The social economy’s hidden value
OISE centre helps non-profits by Jenny Hall
Pop quiz: which sector in the Canadian economy has a million full-time employees and contributes seven per cent of the gross domestic product?
If you guessed the auto sector, you weren’t far off — though the cars contribute slightly more at about 12 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
Try the non-profit sector, which is but one part of what Jack Quarter and Laurie Mook call the nation’s “social economy.” Quarter, who with Mook, co-directs the Social Economy Centre at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, says the social economy is a “bridging concept for organizations that have a social mission but at the same time create some economic value through the services they provide.” Think non-profits, cooperatives, community
organizations and some socially-minded businesses. From the theatre company that puts on the play you saw last night to your kid’s Scout troop, the social economy is everywhere.
There’s been a lot of public hand-wringing lately about the potentially-disastrous consequences of letting the auto sector die. But what about this sometimes-invisible sector? “Imagine if the social economy suddenly wasn’t there,” says Mook. “What if all the recreation, health, leisure and arts organizations disappeared? They’re an integral part of our lives but they’re often marginalized or seen as separate.”
Mook and Quarter aim to change the way society values the social economy. To this end, they’re overseeing 35 research projects, funded through a five-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council strategic grant of $1.75 million. In addition, they have developed an open source software called Volunteers Count to assist community organizations in developing social accounting statements that include volunteer contributions.
“In 2003 Canadians contributed two billion hours of volunteering through non-profit organizations,” says Quarter. Their research showed that most organizations were keeping track of volunteer contributions manually, so they set out to develop an application that estimates comparable market value for volunteer labour and generates social accounting reports.
A lot of what the Centre does is to prod us to rethink how we assign value in our society. Mook is an expert in the field of social accounting. In conventional accounting, she says, certain rules and norms are followed, but we never ask about the values that underlie those rules. “There are decisions made about what’s in and what’s out in a conventional accounting statement and that has implications. Conventional accounting statements are constructed around the notion of success as the maximization of profit and as such the accounting statement drives behaviour toward the maximization of profit.”
She gives the example of exploitation of the environment. In conventional accounting this is called an “externality” — it’s a side effect of doing business and it’s not generally reported on. But what if your definition of accountability required you to report on your company’s impact on the environment? Would that change whether you were “successful” in a given accounting period?
“Social economy organizations have a social mission, so it’s easy to see that conventional accounting doesn’t capture a lot about what an organization accomplishes,” she says. Software like Volunteers Count and other tools developed by the Centre are helping organizations rethink how they report on the value they add to society.
The Centre works with a host of community partners and is committed to providing concrete assistance to community groups and non-profits. Each research project is required to have a plan for dissemination to non-academic audiences and a series of workshops keeps researchers in contact with those who work in the field.
Mook and Quarter also hope the Centre’s research will change the way we think about the social economy. “This is a vast social infrastructure that we could not function without,” says Quarter.
“This is the glue that keeps society together.”
Ayelet Shachar rethinks citizenship by Jenny Hall
Ayelet Shachar wants you to work a little harder. But it’s not just you — the legal scholar also has courts, governments and minority communities in her sights as she rethinks the way we organize some of the fundamental categories of society.
To wit: her new book about citizenship, called The Birthright Lottery.
“A child born this minute in Canada has all the protections, opportunities, rights and security that Canada provides,” she says. “At the same moment, a child born in Malawi has a very different set of opportunities because she happens to be born into a less prosperous country. Each child has no control over which country provides her rights and status. It really is a lottery.”
The idea of birthright was entrenched in feudal times, when birth on a certain territory would create a lifelong relationship between serf and lord. Shachar doesn’t suggest abolishing citizenship based on birth, but points out that in all other aspects of life, we have abolished birthright as a meaningful criteria for membership in a group. “You wouldn’t assume that someone who was born to a lawyer would automatically become a lawyer.”
Yet birthright not only survives but thrives in the realm of citizenship. “The harsh reality on the ground,” Shachar explains, “is that most people alive today — indeed 97 per cent of the global population — are assigned citizenship by the lottery of birth and either choose or are forced to keep it that way.”
Her solution? Those who win the birthright lottery pay a “global levy” for their good fortune in a way that brings some of their advantages to those who don’t fare so well in the lottery. And she’s not just talking about financial investment. “If I could design this, I would say that every kid who’s born in a well-off country would do a year or two of service in a poorer place. We should have a sense of how lucky we are, and the best way to do this is to see how other people are living.”
Getting us all to work a little harder is an enduring theme for Shachar, who’s also an expert on multiculturalism. Her previous book, Multicultural Jurisdictions, grappled with how much recognition states should grant religious communities while simultaneously protecting the rights of women within those communities.
For example, she studied a case of a Jewish couple who were granted a civil divorce. As part of the settlement, the husband promised to go through the religious process of releasing his wife, something that was required for her and her children to remain in good standing within their religious community. When he failed to do that, the Supreme Court granted her the right to sue for damages.
“How do you divide the responsibility between the state and the religious community over an individual who belongs to both?” she asks. Many people suggest that all the power be granted to the state. But this isn’t satisfactory, she says, because the result is often a dilemma for women who might find themselves still married according to the norms of their religious communities.
In response, she tried to find legal mechanisms for cooperation between states and religious communities. “The idea,” she says, “is that both need to work harder to protect women.” She developed what she calls a joint governance regime: the state is left in control of things like property and custody but the religious community is granted the ability to define whether a person is released from barriers to remarriage according to their faith. But the last word in this legal arrangement is reserved for the women themselves. If they are treated unfairly by either the state or the religious group, they retain the right to turn to the competing jurisdiction. “In this way,” she says, “both entities are forced to work harder to earn a woman’s trust.”
Canadian courts and tribunals have taken note of her innovative solutions and she has consulted with foreign governments. She’s delighted by the interest in her work.
“I want to impact the world. I care about theory but I care about the world as well. I believe that fresh ideas are the core offerings that scholars can proffer. We need to do our fair share.”