Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Well-being for all: Is “shared social responsibility” the solution?

Ever heard about “shared social responsibility” (SSR)? I hadn’t, I have to confess. “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) rings a bell, but what SSR stands for I had no clue, at least since yesterday. I am just back in the office from a two day mission to Brussels where I participated in a co-organized event by the Council of Europe and the EU commission on: Shared social responsibility – securing trust and sustainable social cohesion in a context of transition”. The conference objectives was to discuss the draft of a “European Charter on shared social responsibilities” portrayed as “an alternative to the status quo…..creating a framework for developing action strategies that can provide everyone with an acceptable degree of control over their lives in a context of co-decided priorities”. Uff!

In a more simpler language I understood that this means get us citizens engaged to become more involved in dealing with all sorts of issues in a “transition” context, while transition stands for all sorts of problems, challenges and evils European societies are facing today. From a marketing point of view the concept is quite appealing: the “social” addresses the concerns of the more social democratic public while “responsibility” nicely resonates with the more liberal folks. And who would oppose to any “sharing”?

Three questions immediately come to mind:

First, why do we need this charter and why now? Listening to the president of the EU commission, José Barrosso, the current model of European growth and welfare is broken and needs urgently to be revitalized. In fact, I was very surprised how many speakers highlighted their worries with contemporary Europe: low growth, fierce competition, high inequalities, high youth un-employment, social exclusion ….. an impressive laundry list of all the malaises was discussed. But, is this really a good starting point for a new vision? Where is the positive entry point? You can – at least I felt – hardly build a new, inspiring vision only on fear, anxiety and weakness. Luckily, at the end of the two day conference, the American Harvard professor Peter A. Hall reminded us of the many strengthens Europe can still rely on, notably its long tradition of sharing common values relating to social cohesion and solidarity.

Secondly, what’s new and where is the beef? Have we not had more than 20 years of debate on the social economy, third sector, voluntary organizations and corporate social responsibilities? After two days of debate, I am now more convinced that there is indeed something pecuniary about putting out a new vision today. The crisis has amplified some of the structural problems in Europe, leading to an immense piling up of public debt with public authorities having more and more difficulties to perform basic functions. Europe urgently needs a vision – beyond the day-to-day management of the Euro crisis and competitive pact design - which can bind together different strata of the population. Does this remind us of the concept of “Big Society” currently discussed in the UK? Yes it does – it was said though, that the current debate is too focussed on “shifting responsibilities” and not on “sharing”, which has a different slant.

How to make it work? Jean Lambert, member of the European Parliament, questioned whether the different stakeholders are already ready to take up this new role of “responsibility”. Do the different stakeholders have the time and the skills to get involved – where is the space where the different actors could meet and discuss, she asked in her intervention? It is very clear that for an active engagement of other stakeholders than the state, such as businesses and civil society organizations, the purpose and outcomes of consultations need to be clear.

To boost and scale up the engagement of local citizens in the spirit of a “shared social responsibility” will take some time and effort and the state needs to be acting as a key actor to allow the other stakeholders to flourish. Social networks are not only a source for personal well-being and risk sharing but can also lead to spin-offs for the whole society, breeding social innovations. Peter Hall called it the “social multiplier effect”. Governments need to check if their policies are supporting and not damaging the social fabric of societies and social connectives. This network capital should be activated and harnessed to make social cohesion work through shared social responsibilities.

In a nutshell, the idea of sharing social responsibilities is inspiring; not only for Europe but also beyond. The difficult question is how to make it work in societies where different strata of the population opt out – is the Facebook generation interested in taking its share of “social responsibility” one might, for instance, ask.

What will be the future of this charter? It is far too early to say if its final fate is to end up on the shelf of European member states or if it helps to set out the fundament of a new vision for Europe and therefore will shape a new political and social agenda, a new “ethical imperative” (Hall). I personally wish for the latter. Is SSR the solution to foster well-being for all? Certainly not, but it is a compelling framework to be used as a guidance for public policy making, for designing a modern form of stakeholder relation based on the principles of deliberative processes and accountability as well as for fostering social cohesion in a continent struggling to find its place in a shifting world context.


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