Catalan Solidarity: Frustration to Transformation

This is the article I had published in Stir to Action (Issue 16, Winter 2017) about the rise of the Catalan Solidarity Economy, and what they have learned from their experiences.


The Catalan Solidarity Economy is booming. The 190 member organisations of the Catalan Solidarity Economy Network have a combined turnover of 165m euros and employ 4,000 people across a range of sectors. Over 21,000 people attended the Network’s fifth annual fair in Barcelona in October 2016. And it’s all happening in a place the size of Belgium, with a population of just 7 million people.


The Catalan Solidarity Economy Network

The Xarxa d’Economia Solidària de Catalunya (XES) was established in 2002, after discussions between organisations from Catalonia and Brazil led to the creation of the International Forum on the Social and Solidarity Economy at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. XES was one of the first local networks to be created after Porto Alegre, and it grew steadily after its creation, coming to prominence with the first annual Catalan Solidarity Economy Fair in 2012.

Barcelona City Council locates the activities of XES’s members within a much wider ‘Other Economies Ecosystem’, which includes the De-growth movement, the Sharing Economy, Economy for the Common Good, Commoning, the Feminist Economy and the Social Economy. The City Council’s recent Les Altres Economies de la Ciutat (Other Economies of the City) report defines what it calls the ‘Social and Solidarity Economy’ as being made up of organisations which:

  • Aim to satisfy their members’ needs, or those of society, rather than profit;
  • Take decisions in a participatory and democratic way; and
  • Are socially and environmentally responsibl

XES has a ‘Social Market Strategy’ based on ‘processes’, sectors and ‘tools’. A key ‘process’ is the creation of local solidarity economy networks in different parts of Catalonia. The number of these local networks more than doubled, from four to ten, between October 2015 and October 2016. As well as improving collaboration among local organisations, the networks give them a coherent voice and greater leverage with local authorities.

Beyond the local, there are also self-organising networks to support and develop individual sectors like ethical finance, alternative currencies and restaurants. This has tended to focus on very practical outcomes for member organisations, such as the creation of a money-saving central purchasing operation for restaurants.

XES has also developed four ‘tools’ to support the growth and development of the network. The Solidarity Economy Fair (Fira d’Economia Solidaria de Catalunya), held in October each year, showcases the network’s activities and creates a forum for learning, sharing and debate. An online Social Audit tool (Balanç Social)—designed to be scalable and available to organisations worldwide—enables member organisations to assess, compare and promote their social and environmental impact. A searchable online map of the Catalan Solidarity Economy ( promotes the network and enables people to find hundreds of Solidarity Economy organisations (307 in Barcelona alone) offering a wide range of goods and services. The fourth member tool is a set of networking activities to foster and promote the scaling up of activities through member cooperation.


Why Catalonia?

The success of the Catalan Solidarity Economy can be explained in part by cultural and historical factors. Rubén Suriñach, Head of Social Market at XES and author of Barcelona City Council’s recent Other Economies report, points out some of the key antecedents: ‘Catalonia has a long history of participatory, self-organising activities in support of socially progressive alternatives. This includes the workers’ movement of the Second Republic and the country’s historically strong anarchist movement. Catalan cultural identity is part of the picture too—people self-organised to defend the Catalan language, for example, when cultural and political expression was denied under Franco.’

The importance of cultural factors is further underlined in research by the Open University of Catalonia, as part of Professor Manuel Castells Network Society initiative in 2012. The book Otra Vida es Posible (Another World is Possible), a large-scale study of alternative economic practices in and around Barcelona, attributed a lot of the growth in such activities to people’s ‘cultural capital’ (the ability to find and manage information), but also their ‘social capital’ (their ability to link with others).


Why Now?

The Catalan Solidarity Economy is an idea whose time has come. The boom can perhaps be traced back to the economic crisis, which engendered a distrust of elites. From this came the emergence of the 15-M movement and the occupation of squares across the Spanish state in May 2011. ‘The Indignados essentially gave voice to a kind of collective anger about the way power was distributed and a demand for greater democratic participation,’ says Rubén Suriñach. ‘This led to the creation of new political parties, but also created an appetite for practical alternatives that give people more control over their lives. We offered a way of turning frustration into transformation. We’ve created a kind of friendly ‘ecosystem’ where you can create your business and your lifestyle, which makes it real for people and easier to do.’

And that ecosystem is a highly abundant one: the network has grown, and so have individual sectors within it. Catalan energy co-ops, for example, have added more than 30,000 users in the last three years. But growth has not been even across all sectors, and the experience has been that it’s easier to grow those with short value chains—services such as food co-ops and energy—because it requires less effort to bring the consumers together. The trend has been for niche innovations to establish themselves and then scale up. How that scale can be increased further is one of the network’s major challenges for the future.


Institutional Support

Recent political developments have supported the network’s growth too. In the May 2015 elections Barcelona City Council was won by a new political grouping, Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), which grew out of the Indignados movement and was led by anti-eviction campaigner Ada Colau, who would become the city’s first female Mayor.

The grouping’s policy agenda included defending social justice and community rights, promoting participatory democracy, tackling corruption, and developing a new model of tourism for Barcelona. Barcelona en Comú, along with new political groupings in other parts of Catalonia, was one of the most receptive when XES proposed a 14-point programme of action to drive the social and solidarity economy in 2015. The City Council then went on to lead a new Network of Catalan Local Authorities for the Solidarity Economy.


Key Learning

There has not been a lot of time to pause for breath and take stock of what has been learned in the Catalan Solidarity Economy boom of recent years, but two things immediately stand out for Rubén Suriñach. The first is that a network enabler like XES has to be closely connected to its membership base and act on its needs: ‘Some people in our network had an interest in alternative currencies, for example, which led to work to promote some of these. But it never really took off. When we ran a participatory process with members to understand their needs, alternative currencies got one vote, but there was a lot more support for the networking events and the promotion of sectoral and local networks.’

Rubén’s second key learning point is that a degree of caution is needed in dealing with public institutions, even some of the very supportive ones that can be found in Catalonia: ‘You can’t let them set the agenda and dictate the timing of when things happen,’ Rubén argues. ‘You have to think about how your membership actually operates, in terms of timescales and what the network actually needs. Politicians often need to operate to much shorter timescales. The Council also works with many other players too, of course, such as the more established big co-ops, but our key strength is that we have a new narrative, we’re more participatory and can really mobilise people.’

This has led XES to fund its core activities from membership contributions, and then enhance that with new projects (like the map, the Fair and the Social Audit tool) that can be developed with the support of public sector bodies like Barcelona Council, but only when there is a shared interest in doing so.