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Social Economy Policies in Argentina: Potential and Limits for the Development of Associative and Cooperative Work

7 Mar 2014

Social Economy Policies in Argentina: Potential and Limits for the Development of Associative and Cooperative Work
This is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series is being published in conjunction with the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference took place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

This think piece analyses the potential and limits of Social Economy policies implemented in Argentina since 2003. The hypothesis that guides this work suggests that the main limits seen in the development of the Social Economy sector are due to the secondary role occupied by Social Economy in the government's social-economic strategy. This relates to the particular institutional framework of the programmes promoting associative and cooperative work. They are mainly implemented by the Social Development Ministry, a state agency which historically provided social assistance.
The think piece makes use of a theoretical and methodological perspective which posits that the policies promoting Social Economy are influenced by the structural level of social-political processes as well as by Social Economy actors and their practices. This point of view shows the main limits and potential of the development of associative and cooperative work in Argentina, taking into account economic, political, social and cultural dimensions.

Malena Victoria Hopp is assistant professor of social anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires. She also works in a study group on social policies and work conditions at the Gino Germani Research Institute. Her main research areas are social policies, work-labour and Social Economy studies.


Since 2003, Argentina has been restructuring its social and employment policies to address the social and economic crisis, especially the very high levels of poverty and unemployment, by generating decent work . Those changes were accompanied by a government discourse that tried to differentiate current programmes from those which were set up by previous administrations. These discourses define neoliberalism and structural adjustment as the causes of social problems, while denouncing the so-called focalization techniques and the assistance policies designed to address these problems. The focalization techniques designed in Argentina in the nineties shifted away from the principles of universality and solidarity of previous social policies, because they emphasized that the State should focus on the poorest individuals and decentralize and privatize social services. These types of policies tend to stigmatize recipients, since to be able to receive social assistance, they have to demonstrate their level of poverty.

In this period, the most original social policy strategy was the implementation of the Plan for Local Development and Social Economy, whose purpose was to establish a support system for local social-economic development initiatives, aimed specifically at low-income sectors. Since this policy was implemented, the promotion of Social Economy has played a greater role as a strategy for addressing the problems of unemployment and poverty.

In this context, I analyze the potential and limits of Social Economy policies implemented in Argentina since 2003. The reflections in this think piece are based on research results presented in Hopp, M. (2013) "Work understood as a means of social integration or an application of assistance: Policies to promote Social Economy in Argentina (2003-2011)". The objective of this research was to analyze how work units supported by policies that promote Social Economy, implemented in Argentina between 2003 and 2011, perform the intended aim of social and economic integration of their target populations. In terms of methodology, in this research I used a plural approach with the following components:
  • a comprehensive analysis of the norms that regulate programmes and actions promoting the Social Economy and various management and evaluation reports;
  • 35 interviews with benefit recipients and employees of government agencies involved in the implementation of programmes that promote Social Economy;
  • participant observation in three cooperatives and in one associative family project.

My hypothesis suggests that the limitations of the government strategy for the promotion of Social Economy are linked with two elements. The first element is the secondary role that Social Economy has in the country’s overall social-economic strategy. The second element is the hybrid nature of the programmes implemented. They are a mixture of, on the one hand, promoting associative and cooperative work, understood as a way of achieving social-economic integration, and on the other hand the use of the concept of work as a source of social assistance.

The potential of these programmes depends largely on the social and political participation of the individuals and groups in the programmes as well as their career paths. It also depends on the relationships between different forms of association; on the resources provided as the government programme is implemented in local areas; and on political practices at different levels of government and in a variety of state institutions.

Analysing Social Economy policies

The potential and limits of government strategy to promote associative and cooperative work as a way of building a Social Economy sector can be analyzed by considering four dimensions of associative and cooperative work:
  1. Economic dimension: This refers to the role of associative and cooperative work in the social and economic strategy of the national government. Labour units are important in government policies, since they have the capacity to generate resources for their reproduction and expansion as well as the potential to satisfy the welfare needs of the households that depend on them.
  2. Political dimension: This concerns the institutionalization of the Social Economy. Institutionalization refers to the state regulations that establish the conditions that either stimulate or block the development of Social Economy. I also consider the social and political processes of participation in cooperatives and associative labour units.
  3. Cultural dimension: This refers to the symbolic meanings and the sense that people attribute to associative or cooperative labour units. It also refers to the collective identity processes that are developed when working in an associative or cooperative labour units.
  4. Social dimension: This alludes to the development of social bonds between different social groups. Specifically, it explores the strength of the bonds, given that they involve different forms of protection and recognition, and the type of links that are constructed through participation in associative production units. Here we include relationships between family members and peers from the neighbourhood, work and activist groups, as well as relationships with the state and the market.

Figure 1: Schematic analysis of the potential and limits of state construction of Social Economy.

The secondary role of the Social Economy in the government social-economic strategy: Social Economy only as poverty alleviation

Regarding the economic dimension, since 2003 unemployment in Argentina has declined significantly while there has been sustained economic growth. However, there is still a hard core of unemployment, informal work is widespread and poverty is still a relevant problem. In this context, policies that aim to promote Social Economy were consolidated as a strategy for addressing these critical problems and their target population, specifically vulnerable groups.

While government discourse emphasized the role of the Social Economy and the government expanded and developed programmes to strengthen and regulate this field, the main interventions were conducted by the Ministry of Social Development, a state agency historically dedicated to providing social assistance. Furthermore, these actions were not accompanied by significant changes in economic regulations and conditions of protection, production and marketing for associative labour units and cooperatives.

This particular development of Social Economy separate from employment institutions implies that Social Economy is conceived as the economy of poverty. The secondary role of Social Economy in government strategy in Argentina contrasts with Social Economy theories that understand it as an alternative economy, in which the concept of work is the centre of the system and the objective is to enlarge the reproduction of life rather than capital accumulation (Coraggio, 2004). The government strategy is not consistent with the actions and political intentions of the social organizations that participate daily in the development of the Social Economy sector.

Challenges of associative and cooperative work forms

Regarding the capacity of associative and cooperative labour units to generate resources for their reproduction and expansion as well as their potential to satisfy the needs of the households that depend on them, the main problems that I found in the associative work units and cooperatives promoted by Social Economy policies were:
  • Financing problems related to production, for example difficulties in obtaining credits to finance production and capital investments.
  • The small scale that usually characterizes these work units makes the supplies and raw materials more expensive.
  • Weaknesses in the organization of production processes and the management of enterprises.
  • Personal conflicts that affect work.
  • Barriers to market insertion linked with poor knowledge of sales strategies and the lack of markets that share the values and ways of Social Economy.
  • As a result of these difficulties, incomes are low and/or fluctuate and they depend on the customers and in some cases on resources provided by the state.
  • This entails a growing inability to plan for the future or to invest.
  • Working conditions are often poor because workers lack quality social protection and the legal and tax forms for associative and cooperative workers don´t recognize the collective character and the needs of these economic units.

The political dimension of Social Economy policies

Concerning the institutional framework of programmes promoting associative and cooperative work, we can state that since 2003 Argentina has made important progress in recognizing and building legal and regulatory frameworks for Social Economy and it has been expanding social protection and support policies for associative and cooperative work.
The creation of the Social Economy Workers Registry allowed the formalization and extension of social protection for associative and cooperative workers, such as access to health, retirement and family allowance systems.

However, these public policies for the promotion of Social Economy have some limitations:
  • Signing up to the Social Economy Workers Registry requires workers to demonstrate their level of poverty.
  • The Registry’s coverage is very low: The last official information available shows that in 2011 only 475.191 workers were enrolled.
  • There are issues of quality and access to health benefits.
  • Access to Universal Child Allowance is limited to informal workers or those enrolled in the Social Economy Workers Registry. The Universal Child Allowance is a non-contributory family allowance for unemployed and informal workers with minor children or disabled children of any age. This new subsystem, created in 2009, aims to complement the existing system of child allowance, since there used to be only one for formal employed workers. But cooperative or associative workers who are not poor and for that reason can not be registered in the Social Economy Workers Registry are excluded from both the Universal Child Allowance (because they are not on the Social Economy Workers Registry) and from the family allowance system for formal workers because they do not have an employer.

These problems show that workers in the Social Economy belonging to associative and cooperative work forms, understood as a new type of actor in the labour market, are not totally recognized and there is no acknowledgement of their specific collective character.

This limitation is linked to the absence of a public system of reproduction of labour and self-managed economic units (Hintze, 2010) that would facilitate the strengthening and expansion of these types of jobs in socially acceptable working conditions.

The social dimension of the promotion of Social Economy Programmes

The analysis of evaluations and management reports of programmes that promote Social Economy and work in cooperatives and associative projects in which I conducted fieldwork for my research showed that the social-political participation and career paths of the individuals and groups participating in programmes promoting Social Economy are crucial to ensure the daily operation of production units. Relationships between family members and peers from their neighborhood, and the participation in Social Economy organizations play a central role in the constitution of associative experiences and serve as criteria for selecting new working members. Solidarity and cooperation emerge as fundamental values regarding this form of work organization. Therefore we can state that participating in these work units has the potential to generate social practices and forms of economic production that contest and provide a realistic alternative to mainstream practices such as individual gain, competitive values and the exploitative nature of capitalist markets.

New ways of working

Regarding the cultural dimension, Argentinean Social Economy policies are failing to achieve the potential of cooperatives to forge a collective sense of identity, rather than one of individual dependency. The possibility of building a collective identity of workers that belong to the Social Economy is limited by working conditions, low incomes and the hybrid nature of the design of policies that promote the Social Economy in Argentina.

The analysis of the diverse cases that have been supported by Social Economy policies shows a relationship between the career paths and social-political participation of people regarding the way they understand the concept of work. There is a greater commitment in workers who have been activists or who have founded associations to the values and principles of Social Economy and a trend toward the construction of a collective identity as associative and cooperative workers.

In cases where the association with others was voluntary, but mainly with the aim of obtaining resources provided by social policies (for example special credits, benefits, subsidies for machines, materials), or when the association of workers occured as a result of Social Economy programmes designed and managed by the government, we find greater difficulties in the construction of an identity linked to associative and cooperative work and less willingness to be seen as part of a Social Economy project.

As a result of both the challenges faced by associative and cooperative workers mentioned above and the lack of collective identity linked to work in the social economy, I understand associative and cooperative work as a transitory revenue generation strategy and not as a genuine labour alternative that is viable in the long term.


Since 2003 the policy of promoting Social and Solidarity Economy has been consolidated and expanded in Argentina, which opens possibilities for the development of forms of associative and cooperative labour, but how, and if, they can be further consolidated as well as their overall significance is still an open question. The development of regulatory institutions, promotion, coordination and strengthening of these work forms was driven primarily by the Social Development Ministry. This is a state agency which historically provided social assistance, focusing on vulnerable individuals, groups and economic units. This characteristic of the Social Economy promotion policies means that Social Economy tends to be constructed as a heterogeneous space for the inclusion of those who have been displaced over the past two decades from the labour market and are living in poverty. These government actions assume a new type of actor in the labour market that ironically is not fully recognized.


Coraggio, J.L. 2004. De la Emergencia a la Estrategia. Más allá del “alivio a la pobreza”, Buenos Aires: Espacio.

Hintze, S. 2010. La política es un arma cargada de futuro. La economía social y solidaria en Brasil y en Venezuela. Buenos Aires: CLACSO.

Hopp, M. 2013. El Trabajo medio de integración social o recurso de la asistencia: las políticas de promoción de la Economía Social en la Argentina (2003-2011). Doctorado en Ciencias Sociales, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Buenos Aires.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.