services on the basis of local and regional jurisdictions;

  3. That shared service consortia and centres be funded from the contributions of member associations and investments from social economy funds;

  4. That shared service consortia and centres be collectively owned and controlled by their user members;

  5. That shared service centres include the possibility of representation on their board by an appropriate government designate;

  6. That a majority of consortia and centre board directors be derived from user members and that non-member directors may not exceed 20% of a board’s directors.

  7. That the government, in partnership with the co-operative sector, establish a co-op development program to fund the development and support of new co-operative enterprises, including the provision of technical assistance and training;

  8. That the government provide incentives for co-operation among social economy organizations for the production of social goods and services;

  9. That the operations of IEPS be mandated to study, monitor, track employment, identify strategic needs and trends, and provide educational and research services for the social/solidarity economy of Ecuador.

Strategic Planning & Design – Regional and Neighborhood Councils


  1. That each municipality be required to establish a joint municipal/civil council for the purpose of determining priority needs for the provision of social services;

  2. That municipal/civil councils promote the production of goods and services by social enterprises that meet social and environmental objectives and contribute to job creation, responsible consumption, personal and social well being, and new services not provided by either the public or private sector;

  3. That the council be composed of an equal number of local government and civil society representatives;

  4. That civil representatives be selected through a free and open democratic selection process by social economy organizations in that jurisdiction;

  5. That the chairmanship of the councils be shared between a Chair and a Vice Chair to be drawn from government on the one hand and civil society on the other;

  6. That the positions of Chair and Vice Chair be held for a term of two years;

  7. That the position of Chair alternate between the government and the civil representative every two year term.

Guarantee of Minimum Economic Independence

Social Income

Among the most significant achievements of the Ecuadorian state for the advancement of social protection is the use of the Bono de Desarrollo Humano (BDH) for the alleviation of poverty and the improvement of educational and health outcomes. The BDH has led to increased school retention rates, increased health care visits, and a reduction of people living below the poverty line from 49 percent in 2002 to 37 percent in 2010. Additionally, the ratio of income inequality in Ecuador has been declining steadily since 2003. [14]  Compared to other Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) in use by governments in the region, Ecuador’s BDH has also achieved a higher level of coverage as a percentage of the total population (44.3 percent for 2010). [15]

One important innovation in the operation of the BDH is the use of a public-private partnership between the State and the nation’s banks. The partnership allows for BDH payments to be made to individuals directly through bank accounts, ATMs, and direct deposits. This approach ensures significant coverage while minimizing the incidence of patronage and clientelism in the administration of the program.

In conjunction with other social programs such as the Red de Proteccíon Solidaria(RPS) – the family insurance program, Cobertura de Proteccíon Familiar (CPF), and the Crédito de Desarrollo Human (CDH), [16]  Ecuador’s social protection programs are rights and opportunity-based policies. They are founded on the theoretical underpinnings of Buen Vivir as a strategy that looks beyond the quantitative measurements of economic performance and establishes a new vision for economic inclusion, transparency and citizen participation. The BDH as a social income is a key element in the realization of this aim.

These are essential theoretical and political foundations for the transition to a Partner State. Not only do such social income programs ensure a measure of social security and equity; they also establish the socio-economic basis for the emergence of an autonomous economic space for a true social market. They provide a social form of capital that can be used to finance the development of new forms of social enterprise and to enlarge the scope of the social/solidarity economy as an autonomous, civil complement (not a substitute) to the public sector.

But important as such programs are, they remain under the exclusive control of State institutions. They are not yet in a form where they could play a transformative role for the inception of a Partner State. For this, a new mechanism for the shared management of these systems by government and individual citizen-users is required.

How then, might the idea of social income be re-imagined for it to become a building block in such a transition? That is to say, how might a State-supported social income be fully integrated into the social/solidarity economy and so become a collective social resource that can be used by civil institutions for the production of social value? By social value we mean the creation of goods and services whose value is determined by their social utility and social benefit, not their exchange value as commodities in the market. A key area for implementing such a transition is in the use of social income to create a social market for the production and consumption of human services.

One avenue to explore is the expansion of the BDH to transform it into a universal social income which can be used to fuel the expansion of the social economy through the creation of a social market for human and social services. One approach is to provide an addition to the BDH in the form of a social voucher or social currency that may be exchanged for services that would be offered by social economy organizations that have been established for this purpose. Such a system could begin with a targeted social currency that provides support for human services such as home care, elder care, childcare, or services to persons with disabilities. A social income need not be restricted to the poor. For purposes of cultivating new forms of social service, the provision of a social income could be designed to include also higher income strata and adjusted to income levels. This approach would also remove any stigma associated with the program.

A social income for human services opens up a number of opportunities for increasing the capacity of Ecuador’s social economy to create the institutions that can deliver human services as a common good and also to establish an initial framework for a partnership between government and social economy organizations for jointly designing and producing these services. A number of institutional resources would be required for this approach to succeed:

  1. There need to be social economy organizations with the skill, capacity, and resources to provide such services;

  2. There needs to be a clear constituency of potential service users that would be prepared to participate in the development of such a model with prospective service providers;

  3. There needs to be a long-term education and training program to support both service providers and users in the design and development of this system;

  4. There needs to be a strong community of interest where this model might be piloted, including the involvement of local government authorities, social economy organizations, key community stakeholders, and prospective users.

The means by which a social currency might be used for the production and support of civil controlled social goods and services is outlined in the paper “Public Policy for a Social economy”. [17]

Democratization of the Economy and Restructuring the Productive Matrix

Economic and Sector Development

The democratization of the broader commercial economy is of fundamental importance to the evolution of a Partner State. This principle is cited as a key aim both of the National Plan and in numerous policy documents. But if an economy is truly to serve the common good, its driving values, its rewards and punishments, must reinforce the values and aims of civil society as a whole. For this reason, the economy as a whole must be socialized and humanized. By this, we mean the support and expansion of those forms of enterprise and economic relations that utilize the market for the pursuit of social objectives. This includes all types of co-operatives, social enterprises, and private companies that aim at social utility – not merely the pursuit of profit. In sum, it means the expansion of enterprises in which capital is under social control.

Presently, markets are treated as if they are the preserve of private, for-profit, capitalist firms. One outcome is that the space that is available for other forms of enterprise is increasingly reduced as more of the market comes to be dominated or monopolized by large corporate interests. By contrast, the Partner State fosters an economy whose institutions support and reward plurality, co-operation, sharing, social benefit, and open access to the market.

As an enabler of civic forms of economic development, the Partner State has a crucial role to play in the formation of economic policy that supports the growth of enterprises that promote social value, environmental sustainability, equity, and economic wellbeing. Central to this is the use of participatory planning and localized co-operative systems to support the emergence and operation of micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) in strategic sectors of the economy.

The Partner State seeks to develop policies that align economic development with the expansion of economic opportunity for all kinds of enterprises. Priority is placed on those enterprises that contribute to local and regional development through the growth and diversification of productive capacity that is rooted to community. Economic policy is thus geared to the strengthening of local economies that can maximize economic opportunity for individuals and micro, small, and medium enterprises, whether privately or collectively owned, which are at the foundation of Ecuador’s economy.

Today, MSMEs comprise a significant portion of Ecuador’s GDP and account for a high per cent of employment, predominantly in the sectors of small-scale agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, artisan/craft production, and services. [18]  These enterprises constitute the seedbed from which local economies are grown; they are the basis for a localized generation and circulation of wealth.

For this reason, Ecuador’s policies for transforming the productive matrix, including the democratization of land ownership and use, place a top priority on developing this vital component of the national economy. As stated in the policy documents produced by the Inter Institutional Committee for Transforming the Productive Matrix (2013),

“The micro, small and medium enterprises have a strategic importance in the growth of the economy, for the transformation of the local production system, and the best competitive position for the country. In addition, these business segments contribute to reducing poverty and inequality…”

The aim is that MSMEs have priority treatment at all stages, from initiatives to improve productivity, quality, and marketing to those that promote strategic and rewarding participation in domestic and international markets.”[19]

In the promotion of these aims, the government has initiated a very thorough analysis of the productive capacities of each of Ecuador’s 23 regions, itemizing and analyzing the operations of MSMEs as well as private and public actors in each region, identifying the relative importance of specific economic sectors, and identifying the relative strengths and challenges of the productive systems in each territory. Throughout, the documents stress the central importance of collaboration among economic actors, the sharing of research and innovation, and the creation of institutions that facilitate economic and social solidarity in the region.

With respect to MSMEs, a number of general policies are proposed to advance this vision:

  1. Facilitating and managing the interaction of the actors in different productive chains;

  2. Supporting the participation of rural farmers in public procurement systems;

  3. Establishing a program of continuous innovation tailored to the particularities of the region;

  4. Creating preferential credit programs of public banks and strengthen microfinance institutions and co-operatives; and

  5. Promoting entrepreneurship. [20]

This focus on economic democratization through the support of local small and medium enterprises, as well as the promotion of representative Regional Councils in the development process, are key aspects of a Partner State approach. As enabling agent, the Partner State develops policies and resources that provide a supportive framework for this kind of development. A number of elements are essential to this. They include:

  • The expansion of social/solidarity economy values throughout the economy through the promotion of co-operative and commons-based models of enterprise;

  • The development of co-operative networks that encourage collaboration and the promotion of collective interests and a regional perspective among individual enterprises;

  • The creation of institutions that enable joint planning between local enterprises and government;

  • The identification of strategic sectors and the development of regional policies that understand and address sectoral strengths and weaknesses for the long-term;

  • The development of localized service centres – controlled by the enterprises that use them – that are capable of providing specialized, shared services to enterprises operating in specific sectors;

  • The creation of localized institutions that support the capitalization of enterprise;

  • The creation of entrepreneurial networks that are capable of accessing and utilizing knowledge to advance enterprise development, to promote innovation, and to transform production through the sharing of information and technology (ICTs);

  • The provision of incentives for co-operation among sector enterprises for the promotion of shared production systems, the sharing of knowledge, research and technology, and the sharing of enterprise supports such as marketing, training, financing, accounting, bookkeeping, and ICT use;

  • The identification of research & development knowledge from the academy for practical adaptation and application to the advancement of individual enterprises and material production through the involvement of academic institutions;

  • The linkage of open knowledge systems to new forms of production that can adapt technology to the concrete needs of local enterprises, including the adoption of open source technology;

A number of these policies have already been articulated by the government as have the activities described, particularly the analysis of the MSME economy. Indeed, most of these proposals are now accepted as standard policy for strengthening the performance and resilience of small firm economies. However, the vital question remains… How are these policies to be realized in practice so that the institutions that are vital to their success reflect the principles of a Partner State?

While the policy recommendations advancing the vision of Buen Vivir are comprehensive, three issues stand out:

  1. Almost all of the policies described appear to be managed primarily by the State;

  2. There appears to be little practical consideration of the structure, design, and operation of the institutions and organizations that are to realize these policies;

  3. There appears to be no clear strategy for developing the necessary human, professional, and managerial skills to sustain and manage such a policy.

As has been stressed throughout this discussion, it is of paramount importance that these institutions reflect and foster the aims and principles of both Buen Vivir and The Partner State.

What follows is an outline of specific models and measures that address these questions from the perspective of the Partner State and its relation to Social Infrastructure and Social Innovation.

Sector Development

Perhaps the most effective means of implementing a Partner State approach to economic development is to focus on sector development and the creation of partnering institutions at provincial, canton, and parochial levels. This allows for a concentrated focus on strategic areas of economic activity and on the mobilization of partnerships and resources at those levels of governance that are most appropriate for the implementation of policy. This approach also has the advantage of activating the governance structures and giving effect to the democratization and decentralization of decision–making and economic planning mandated by the National Plan.

The first step in sector development using a Partner State approach is to establish a partnering agency that has the capacity to undertake a detailed sector analysis of Ecuador’s economy. The purpose of this development agency is to analyze the operations of Ecuador’s key economic sectors; to forecast the role these sectors should play in the evolution of Ecuador’s economic future; to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of each sector in the context of both a regional and a global marketplace; to diagnose the evolving trade, technological, and regulatory dynamics currently underway; and to identify those sectors that are most strategic for the transition to a social knowledge economy and an economy that promotes resilience, sustainability, equity, and the aims of Buen Vivir.

As mentioned above, much of this analytical work has already been conducted under the auspices of SENPLADES and its partnering agencies in government. What is still unclear however, is where this overall development role should reside. A key point that is raised in the policy documents [21] is the need to co-ordinate and rationalize the functions of the many organizations that have been mandated to play a development role. [22]

Needless to say, this development agency would be designed as a vehicle for the inclusion of both government and non-government stakeholders in the formation of strategic planning that relates regional development to global realities and provides a counterweight of regional and small-scale entrepreneurial interests to those interests that form the current power status quo. Included in the governance of this agency should be micro, small and medium sized business interests; organized labour; the co-operative and social enterprise sector; the credit union sector; and key academic institutions. This institution would play a role similar to the agency proposed for the social/solidarity economy and for the democratization of social goods and services.

As with the co-construction of social goods and services, the second element in the development of a sector-based economic policy is the creation of specialized service centres that can promote the development of strategic sectors by assisting micro, small, and medium firms to succeed through the provision of shared services; the development of co-operative production networks; the promotion of shared use of technology, research, and equipment; and the utilization of open knowledge systems for collective economic benefit in the region.

These centres would form the organizational infrastructure that facilitates the utilization of open knowledge and open source technology for greatest effect in the sectors they are intended to serve. The overall direction and control of these centres must rest primarily in the hands of those enterprises that use their services along with representation of other regional and sectoral stakeholders such as government, universities, and local financial institutions such as credit unions. The sectoral centres should also be closely linked to the strategic planning role played by the national economic development agency and SENPLADES.

Case Study – Emilia Romagna

Emilia Romagna is a region of four million people in the north of Italy. It is one of the best examples of how a government can employ co-operative and commons-based principles as part of a Partner State approach for both economic and social development.

The co-operative economic system in Emilia Romagna has achieved an internal coherence and integration that is unique. Over 8,000 co-operatives account for almost 1/3 of the region’s GDP which is the highest per capita in Italy. [23 This is Italy’s largest exporting region, accounting for thirteen percent of the country’s total. [24 But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1950’s this was one of Italy’s poorest regions. Its economy was based on small-scale agricultural production, machine production, and traditional crafts. It was, in some ways, an economy similar to that of Ecuador today (minus Ecuador’s access to mineral resources). Today, Emilia Romagna is among Europe’s top ten performing economic regions. How was this accomplished?

The systems and ideas that sustain this regional system are a result of carefully pursued legal, constitutional, and political choices. These choices were aimed at developing a mixed form of economy that paid equal attention to co-operative and collective forms of enterprise as to private and capitalist firms.

Over a period of 30 years commencing with the formation of regional governments in 1971, Emilia Romagna’s regional government blended the strengths of the co-op system with the power of government to create a co-operative economic model that extends beyond co-operatives to the economy as a whole. This approach has had a profound impact on the region’s relative income equality, its high wage levels, its plurality of enterprises (both in type and in size), and its inclusive labour market. [25 There are now more than 100,000 small and medium sized firms in the territory – approximately one for every ten residents. The largest of these are co-operatives.

The most distinctive feature of Emilia Romagna’s industrial paradigm is the emergence of what has since become a key strategy for the successful development of a small firm economy – the clustering of small firms in industrial districts. Industrial clusters were perfected in this region and an extensive literature has been devoted to what has since come to be known as the Emilian Model. And although the model has undergone significant changes since its discovery in the early ‘70s, the pattern of industrial development that it represents is a unique instance of successful co-operation in a capitalist framework.

The co-operation of small firms in industrial clusters is the reason why the firms of the region have continued to thrive despite all expectation and contrary to mainstream theories concerning industrial development in a global economy. The Emilian Model shows how firms can remain small and still compete in a global marketplace. Despite the economic crisis, this model of inter-firm co-operation has consistently outperformed all other regions in Italy. [26]

Initially, the region’s agricultural economy gave rise to the specialized industries that emerged as an extension of the needs of agriculture. The processing and packaging of food products gave rise to the design of specialized machinery that is still the singular expertise of the area. Machine production for agriculture then evolved to respond to the unique requirements of a whole host of industries, from ceramics and textiles, to surgical equipment and high performance cars. In this sense, the agricultural roots of the modern industrial districts may serve as models for the evolution of similar developments from the agricultural economies of Ecuador, and other Latin American countries.

Eventually, over a hundred industrial districts bloomed in Emilia Romagna, each one composed of highly specialized firms clustered around a town or region that produced a characteristic product for export to the rest of Italy and abroad. The firms have traditionally been small - between five and fifty employees, the quality of the products are among world’s finest, and the target markets are global. How then, given the challenges of diseconomies of scale, fierce global competition, market intelligence and access, capitalization, co-ordination, product distribution, could small firms such as these survive - even thrive - in a global market?

The production model of the industrial districts depended on the willingness of local entrepreneurs to co-operate while remaining competitors. It rested also on the involvement of the regional government in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this system and devising strategies, in partnership with the stakeholders, to allow the system to adapt to internal and external threats. The third crucial factor was the rise of highly flexible digital technology that was amenable to small-scale, specialized production systems as opposed to the highly centralized-capital intensive industrial technologies of Fordist mass-production. The new technology allowed small firms to specialize, to innovate, and to create new economies of scale through collaboration with other firms in shared production systems.

A key to this approach was in understanding that industrial districts are organic economic forms. They are not static, they evolve, and their strength lies in their ability to adapt to the changing needs of their constituent enterprises and to the shifting dynamics of markets and economic forces beyond their control. How this comes about is a combination of political vision, the skillful management of competing interests, and the possibilities that are latent in the social relations fostered by a culture of co-operation – the region’s social capital.

The role of the regional government in this process was central.

ERVET and the Real Service Centres

One of the first tasks of the regional government was to create a mechanism through which the regional economy as a whole could be understood, its strengths and weaknesses diagnosed, and a program of development established. It created ERVET, the economic planning and development agency that had a lasting impact on the development of the region’s strategic sectors.

ERVET was a public/private agency that was funded and directed by a partnership between the regional government and its key allies among business, labour, and academic institutions. It undertook a careful analysis of the regions’ key economic sectors, diagnosed the particular strengths and weaknesses of the firms comprising these sectors, and established a series of what were called “real service centres” to provide strategic assistance to the firms and the industrial districts of which they were a part.

While the particular services provided by each service centre were tailored to the needs of the sector in which they operated – ceramics, agricultural machinery, footwear, clothing, etc. – the overall strategy was the same: to increase the productive capacity and competence of individual firms and to ensure that the linkages between firms in the industrial districts remained strong and were further mobilized to strengthen the system as a whole.

Some of these service centres (ASTER, Democentre) were engaged exclusively in research, training, and technology transfer. The service centres were structured on a co-operative model – they were funded through a mix of ERVET funds and member fees and directed by elected representatives of the firms that used their services. This ensured that the centres’ services would correspond to the real needs of the firms. The co-operative nature of these networks were a key reason why MSMEs were able to access the research, training, and knowledge that were central to creating the innovations that were indispensible to the success and survival of these enterprises.

The programs and services of ERVET and the centres reinforced the co-operative bonds between firms and within the industrial districts. Research funds for product development or the development of new technology were granted only to groups of firms that had agreed to work together. In Carpi, the service center CITER developed an online database for its members that contained thousands of fashion designs, colour combinations and textile patterns that cut to a fraction the time involved in assembling a design prototype. The centre sent agents to the world’s top fashion shows and twice a year produced a compendium of upcoming styles so that the Carpi firms could prepare and design their products accordingly. These were services that exceeded the capacity of any one firm in the region. With CITER’s aid they were able to compete on a global field. Over the course of the next twenty years, ERVET and the service centres became a major institutional force behind the rapid rise in the region’s economic performance. [27]

The use of ERVET as a think tank and diagnostic development agency illustrates the willingness of the regional government to act as a mediating and mobilizing force among the various interests in the region.  It was a system that drew on the best attributes of co-operation on the one hand and competition on the other. Co-operation enabled small firms to take on large contracts and achieve economies of scale and scope through networking that were ordinarily available only to large corporations.

The patterns of co-operation extended far beyond industrial production to address basic issues such as capital investment, applied research and product development, the gathering of market intelligence, export support, and technology transfer. On the question of capital investment for example, firms would organize credit co-operatives. These groups, or consorzi, would then take responsibility for the loans taken out by their members, operating much as a loan circle for small firms.

Adapted to the credit needs of Emilian firms, consortio loans are provided at very low rates by co-operative banks, many of which were first established as a source of credit for farmers. So successful are these consortia, and the default rates so low, that the large national banks have been trying to break into this market for years, but with little success. The smaller regional banks provide for almost all of the region’s capital needs.

These and similar policies are already highlighted in the ideas and proposals promoted in Ecuador’s National Plan and numerous policy documents. There is a strong affinity between Ecuador’s social and economic aims and what Emilia Romagna has been able to achieve, and both cases rely on elements that are central to the idea of a Partner State.

What Emilia Romagna provides is a structural and organizational framework within which these aims and policies can be realized concretely. This framework entails the principles of co-operation, plurality, a regional perspective, and de-centralized power sharing that are attributes of the Partner State. They give institutional power and focus to a kind of development that serves the needs and aspirations of a wide range of actors including existing MSMEs; the communities in which they operate; the civic and professional associations of civil society including co-ops, trade unions, and business associations; and all are geared toward serving the collective needs of the region.

Undoubtedly, Italy is not Ecuador and the economic, social, and political antecedents that gave rise to the Emilian Model are very different from the experience of Ecuador, which is still in the process of liberating itself from a harsh colonial heritage. However, the lessons of co-operation as an instrument of regional development and of small firm empowerment are even more relevant in the case of countries like Ecuador where economic inequities and the domination of established power structures are even more adverse to the interests and prospects of small and medium firms.

In these contexts, co-operation among MSMEs at a regional level is even more of an imperative if they are to develop and contribute significantly to a new, more pluralistic, productive matrix. And, just as the new digital technology of the 1970s and 80s give impetus to the specializations and innovations of Emilia Romagna’s small firms, the open source technology and commons-based knowledge systems of today provide a means for Ecuador’s small firms to similarly adapt emergent technology to the particular conditions of MSMEs in Ecuador.

Today’s Internet makes possible the adaptation of farm machinery to local needs through open source designs that can be shared at minimal cost. Open source technology provides a means for small farmers to access information online that greatly enhances their capacity to improve production by adjusting their practices to the particularities of crops, soils, and climates. New avenues for global marketing of local products are available, as is the integration of products into fair trade distribution networks that are meant to support the kinds of locally controlled production models described above.

Most important of all are the examples of successful development strategies that can benefit both private and collective forms of ownership through the use of co-operative systems. Just as these systems have proven successful in regions like Emilia Romagna and the industrial districts of Germany, France and the US, so too have these models been adapted to serve the needs of regional economies in countries like Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Here, the challenges of small scale, isolation, absence of secondary processing, inaccessible markets, and the control of product distribution by intermediaries are identical to the problems faced by small producers and entrepreneurs in Ecuador.

Securing the Commons

The recognition, protection, and expansion of the society’s commons are central features of The Partner State. What do we mean by the commons?

The commons refers to any resource whose use is freely accessible to a community of users and which in turn, is managed by them in common. A commons is not owned in the conventional sense. Rather, its value lies in the fact of its free and open access. It is the antithesis to enclosure of a resource for private benefit. Instead, a commons is based on the social ethics of interdependence and co-operation and the value of a commons is generated through the practice of sharing. Most importantly, a commons is the product of those social relationships that enable this use.

Traditionally commons have referred to such natural goods as water, fisheries, forests, pastures, etc. However, the concept has been broadened to include also non-material common resources such as knowledge, culture, free software, and the Internet. These same qualities of open access, sharing, and collective management by the users are common to all of them. The commons then, are a manifestation of those same values of reciprocity, mutuality, and social benefit that underlie the operations of civil society and the social/solidarity economy.

Historically, the commons may be seen as the material and economic foundations that helped sustain collective forms of living. They were, and remain, both the product and the indispensible support of those social relations that bind people to each other and to their environment. The idea of the commons is thus central to the aims of Buen Vivir and is also intimately linked to the constitutional protections afforded to nature by the Montecristi Constitution. These protections are deeply linked to the protection and promotion of the commons and to the notion of subsidiarity that grants local territories and indigenous peoples the constitutional right to participate in the decisions affecting the development of their territory and the enjoyment of their traditional ways of living. Protection of the material commons, especially natural resources, is intimately connected to the establishment of a plurinational polity.

The notion of collective rights is inseparable from the idea of the commons and of the common good. Collective rights are those individual rights that belong to the individual as a member of a community. The individual has the enjoyment of these rights as protected by law – but only as a member of the community. It is the community as a whole that embodies these rights and exercises them through the agency of each individual member. The collective enjoyment of these rights is linked to the notion of use, and in particular to the concept of civic use as opposed to merely free use or public use. It is the concept of “civic use” that is most amenable to the regulation of common goods as “things instrumental to the realization of the development of the person”, a central concept of Buen Vivir. More specifically, common goods refer to those things that may be used by anyone belonging to the community that has use rights over a commons.

Enclosure and commodification of the commons undermine the material basis for collective forms of living and of the social relationships that in turn, reproduce those forms. They are an irreplaceable resource for re-generating a society’s store of social capital, for validating and manifesting the idea of social solidarity, and for anchoring both the values and the operations of civil society. As such, the protection and expansion of the commons must be a basic aim both of civil society and of any government that wishes to promote the social aims envisaged in Ecuador’s National Plan.

Common versus Public

The commons however, should be distinguished from public goods or public property. [28]  While both contain the ideas of non-exclusion and social value, public goods are not controlled or managed by their users – public goods and public institutions are controlled by the State. For this reason they may also be privatized by the State, commodified, and sold for profit. Today, the enclosure and commodification of public goods by governments and capital constitute the greatest encroachments against social wealth in the world.

The evolution of the relationship between States and capital, between public and private property, has led to a condition in which privatization and statism now endanger the very survival of the commons as an indispensible resource for the satisfaction of basic human needs. In this we include such essential life supports as access to water, the sharing of seeds for agricultural production, and clean air. But it is now clear that conventional models of democratic governance, conceived as government acting on behalf of citizens, are no longer capable of protecting and preserving the public interest and what remains of the commons along with it. What is required is a wholly new relationship in which formal political authority legitimizes its operations in a given territory through the direct involvement of local communities in governance.

The protection of the commons requires a framework which formalizes the civil and communitarian attributes of commons and which tie them inalienably to their users and to the territory as a shared collective resource. This means the enactment of legal protections for their preservation and the pursuit of public policies for their expansion. Above all, it means the recognition by the State of a distinct and inalienable space of commons wealth that can neither be appropriated nor purchased. It is a uniquely civil space that is protected by legislation which recognizes this distinctive civil – as opposed to political – quality of the commons. One of its primary features is the recognition of users’ control rights over its management.

A current example of this kind of legislation – focused on urban commons – is to be found in the city of Bologna, which has become the first Commons City in Europe.

[This section, a case-study of Bologna, has been removed due to length considerations--ed.]

But while the Bologna initiative has developed the regulatory framework for the co-management of urban commons, these municipal assets are still owned by the State and as such are public… not entirely common in the sense we have described. For this to be the case, the management of the common resource needs to be paired with legal protections that secure its use as a commons in perpetuity. Such a commons, while legally protected and constituted for this use, may not be appropriated by the State as government or public property, nor be sold. For this to have effect, a form of collective and civil ownership must be devised.

Examples of these forms of commons ownership and governance, as well as the rules for their operation, have been well documented by Elinor Ostrom. [40]  Successful examples of their use range from the co-operative management of Japan’s fishery – the world’s largest – to the co-operative management of waterways and irrigation systems by the indigenous farmers of Bali. [41]

In its Constitution and national aims, Ecuadaor has already travelled a great distance in the direction of empowering its citizens to take an active role in the development of the territories in which they live. It has enshrined the principles of decentralization and local decision-making; it has mandated all levels of government to promote the development of goods and services through procurement policies that give priority to groups in the social/solidarity economy; and it has advocated the pursuit of social knowledge and the commons as a foundation for the transformation of the country’s productive matrix. The development of a true Partner State would now require the formulation of a legislative and regulatory national framework that would entrench the commons, in all their forms, as a true national patrimony beyond the reach of those interests that would seek to enclose them for private or political gain.

To this end, we propose the following policy recommendations:

  1. That a comprehensive mapping of existing natural resource commons be carried out;

  2. That comprehensive legislation be introduced to secure and protect the commons as a national patrimony and tied to the territories where commons are utilized;

  3. That specific policy frameworks be established for the co-management of urban commons by local municipalities and the citizenry;

  4. That social economy organizations be recognized as the most appropriate form for citizen management of commons and that the Organic Law for the Popular and Solidarity Economy (LOEPS) be revised to allow for the creation of both community service co-operatives (social/solidarity co-ops) and multi-stakeholder co-operatives as social instruments for the management of commons. [42]

The inclusion of natural resources as national commons to be gradually co-managed by the State and local communities constitutes an entirely new approach to resource development and would powerfully transform the country’s productive matrix in the direction of Buen Vivir. The commonification of resources, like the democratization of public services and the broader economy, are powerful catalysts for the evolution of a civic culture that has the collective values, the social capital, and the enabling institutions that would allow civil society to play the role envisaged for it by the framers of the country’s Constitution and the Citizen’s Revolution that was its source and inspiration.

Cultural Factors

It is important to note that a transition to this type of development is contingent on existing patterns of production and the cultural attitudes that drive economic behaviour. The most important of these is the presence or absence of high levels of social capital and a predisposition among people to work together to realize mutual aims. Where these social values and attitudes are strong, and where co-operative institutions already exist, the collaborative approach to economic development has a far higher chance of changing the productive matrix through the use of social knowledge as a resource for economic and social development. Where social capital is weak, a key strategy for promoting such a development model is the creation of production systems that foster habits of economic collaboration and that are oriented toward common benefit.

Unlike conventional capitalist models which serve to undermine and deplete social capital, co-operative and peer-to-peer models depend upon social capital as a necessary condition of their operations. [43]  Co-operation reinforces and cultivates further co-operation. Co-operative systems replenish social capital and the attitudes and skills that promote sharing. A successful social knowledge economy is thus very much a co-operative economy.

This point needs to be emphasized as it is central to creating the social and cultural conditions that can sustain an economic model based on sharing and commons-based values that are the foundation of a social knowledge economy. These questions of cultural attitudes and the means of transforming them are insufficiently treated in proposals for economic development, yet they are central to the process of social and economic transformation.

It is for this reason that the adoption and promotion of particular modes of production, of ownership, of relationships among economic agents, and of institutional links between government and the stakeholders of both the private and social economies are so important.

The other issue that needs to be highlighted is the question of how popular expectations and perceptions of the State help or hinder citizen participation. As acknowledged in the National Plan,

Enormous progress has been made in citizen participation. However, the challenge lies in changing the attitudes of citizens, which are still persistently passive. This culture of a citizenry passively dependent on State guardianship must be limited.

This qualitative leap forward, from citizens wishing for rights to citizens exercising their rights, is a break away from the power of the market, as well as the domination and accumulation incrusted into social structures. Constructing an active, committed, and thoughtful citizenry demands a more profound institutional reform of the State, so citizen participation can influence public governance. It also requires creating the conditions and capacities necessary to promote, sustain and assure citizen-led processes to promote Good Living, and to institutionalize a constructive dialogue that generates egalitarian, solidary, free, dignified, and responsible actions, in harmony with Nature and respectful of the world-views that comprise our pluri-national State.[44]

The kinds of organizational forms that are cultivated by the State are important in determining how citizens come to acquire the skills and attitudes that enable them to play the roles demanded of them by Ecuador’s vision of Good Living. This means a very particular outlook on the part of political leaders and decision makers in government. As in the case of Emilia Romagna, the conscious choice of the regional government to facilitate the emergence of co-operative systems, whether in the commercial or the social economy, added real impetus to the expansion of these values and to the skills, knowledge, and capacities of the citizenry to exercise them. The social co-operatives in Italy, which transformed the social welfare system, were initiated from within the social economy. But their growth and success would not have been possible without the role played by the state. The same is true of the solidarity co-ops and a great number of social enterprises in Quebec.

The form of an organization will determine both its manner of operation and the behavioural habits, attitudes, and expectations of those who work in it. Just as private forms of capitalist enterprise will reinforce the habits and values of self-interest and capital accumulation for private ends, so do co-operative and peer-to-peer forms of enterprise promote collective values and the ability to view economics as a means to advance individual interests through co-operation with others – whether they are individuals or other enterprises. The conscious promotion of all forms of co-operation among citizens and businesses – whether they are privately or co-operatively owned – is thus central to the operations of a Partner State and a social knowledge economy.

One means of promoting this type of co-operation among groups is by ensuring that funds for development are available only to groups of enterprises that are working together, as opposed to individual firms. This is true also for the promotion of co-operation within the social/solidarity economy and among social economy organizations.

Also indispensible for the transformation of cultural attitudes in this direction, both inside government and in the broader social/solidarity economy, is the development of the human and organizational capacities among citizens that are essential for the development and operation of these types of organizations.

Institutional Obstacles

Chief among the potential obstacles to the successful implementation of these policies are the existing bureaucratic structures of the State. While there is strong formal recognition of the principles and aims relating to Buen Vivir and the role of the Popular and Solidarity Economy, there also exists a high degree of complexity and lack of co-ordination among the various institutions that have been mandated to carry out the policies and programs of the National Plan for Good Living. [45]

Moreover, a common weakness of these institutions, from the perspective of the Partner State, is the minor role assigned to non-governmental stakeholders in their operation. They are, for the most part, State-controlled organisms ill suited to sharing power with the institutions and actors either of civil society or the broader economy. And, despite the good intentions of their founders, these institutions have added to the size, complexity, lack of transparency, and immobility of the State bureaucracy as a whole.

The transformation of these structures into partnering and enabling institutions with meaningful inclusion of civil groups is an essential undertaking for transition to a Partner State model. This entails a comprehensive training and human development strategy that provides decision makers and civil service workers with the concepts, skills, experiences, and attitudes that are fundamental for implementing an entirely new conception of inclusive governance and socio-economic development.

On a practical level, as the social economy has expanded over the past thirty years and the limitations of state structures operating in isolation have become evident, there have been a range of experiments to create a more harmonious interface between State and social economy. They include:

  1. In-out teams, working in the State and comprising those from the social/solidarity economy and the state;

  2. Placements across the boundaries, of civil economy activists within the State, and State officials in the social economy;

  3. Social innovation labs, either within the State, or in collaboration with people from both economies;

  4. Common formation (for example through social innovation courses/degrees);

  5. Generative rather than transactional contracts between the State and social economy organizations for civil economic ventures undertaking public services;

  6. Distributed procurement practices linked to civil consortia, and the development of a procurement culture centered around social innovation and the development of quality services by the civil ventures (Cleveland’s Evergreen program is an outstanding example); [46](#sdfootnote46sym)

  7. The development of service metrics for the public/civil ventures, that can also be used as data for public accountability;

  8. Open books for civil ventures undertaking public services;

  9. The joint mobilization of knowledge from within the State and the civil ventures around particular projects;

  10. Actions to co-operatize the State itself, with a shift to more lateral, team-based organization, and the involvement of front line workers (along with civil consumers) in the co-design and co-production of public services (the case of IT innovation in Newcastle (UK) is a striking case in point which developed as an alternative to privatization).

  11. Actions to democratize the wider economy through the development and promotion of collective and co-operative ownership models of production.

These actions reflect particular ways in which the two cultures might find common cause by combining the unique strengths of each in re-framing the production of public goods in a way that recognizes and reinforces the central role of citizens and their communities as the primary actors in making real the aims and aspirations of Buen Vivir.

The second issue that critically needs to be addressed for the transition process described above is the formation of those values, attitudes, and skills that can translate ideals into effective and transformative practice in the real world.

The Co-operative University

One of our primary recommendations for transitioning to a Partner State is the creation of a Co-operative University to serve as the nation’s primary research, education, and training facility for generating the attitudes, knowledge, and professional skills needed for implementing the policies and realizing the aims of a Partner State.

As a vital research and training institution, the university would serve as the nation’s premier training ground for advancing the capacities of the citizenry – whether in government, the social/solidarity economy, or the private sector – to understand the principles and practices of open government; of social entrepreneurship; of distributed and co-operative economic and social development; of the protection, expansion, and management of the commons; and of de-centralized co-operative democracy as a template for the co-creation and co-management of government policy.

The organizational and operational structure of the university would embody the principles of co-operative governance outlined in this paper and would serve as a model for the transmission of the co-operative and commons concepts and skills articulate above.

There has recently emerged a body of research associated with the relation of co-operative values and structures to the many critical challenges facing the role and functioning of contemporary universities in the context of advanced neo-liberalism. Ranging from the rise of over 700 co-operative schools in the UK, to studies on the performance of existing co-operative universities such as the Mondragon University in Spain, [47] a range of commentators have explored the potential of the co-operative model to radically reform pedagogical practice, both at primary school levels and in higher education. [48]

A constant theme throughout these studies is how to construct an organizational model and learning culture that re-orients the university from the production of skills and knowledge for private – that is to say corporate – ends, to one which regards the university as a form of social commons in which knowledge is produced primarily for the advancement of social aims. Needless to say, this is has a fundamental relevance for the advancement of a social knowledge economy.

As argued at the very beginning of this series of papers, the concepts of social knowledge and the social knowledge economy are not mere abstractions that relate only to the immaterial world of knowledge creation and diffusion. To be realized and to survive, they must inhere in the material world of social relations and institutions, in the models of production, and in the organizational forms that provide access to knowledge and diffuse its benefits for collective ends. Nowhere is this more important than in the institutions that deal directly with the formal processes of knowledge production, transference, and application – the university.

Just as the modern university is the primary matrix within which the values, skills, and attitudes that are essential for the operation of contemporary capitalism are inculcated and replicated, so too, does a social knowledge economy require an analogous academy capable of developing the attitudes and skills that are essential for generating a culture of co-operation and the commons that both reflects and advances the social and economic principles that sustain such an economy.

Without this, it is difficult to see how the aims of Buen Vivir, including the systemic transformation of Ecuador’s productive matrix, the realization of knowledge as a commons, and the transition to a Partner State model that both embodies and stewards these principles, will be achieved.

Concluding Remarks

The idea and the practice of the Partner State is both challenging and, in our opinion, utterly necessary. For many, the current impasse in political governance is threatening the material basis of human civilization. It is equally clear that the forms of representative democracy practiced today are manifestly incapable of defending the broad public interest with which governments have been entrusted.

The reasons for this are also clear: the capture of national governments by capital interests; the continuing protection of these interests in the formulation of economic and social policy; the imposition of policies that weaken existing labour and social protections; the gradual criminalization of dissent; and the growing disaffection and distrust of both government and the prevailing economic paradigm that is a direct consequence of this impasse. And whereas the achievements of the Welfare State model in the post war era contributed to the amelioration of social and economic inequities, the dismantling of this model under the aegis of neo-liberal policies has now returned vast numbers of the world’s population to the precariousness of previous eras.

Unless the economies of nations are re-oriented toward the pursuit of the common good and toward a more equitable, humane, and sustainable form of economics, the forward movement of our present condition will only deepen the current crisis. This carries with it the certain prospect of accelerating social and economic upheaval as populations become more alienated from their governments and from the dysfunctional capital-dominated economies they sustain. For this to change, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how governments operate and how they relate to their citizenry.

The fundamental premise of democracy is that governments are accountable to their citizens and that government policies serve and protect the common interest. An irreplaceable aspect of this common interest are the commons themselves that underlie the operations, attitudes, and skills that make possible the collective forms of living and acting that define the social and solidary character of a healthy civil society. It follows that unless the collective values of civil society and the common good can determine how economies operate, the present model of political economy will do no more than tinker with a system that is in dire need of radical reform. The Partner State is one way of ushering in this reform.

In the analysis advanced in this paper, the proposals for implementing a Partner State approach in Ecuador are an extension of the precepts and aims of the national Constitution and the National Plan for Good Living. In these documents inhere those principles of respect for nature, of the opportunity for people to pursue their individual and collective well being, of the promotion of social and economic activities that promote the public welfare, and of the constitutional right of communities, whether territorial or cultural, to participate meaningfully in the affairs of state that affect them.

These are the ethical foundations for a new form of governance that places the civil power in a relationship of equality with government for the exercise of economic and social policies that will operate at national, regional, and local levels. In the Partner State, government becomes a partner and enabler of civic solutions to collective problems. And while the operations of the capitalist market continue, as do those of the public sector, these are counterbalanced by the collective and civic aims of the State, co-constructed with the institutions of civil society. We propose that the realization of the concept of Buen Vivir is not achievable without a systemic shift of the State in this direction.

But this is not merely a question of making real the aspirations of the National Plan. The concept of the Partner State is an opportunity to salvage what is good and necessary in the apparatus of government while opening it to those civic values that alone can restore legitimacy to it. In its aspirations toward Buen Vivir, Ecuador has the opportunity to pioneer such a model. If it does so it will offer an example of how government can indeed change course toward a more humane and sustainable future through the engagement and empowerment of its citizenry in the affairs of state. The alternative is that an opportunity for meaningful change may be lost and the powerful civic ideals of the Constitution and Buen Vivir will remain as admirable as they are unattainable.

See the original article for the appendix and footnotes


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John Restakis is the author of Humanizing the Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, and an expert in international co-operative economic development and political economy.



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