Social economy network Greece

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The Greek social economy national network in EQUAL

Greece - a coherent development strategy for the social economy

The Greek national network has used EQUAL to give a real impetus to the development of the sector. Relatively quickly, a somewhat paralysed situation has given way to the fast development of social enterprises.

Admittedly, this is the culmination of a long period of preparatory work during which a suitable legal framework was established and a head of steam built up. But it was EQUAL that enabled the establishment of a national support structure, intensive interchange with partners in Italy, and the launch of five new social co-operatives, currently employing 132 mentally ill people. These constitute the kernel of a future national network of 52 such enterprises. This success has attracted such interest that policy makers are now considering extending the idea to cover other disadvantaged groups.

A stronger theme in EQUAL has also resulted. The work of building up the sector has resulted in a doubling of the number of development partnerships in the theme in the second round. There are now ten, and half of them are adopting a holistic development approach In particular, the national Kendavros project supported by the Central Union of Municipalities and Communities of Greece will systemically promote the social economy as a provider of jobs, inclusion and local development. The project includes piloting a national Social Economy Resources Centre, a standing forum and an e-forum. One part of the legal framework it will push for is the broadening of the limited liability co-operative (KoiSPE) statute, which at present covers only those enterprises employing disabled people, to other target groups, such as women. The budget allocated to the theme in round 2 has also risen by nearly 50%, from €8.3 to €12.4 million.

The government has also reacted positively. Firstly, the Ministry of Health has agreed to support the first ten KoiSPEs for mentally ill people, which thus have no need of further EQUAL support. Building on this, proposals are under discussion to extend KoiSPEs to cover target groups other than mentally ill people, although not every agency it yet in agreement with this idea. At a more general level, the government is taking a closer interest in the social economy, and the Employment Minister plans to visit other Member State capitals to see how the sector is structured in other countries and how governments relate to it. “We hope this broader knowledge inside government will pave the way for a law on social enterprises,” says Nepheli Yatropoulos, who co-ordinated Greece’s national thematic network in the social economy. Within Greece, the social economy is mentioned in the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2005-06 and will constitute a measure in the European Social Fund Operational Programme for the next programming period (2007-13). “This is a major success for us,” Ms Yatropoulos continues, “but the question remains of exactly how this support will be implemented, as we still do not have a clear definition of what a social enterprise is.” Hence the importance of the continued work of the network in the second half of EQUAL. “We think we have built up a head of enthusiasm for the social economy which the development partnerships in the second round will be able to tap into.”


An underdeveloped potential

Unemployment and the marginalisation of disadvantaged groups remain serious problems in Greece. In many countries, the social economy sector plays an important role in stimulating local employment development and social inclusion. Yet in Greece this sector remains fragmented, split essentially into an agricultural co-operative sector, with co-operative banks, on the one hand, and an associations sector active in social service and human rights on the other. There are also a number of urban co-operatives. Development has been held back both through lack of the necessary skills, attitudes and resources, but also by the antiquated legal framework. However two promising developments have taken place, both stimulated by reform of the framework laws.

  • First there are nine women’s agrotourism co-operatives employing some 200 people in rural areas across the country. These have grown up since the 1979 co-operative law was amended by law 1541/85 to include social objectives;
  • Secondly, consequent upon the KoiSPE law of 1999, seven social co-operatives for mentally ill people have been founded, which currently employ some 130 people.

The first case shows that economically viable social enterprises can be established and can aid economic and social development. The second case illustrates how EQUAL unblocked a stalled process.

A new way of working

“We could see the potential of the social economy to power local development in isolated rural areas, to raise living standards, particularly of women, and to create a more inclusive society,” says Ms Yatropoulos. The EQUAL managing authority took the initiative to set the network up at the end of 2003, along with networks on three other themes. It was made up of the seven development partnerships active in the theme, along with the Ministry of Employment. But the impulse came from a broader range of sources, Vassiliki Staikou, head of transnationality, networking and mainstreaming in Greece’s EQUAL Managing Authority, points out. “The need for a support policy for the social economy had been identified in our National Action Plan for Employment and in the Employment Guidelines. Yet there is no representative body for the social economy in Greece. So the network filled a gap. But ideas of consultation and networking do not have a long history here, so implementing EQUAL posed a number of challenges,” she continues. “The ideas of development partnerships, networking and mainstreaming were all new. Perhaps this explains why the EQUAL Monitoring Committee, which involves the Health, Development and Economics Ministries as well as the social partners, was extremely keen on the idea of dialogue that the national networks embodied.”

Clear roles and targets

The network was given the jobs of compiling and promoting the experience and results of projects, identifying and disseminating the most innovative and effective practices, and framing proposals for the development of the sector and presenting them for public debate. It organised itself into three working groups, to work respectively on policy proposals for the development of the social economy, founding and operation of social enterprises, and entrepreneurship support structures. “The thing that made the network effective was that it was a forum for action, not a forum for discussion,” Ms Staikou says. “We brought in expert help and hammered out a detailed workplan which was agreed by our General Secretary, so everyone was clear what they had to do and by when. We delegated the management of the work programme to one of the development partnerships – they know more about the issues so it made sense. We also made sure the money was there to implement its actions. Each development partnership had 10% of its budget devoted to ‘Action 3’ (mainstreaming), and 3% of this was set aside to fund the network’s actions.”

The network met regularly and created an impressive range of tools. The wisdom and experience of its members was distilled into a Guide to the Founding and Operation of Social Enterprises, which was distributed at the network’s conference, to each development partnership’s contacts, and also to the regional business development agencies in the KETA network. “We met at different places around the country, and would always invite the local KETA to come along,” says Ms Yatropoulos. “Some of them were sympathetic but I have to say that others were very sceptical. The social economy is still a very unfamiliar idea.” Based on the experience gained during the first phase of EQUAL, one working group drew up a comprehensive set of proposals for the development of the social economy sector in Greece. These are grouped under seven headings: a supportive legal and institutional framework; business advice and support; finance; human resources; services for disabled people; networking and representation; and better collaboration with the public sector.

Proposals for the development of the social economy sector in Greece

The network analysed the development needs of the sector, and convened an international conference in September 2005 in Athens to discuss them. The proposals may be summarised as follows:

1. To create a supportive framework for the development of the social economy in Greece:

  • a national dialogue, launched by the government with the participation of the NTN
  • an interministerial committee to be responsible for the legal aspects
  • clarify and extend the existing KoiSPE law

2. Create a supply of support and advice for social enterprises:

  • transfer the know-how acquired through the 24 regional support structures set up in round 1 of EQUAL
  • investigate ways of continuing their operation
  • incorporate their know-how into mainstream business support agencies (OAED, KETA etc.)

3. Open up sources of finance for social enterprises:

  • create a legal framework for micro-lending
  • establish a loan and guarantee fund, set up regional guarantee organisations, stimulate social venture capital
  • support participation in EU programmes
  • raise the intervention rate of the SME Guarantee Fund to 100%

4. Improve human resources:

  • develop training, materials and qualifications in the management of social enterprises, and in training and advice
  • include social economy in school and college curricula
  • promote public awareness of the sector

5. Improve the position of disabled people in the social economy:

  • allow disabled people to earn a wage without losing their benefit payments (at least for a trial period)
  • provide advisers for disabled people entering employment
  • build capacity of state organisations (KPAs, OAED) to deal with labour market issues for disabled people

6. Improve the sector’s networking and representation:

  • create a representative, co-ordination and support body for social enterprises
  • support existing networking initiatives
  • promote exchanges with organisations representing vulnerable groups

7. Improve collaboration between social enterprises and the public sector:

  • conclude development partnerships between the two sectors
  • establish social criteria in public procurement procedures
  • recognise the social added value of partnership between the public and social economy sectors

Key proposals

  • to create an interministerial committee to be responsible for legal aspects, and to clarify and extend the existing KoiSPE law
  • to look at continuing support for the specialist support structures established in the first half of EQUAL, as well as incorporating their know-how into mainstream business support agencies
  • to create a legal framework for micro-lending as well as a loan and guarantee fund
  • to develop management training, materials and qualifications
  • to allow disabled people to earn a wage without losing their benefit payments (at least for a trial period)
  • to create a representative, co-ordination and support body for social enterprises
  • to establish social criteria in public procurement procedures


The network also set up a liaison group to develop contacts with the competent agencies in order to promote proposals, and organised discussion workshops on aspects of development of the social economy with project promoters in the EQUAL programme, with experts and policy-making agencies.

But for network co-ordinator Nepheli Yatropoulos, the European conference, held in Athens in September 2005, was a crucial culmination to the network’s work in the first half of EQUAL. “We tried to get everyone there who was involved with the social economy in Greece, so that they could establish person-to-person contact,“ she says. “We also invited all the decision makers, and put our proposals for the development of the sector before them. This has raised the sector’s profile a lot, and I am optimistic that the government will move forward on this issue.” The Greek Confederation of Employers attended, and is supportive of the social economy unless it sets up in unfair competition with existing firms.

But there were also some setbacks. “The network was the first place where people could really discuss the social economy, but we didn’t really have a common language. So we spent several meetings debating definitions and trying to draw up a tighter definition of the social economy, but in the end we decided that this was not a particularly fruitful task when there was more productive work to be done,” says Ms Yatropoulos. What this debate did result in was a network that provided its members with very valuable mutual support. Ms Staikou testifies to the energy the network tapped into: “I took part in all four national networks,” she says, “and what impressed me was how passionate and interested in their field the members of the social economy network were. They wanted to persuade everybody. Even though they are not continuing, the partnerships from the first round of EQUAL are keen to help those from the second round, so we are organising a meeting to build a bridge between them.”

The main building block for the social economy that was not put in place during the first round of EQUAL is the creation of a suitable legal status which is both suitable for trading (unlike an association) and embodies social economy values (unlike the conventional company). “The simplest solution is to extend the existing structure of the KoiSPE to other disadvantaged target groups, but it could take some time to bring about as there are differing views on this,” says Ms Yatropoulos. “It’s a political question now.”

Though some of the elements of the network closed their doors when their EQUAL projects came to an end, the network lives on both in human and physical form, in the various organisations in different parts of the country that have been set up. “People who are interested in starting a social enterprise can get in touch with their nearest KoiSPE, or with other agencies such as the Trading Houses that the Dioni partnership has set up in Athens and Alexandroupoli in Thrace,” Ms Yatropoulos says.

Social inclusion peer review spreads the word

Other countries, particularly new Member States, are also benefiting from the Greek experience. The limited liability social co-operative (KoiSPE) was chosen as the subject of a European peer review in social inclusion policies, which took place in Athens in October 2005, and attracted a higher than average participation. No fewer than seven peer countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Latvia, Malta, Poland and Romania) took part, along with three European stakeholder groups. Participants, especially those from the new Member States, identified considerable scope for transfer of the social co-operative model (itself transferred largely from the Italian and Spanish experience). “What was unusual was that even the European NGOs present, which are normally diplomatically critical of what the Member States do, applauded this Greek initiative,” commented Wolfgang Schlegel, the peer review manager.

The peer review documents were available at but as of 2013 have been taken offline.


Vassiliki Staikou
Transnationality, Networking and Mainstreaming Unit
EQUAL Managing Authority
Ministry of Employment and Social Protection
Agissilaou 23-25, GR - 10437 Athens
Tel: +30 210 527 1318

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