Collective economy: A means for reducing inequality

December 03, 2003

In the industrialized countries as well as in those of the South, poverty and insecurity affect women more than men (2). They are likely to experience unemployment, underpaid jobs, the risk of heavy debt in the Northern hemisphere, effects of the crisis and budget restrictions and the constricting status as the person with the main responsibility of the family in the South. In the face of increasing poverty and inequality among women, the search for new forms of collective support are becoming necessary. Thus, for around 20 years now, everywhere in the world, a "collective mutual economy" is becoming installed (1). In what ways could this new form of economy, which seeks to democratize the economy and therefore to give it a renewed social dimension, give women a place and act to counter the inequalities between the sexes?

An IRD economist has just published a book in which she sets out the results of research she has conducted on this theme. In the light of work done on the notion of gender, she examined the experiences gained from collective economy schemes and ran field studies in France and Senegal. These enabled her to present some thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the collective economy.

In practice, women are often the ones who take the lead in collective economy projects. Faced with the delicate task of bringing professional and family life together, with increased material responsibilities (notably in one-parent family situations), with problems of access to property or credit, women get themselves organized. The result is the setting-up of collective restaurants, small shops, producer and craft-trade cooperatives which enable them to acquire a degree of financial independence.

What are the potentialities that emerge from such experiments, beyond the localized actions themselves? In order to further the reduction of inequality between the sexes and revalue the place of women, collective economy must satisfy three requirements.

The first consists in playing a role in "neighbourhood justice" which could alleviate problems of access to basic economic, social and political rights. These rights either do not exist for women, as is the case of many countries of the South, or they do exist, but are rarely or badly applied, poorly known and rarely claimed. Such a situation is frequently encountered in income-generating activities. Although theoretically women have the right of access to these, in practice this is problematic in that they have little access to property, credit, education, and so on. The response of the collective economy therefore consists in easing access to these rights (such as microfinance, coaching in the setting up of businesses and other activities, or health services) or in finding substitute solutions where these do not exist.

The second requirement is that certain tasks that customarily fall to women should be taken out of the private domain. This covers in particular the care of others, whether old or young, which is another case where the collective approach is necessary (setting-up of crèches, for example). This socialization of private issues therefore requires the creation of associated professions and the enhancement of the skills of everyone, whether men or women.

The third requirement that the collective economy must satisfy -the one which probably raises the most problems- is success in establishing the links between these collective actions and the public and political spheres. These intermediate areas between private-household life and public life allows women to become aware of their difficulties, then to express them and make themselves heard. Progressively, women can manage in this way to go beyond their personal preoccupations and contribute to the general and collective interest.

Offering women in insecure or difficult situations centres they can have access to services is not only a way of lending support. It is also a means of gathering personal accounts of their lives useful as input for thought and debate throughout society as a whole. The collective economy's relevance lies in this ability to link up local justice to global justice. It is precisely because it is rooted in individuals' daily lives that it can induce the adoption of public policies that truly meet people's needs and aspirations. Nevertheless, it would be dangerous to make a myth of the scope of these experiments. These schemes are not solidly established. Moreover, they are prey to being appropriated and instrumentalized by governments and public authorities (including decentralized or supra-national bodies). The whole issue then lies in the potential weight that these innovative but disparate actions can exert to stimulate institutional changes that might lead to a new linkup between economic development and social progress.
(1) The collective economy embraces all the private economic initiatives (i.e. independent of the State) which are geared to the collective interest and support rather than profit seeking. Such actions can concern a wide range of sectors: production and craft trades, commerce (socially-based groceries, restaurants, and so on ), finance, access to basic economic and social rights (relations with administrative bodies, mediation services and so on).
(2) The choice of focusing these deliberations on women stems from the results of several studies carried out by Isabelle Guérin on exclusion from finance and banking services which systematically bring up specific problems women encounter , in the industrialized countries of the North as much as in the South.

I. Guérin pursues her research as part of work of the Population-Environment-Development Laboratory of the mixed research unit UMR 151 IRD-University of Provence.

Institut de recherche pour le développement

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