The Italian job

Italy’s influence on the rest of Europe has ranged from art and
religion to food and politics. Now it is influencing social care
with its experience of social co-operatives.

Social co-operatives – not-for-profit businesses providing welfare
services run by paid staff, volunteers and users – could take off
in the UK, where they fit with the government’s belief that
community groups and social enterprises should deliver more social
services. In fact, in last week’s Queen’s Speech the government
outlined legislative measures to create social enterprises. Italy’s
positive experience of social co-operatives is not only having an
impact across Europe but is influencing projects in Japan and

There is a long tradition of workers’ and retail co-operatives in
Italy, but a new co-operative movement was established in the 1980s
as a result of a crisis in the country’s welfare provision. Italy’s
own care in the community initiative was introduced just as
profound changes were being felt within Italian families. The
family unit was becoming more fragmented and family support for
individuals was often reduced.

Out of this grew a grass-roots movement that provided support for
people isolated from society, including mentally ill people who had
been discharged from hospital, released prisoners, drug addicts and
the long-term unemployed. This movement generated a wave of social
co-operatives, which were legally recognised in Italy in

Over the past 18 years their number has increased from 650 to about
5,000. Many social co-operatives operate work integration schemes
to create jobs for people who are socially isolated, others provide
a range of services such as hostels for abused children, family
therapy centres and child care facilities.

Enzo Pezzini is head of the Brussels office of the Italian
Confederation of Co-operatives. He says that while some of the
social co-operatives took over services already supplied by
municipalities, in the main they provide services that were
previously unavailable. One example, cites Pezzini, was in
providing domiciliary care services to enable more older patients
in hospital to return home.

“All new innovative [social] services have been started by social
co-operatives,” claims Pezzini. “They have been pioneers. Because
of their flexibility they are able to be more rapid in finding new
solutions. It takes longer to make decisions and to find resources
in the public sector.”

Sweden is one of the countries most influenced by the Italian
experience, although it also had domestic reasons for the emergence
of social co-operatives. Yohanan Stryjan, professor of business
administration at S”dert”rns H”gskola University in Stockholm, is a
member of the Emes European research network of academics studying
the growth of social enterprises, including social co-ops. He
suggests that the development of social co-operatives in Sweden was
part of a move away from a public monopoly in the delivery of
health, education, welfare and labour market services. “Perhaps the
most important factor was rising dissatisfaction with the public
sector’s welfare services,” he says.

Public services were increasingly criticised by a population
demanding higher quality and personally tailored services, he adds.
“The public sector [had been] identified with health and welfare,
and taxes were largely seen as the bill for these. As long as
quality was perceived as reasonable, the tax rate was accepted as
well,” Stryjan says.

But at the same time as public sector costs were rising, staff
recruitment became more difficult, pushing down standards. Social
co-ops began to be seen as a relevant alternative. Italy was not
Sweden’s only inspiration, as a network of Swedish co-operative
development agencies and co-operative kindergartens across the
country already offered higher quality services at a lower cost
than those provided by the state.

By 1996, there were 1,500 co-operative kindergartens, while
co-operative and association-run schools also increased. This has
now expanded to include housing co-operatives for older people,
independent living co-operatives for people with severe
disabilities and work integration projects.

Sweden’s social work co-operatives, which promote work experience
for those who have difficulty finding employment, are a more recent
development. They are backed by Sweden’s Social Co-operative
Project and supported by key groups promoting the interests of
disabled people and people with mental illness.

Roger Spear, chairperson of the Co-operative Research Unit and a
senior lecturer at the Open University, is also a member of Emes.
He believes there are consistent trends to be observed in the
various countries running social co-operatives. They are influenced
by the drive for public sector reform and governmental spending
constraints, he says, while an increasing number of co-operative
bodies bring together a range of interests – workers, users and
carers – in what are called multi-stakeholder structures.

“There is an element of copying models that seem very innovative
and effective. There is a general agenda in several areas to reform
public services and there are financial pressures to push them
along paths they have not considered before. Some of the social
co-operatives are shining examples of what can be achieved,” says

The startling growth of social co-ops in Italy has encouraged
similar developments in much of continental Europe, and parallel
movements in Canada and Japan. Rainer Schlter of the European
Federation of Co-Operatives, says that Sweden, Belgium, Greece,
Portugal, France and, to an extent, Germany are all developing
movements inspired by Italy, in many cases backed by new

“There are cases where they are taking over public services,” says
Schlter. “The main situation is to respond to new needs which are
not covered, and will not be covered, by the public sector.”

La Dolce vita?   

La Cordata women’s hostel in Milan is one of the city’s social
co-operatives. It accommodates 16 young women. Four of the women
are paid for by Milan municipality’s social services department as
being at risk of social marginalisation. They have either been
abused, come from dysfunctional families or are on probation for
non-drug related crimes. The remaining 12 residents are private
payers who want to live in secure, low cost accommodation while
they are away from the family home studying at university.
Tenancies are long term to help create social bonds and residents
often stay for several years. As a condition of living there, all
tenants must involve themselves in communal events.

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