Is social economy a phenomenon for Belarus?

Elena Borel, EuroBelarus Information Service

The conference “Social economy: how to be successful despite the crisis” launched in Minsk on October 22.

Representatives of Belarusan NGOs gathered for a two-day forum. A plenary session within the frames of which reporters held speeches and presentations happened on the opening day. Besides, Lotta Johansson, a representative of European organization “Hela Sverige ska leva” from Sweden was on air with Minsk.

“On my own behalf and on the behalf of all the participants of the Swedish project I want to welcome everyone who came to the conference,” Lotta Johansson said. “The project that we are realizing together with Belarusan partners is in the halfway through realization. We have done a lot of important things already. And in order to work on this project next year we have a rich experience from this year; and we can share it at this conference.”

The employee of the “Hela Sverige ska leva” stopped at some important moments that influence social economy and civil society.

“Before this communication I was watching TV and saw an interview with an official from the Ministry of Migration. According to his information, during the next two months we should take 200 thousand refugees from Syria. This is the news we have,” Johansson couldn’t but mention the urgent problem Europeans are facing now.

According to her, without cooperation and mutual actions of the authorities, civil society, and social economy the problems of such scale as refugees cannot be resolved. No one will manage to resolve them alone.

“Together with the colleagues from a network of Swedish organizations we are working round the clock in order to provide the thousands of newly coming people with food, accommodation, and everything necessary,” informed Lotta Johansson. “You understand, Sweden is a northern country and people cannot just live in the street...”

And though Sweden has its own problems, and Belarus has different ones, only cooperation and common efforts of the civil society and social economy can save the world from misfortunes, emphasized the Sweden representative.

An expert in economy from the Institute of Business and Management of the Belarus State University Maksim Maroz told about overconsumption, globalization, and regional tendencies in modern economy. platform demonstrated an example of successful crowdfunding for social projects in the presentation of the manager of the project Viktar Radzkou. Yauheni Klishevich, the founder and the head of the platform, offered it as an instrument for developing social enterprises.

Max Hedin, a PR-manager of SINGO social enterprises network, told how to promote social economy in the Internet with the help of PR-technologies. Natallia Halanskaya, the head of “Anti-café 1387”, presented social networks as an effective means of marketing, and her colleague Marina Shorets, a coach in “Shorets Consult” draw the attention of the participants to the role marketing and sales in social economy. The coordinator of the “House of mutual understanding” program Maksim Padbiarozkin presented “helpers” of social economy — NGOs and Foundations. A representative of regional media — chief editor of “Hantsavichy time” Petr Huzaeuski shared his experience in work with the local community and earning money.

The work of the conference continued the World Café, where the following questions were brought to discussion: 1. What or how prevents you from being successful? 2. Whom or what do you interfere? 3. What are the ways to resolve the problem of successfulness? 4. What should the way of overcoming the crisis start from?

The first day of the conference ended with a reception, and on October 23 the participants gathered again; that time for working in thematic sections. EuroBelarus Information Service quotes the most interesting extracts of the reports on social economy issues, presented on the opening day.

Leonid Kalitenya, the head of the Center for Social Innovation, talked about the prospects of social economy in Belarus.

“We can say that we have a social state. But do we have a social economy? No. We have contract system, big tax pressure, so we can talk about social economy with great reserve,” stated the reporter and started enumerating theses in favor of social economy.

The amount of money the state gets from enterprises equals the amount of money it needs for pension payments; which is our absolute limit. But are we happy with this limit? The monopolistic position of the state allows providing a certain minimum that we are not happy about; otherwise we wouldn’t gather for this conference, noted Kalitenya.

Apart from the money from the state that isn’t enough there is a second aspect. “Remember how 15 years ago people were happy with any pension; 10 years ago they started talking about barrier-free environment; about 7 years ago they started talking about the need for inclusive education. The range of needs in growing with each year, but the money isn’t enough,” emphasized the head of the Center for Social Innovation. What solution does the reporter see? “Lotta mentioned it previously: to unite the efforts of the state and social structures for creating the phenomenon that is called “social economy,” he explained. “Business, society, and state should work in cooperation that helps to resolve such issues; not only at the expense of state budget, but at the expense of business and civil society organizations, too.”

Signing of the Convention on Rights of the Disabled at the UN Session put our country in such a situation that if we started it, we will have to continue. “At least, we cannot introduce laws that contradict the Convention after signing it. Any Belarusan citizen can appeal against it in court,” he explained.

The other thing is that we still need to ratify the Convention and explain it, assumes the reporter. “But we have already trodden on these rails; that’s why social economy is one of the instruments that helps resolving issues of socialization, inclusion, barrier-free environment, and so on,” noted Kalitenya.

Apart from external, global challenges there are two more questions: will we do it according to science or without any system? If we unite our efforts, we will be able to build our social economy’s development strategy and can take part in it altogether, the researcher believes.

According to him, everything that we demanded from the state over 24 years is now achieved; now it’s reached the top of its abilities; we need to act together with it.

What prevents us from developing social economy? The main problem is lack of resources. In this situation people are not prone to cooperation. The existing system of relations is far from being ideal; lack of qualifications, isolation, and lack of communication with a broad circle of social enterprises is something we need to overcome.

Aksana Shelest, senior analyst of the Center for European Transformation, presented the results of research into the employment of persons with disabilities  and subjective and objective hindrances for their employment.

Everyone is aware of the main directions of state social policy in this sphere: benefits, support of specialized enterprises, professional training, working migration, and over the recent years — programs for creating and provision of the necessary facilities for persons with disabilities. “This complex is not bad; however, we have to state that due to a number of reasons this policy isn’t effective,” informed the analyst.

First of all, it is related to the monopolization of the social policy. Second reason lies in its inefficiency: the old-fashioned concepts that are used. “In fact, it matters, how the officials talk; the way our life will be defined largely depends on words, definitions, terms, and categories that the people who define our life are using,” stressed Aksana Shelest.

The researcher exemplified her words with the state statistics that uses “disability groups” when categorizing in the sphere of social policy. But that doesn’t give any chance to talk about the specifics of needs that people with different disabilities have. Thus, people with poor eyesight and people in wheelchairs are absolutely different and have absolutely different needs; whereas officials, state programs, and legislation mostly care about work rehabilitation, but neglect employment, realization of right to work or extension of rights.

The analyst also noted the formalism and ineffectiveness of social politics: the system lacks monitoring of qualitative change; only quantitate changes are being monitored, which proves that this policy is formal.

Systemacy in employment problem is also lacking.

The research demonstrated that persons with disability are not perceived as subjects of cooperation, but as objects of care for the state.

How actual are problems of persons with disabilities for Belarusans? “They know it’s important,” noted the analyst. “Difficulties with employment of the disabled occupy the first place in the rate of the existing problems and forms of discrimination, which is higher than material difficulties (which is strange for Belarusans, who almost always put material hardships first).”

Belarusans are well aware of the discrimination that people with disabilities have in our society.

How do Belarusans evaluate state policy towards persons with disabilities? The majority of citizens believe that the actions of the state are not enough.

How do Belarusans see the prospects for changing the situation? A variant of creating conditions for inclusiveness collected smallest number of supporters. Second variant — creation of special enterprises for employing persons with disabilities turned out to be not so popular, too. It was the third variant that took the first place — increase of benefits and social payments for the disabled not to work.

“On the one hand, we can say that Belarusans are very kind people, who don’t spare taxes for providing social payments and so on,” noted Aksana Shelest. “But these results prompt that Belarusan society isn’t yet ready to meet other people that are different from them in their everyday life.”

Barriers and stereotypes towards persons with disabilities might be more widespread in the Belarusan society than we assume, added the researcher. The most barrier sphere was the employment, with a stereotype about the work coming second: a person with disability cannot fulfill duties on a par with the rest.

The researchers offered common citizens to imagine that a person with disability will get employment in the place where they work and asked to think of what could disturb personally them in this situation. The most popular answer is the need to put extra efforts in order to provide necessary working conditions for this person. 30% of the respondents admitted that they would feel psychological discomfort when communicating with such a person.

Besides, only a little bit more than 20% of the Belarusan respondents find it acceptable to be colleagues with persons with disabilities.

Aksana Shelest summed up her statement with the conclusions of the research. Persons with disabilities in Belarus are a still a part of a secondary market in the system of labor segmentation, which is characterized by low salary, unstable work, and low chances of getting a qualification. The most developed form of providing employment for persons with disabilities is a specialized enterprise created by a society of persons with disabilities or other agents. The minuses of such enterprises are: fundamental unprofitability; serious risk with having not a very reliable partner embodied by the state; limitation of choice of activity for professional realization; low degree of integration of persons with disabilities since such enterprises present a kind of a ghetto.

“And the last thing. Even the development of specialized enterprises doesn’t solve the problem of providing employment for some categories due to barrier nature of the environment,” summed up the analyst from the Center for European Transformation.

The research that she conducted one more time proves that social policy of the state is ineffective and requires changes.