1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Social Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Protecting Vulnerable Urban Groups in Contentious Times: The Role of SSE

  • Project from: 2017 to 2019

Since 2008, many countries in Europe have been battered by a series of crises—economic crisis, debt crisis, refugee crisis. With the financial crises came austerity policies and cuts in social spending, weakening the social protection systems relied upon by societies’ most vulnerable members, from unemployed native-born residents, to migrants and newly arrived refugees. At the same time xenophobia and populist politics have gained strength, with a discourse blaming migrants and refugees for economic upheaval and other difficulties experienced by local communities. What is the role of social and solidarity economy (SSE) in fostering the social inclusion of those left behind by declining social aid, and creating solidarity for the most vulnerable? How can SSE most effectively contribute to building solidarity, protecting unemployed native-born people, migrants and refugees and integrating them into local communities and labour markets? What kinds of policy ecosystems are required to support this potentially transformative role of SSE?

The Research Issue in Context

The role of social and solidarity economy (SSE) organizations has grown significantly in the past decade, in tandem with increasing demands for the kinds of activities—from basic needs provisioning and social inclusion to employment generation and local economic development—which SSE enterprises often undertake. Indeed, many SSE organizations and enterprises work actively to provide local-level social services for the most vulnerable members of society, or to foster their labour market integration. Much recent growth of SSE activities, notably in Europe, has centred on the service provisioning and social integration of migrants and refugees. With its focus on societies’ most vulnerable members, SSE may have a central role to play in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by contributing to one of its overarching principles: to “leave no one behind”.

The practices put forward by SSE organizations to support these vulnerable groups share common features that distinguish them from the public economy and from the conventional for-profit economy. Driven primarily by social-benefit motives as opposed to capital accumulation, SSE practices are largely people-centered and based on participation, solidarity, mutual help, voluntary involvement and collective ownership.

This research project examines how SSE can effectively contribute to building solidarity, protecting the unemployed native-born, refugees and migrants, and integrating them into local communities and labour markets. The potentials, challenges and tensions involved of doing so in contexts of austerity and welfare retrenchment, growing xenophobia and populist politics will be assessed. If SSE practices are not simply to be a response to crises, but rather are to expand and diversify according to each society’s needs and dynamics, then policy makers need to learn from and adapt to complex and changing circumstances.

Research Objectives and Questions

This research aims to fill a current theoretical and empirical gap, producing evidence-based analysis on
  • the role of SSE organizations and practices within the current economic, social and political climate;
  • the challenges faced by SSE actors; and
  • the enabling policy environments required for embedding solidarity in local societies and mitigating tensions between native-born unemployed residents and migrants and refugees.

In doing so the research aims to inform policy makers and practitioners seeking to design innovative and inclusive policies that support SSE as a site of participatory bottom-up solutions to the cross-cutting challenge of protecting and integrating vulnerable groups in urban settings in contentious times.

The following questions guide the research:
  • How do SSE organizations and practices contribute to the protection and integration of migrants, refugees and unemployed native-born people into local communities and labour markets, and what macro-level contextual enablers and barriers (policy, legal, economic, political) are involved?
  • What mechanisms are put in place by SSE actors to support and protect these groups, mitigate tensions as they compete for resources and services, and build solidarity relationships at the local level in times of austerity (and diminishing public goods and resources), xenophobia and populism? What are the specific challenges and opportunities observed in different local settings?
  • Are there innovative and sustainable SSE practices that can mitigate contention and become an asset or a basis for developing enabling policies of solidarity and protection for these vulnerable groups in local societies? What is the scope for mutual learning, cooperation, and policy transferability across local settings?

Methodology and Approach

Research is carried out in three medium-sized cities located in diverse country contexts: Bergamo (Italy), Geneva (Switzerland), and Heraklion (Greece). The three localities display different socio-economic trajectories, SSE traditions (from nascent to more mature), and forms of local governance and policy making.

Field research includes an organizational survey and network analysis in the three localities, contextual analysis, and prescriptive analysis. Data will also be gathered through desk research, in-depth qualitative interviews, qualitative meta-analysis and participant observation.

Research Team and Advisors

  • Marco Giugni, University of Geneva
  • Maria Mexi, University of Geneva
  • Florence Passy, University of Lausanne
  • Ilcheong Yi, UNRISD
  • Francesca Forno, University of Trento
  • Katia Pilati, University of Trento
  • Chiara Aurora Demaldè, University of Trento
  • Maria Kousis, University of Crete
  • Annalisa Christini, University of Bergamo
  • Silvana Signori, University of Bergamo

Research Beneficiaries

The findings of this project will be particularly valuable to policy makers and their advisors at the local, national and supranational levels tasked with the implementation of a social and solidarity economy portfolio or with furthering the social integration of vulnerable groups, including migrants and refugees. The findings and lessons will be of value to civil society and advocacy groups, practitioners and SSE actors aiming to ensure social justice and/or social and solidarity-based economic practices. They will also be useful to the research community in advancing their understanding of these issues.

Outputs and Activities

The research and findings will be communicated widely among policy, practitioner and academic audiences via a range of products and channels.
  • Policy briefs
  • Journal articles and final edited volume
  • Project website and social media properties
  • All project partners will engage in networking activities and will present the research in relevant conferences and workshops. A final Policy Roundtable will be organized by UNRISD; and a final Project Workshop will be organized by the University of Geneva.


This project is funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS).