Pictured at the University of Navarra are at the lack left to right, Annette Barr Jordan, Westmeath County Council, Clodagh Barry, Social Enterprise Exchange (SEE) Liam Ramsbottom Laois County Council, Cathriona MacCarthy, Roscommon County Council, Catherine Kane, Longford County Council and Pablo Lansac ANEL. In front, left to right Sandra Cavero Dean of Economics and Business Studies, Louise Lennon Irish Rural Link in Moate, Ignacio Ugalde President of ANEL, Chris Gordan SEE, Antonio Martinez de Bujanda Director ANEL, Anne Graham, Western Development Commission; and Athlone's Gabrielle McFadden from Social Enterprise Exchange (SEE).

Midlands delegation visits leading Spanish social economy region to see best practice in action

A delegation from the Midlands region comprising officials from a number of local authorities and key social enterprise stakeholders from several counties saw best practices in social economy in action during a recent visit to the Navarre region in Spain.

Social enterprises are businesses that work primarily to improve the lives of people, frequently working to support disadvantaged groups such as the long-term unemployed, people with disabilities, and those suffering from social exclusion.

Navarre has become a leading pioneer in promoting social enterprise and developing the social economy. In 2017, it became the only European region to develop a comprehensive Social Economy Plan (2017-2020) to support social economy organisations. More recently, Navarre in northern Spain announced plans to have the first Social Economy Business School in Europe.

The recent Spanish visit was organised by Social Enterprise Exchange (SEE), a local initiative connecting social enterprises across East Galway, Longford, Offaly, Roscommon, Westmeath and Laois.

The schedule included a wide range of meetings, including discussions with the Directorate General for Social Economy and Labour, the Navarre Employment Service-Nafar Lansare (SNE-NL) and the Directorate General for External Action.

The experience was described as a major success on many levels by Athlone's Gabrielle McFadden of Social Enterprise Exchange (SEE).

“The Irish delegation availed of the valuable opportunity to learn about several success stories and good practices in social economy that are being applied in the Navarre region.

“I am very encouraged that each member of the Irish delegation has taken back a huge body of knowledge which can be used to apply best practice when it comes to promoting the social economy in the Midlands region," the former TD and councillor said.

“I am also enthused by the great spirit of co-operation that the Irish delegation fostered during the trip to Navarre. I believe that we can continue to nurture these working relationships with all stakeholders, including local authority officials," she added.

“When it comes to maximising the prospects of securing Just Transition Funding, you are better positioned to apply for this funding through a steering group. Accordingly, Social Enterprise Exchange is looking forward to developing and strengthening the relationships between all these stakeholders for the betterment of this region,” said Ms McFadden.

The counties represented in the visiting delegation are among the designated areas eligible to apply for funding under the Just Transition Funding (JTF). JTF is an EU programme aimed at providing new employment opportunities for workers and communities, like Bord na Móna workers, that were heavily dependent on the peat industry.

"Because of climate change, we have been trying for the last two years to build social enterprises that will allow us to create jobs and services for an area, the Midland region which is home to more than half a million people," outlined Ms McFadden.

She was also encouraged that even the Irish government itself had shown its support for SEE’s promotion and nurturing of social enterprises in this region.

Annette Barr Jordan from the community section of Westmeath County Council, was one of the local authority representatives among the visiting delegation.

“I completed the Diploma in Co-operative and Social Enterprise in UCC a number of years ago and found it really interesting and beneficial to my work over the last number of years,” said Ms Barr Jordan.

“However, the learning trip to Navarre really opened my eyes to the wider opportunities that could exist for Ireland if we could take advantage of this learning and models of good practice that we were privileged to see and experience on our trip away.

“The social economy is a space that could and should be explored more to support gaps in services in communities whilst supporting the local economy and statutory agencies to deliver quality and value for money services on the ground,” she explained.

Meanwhile, Louise Lennon, Policy & Media Officer with Moate-based Irish Rural Link (IRL), who was also on the delegation, said IRL was delighted to participate in the study visit with the Social Enterprise Exchange Just Transition Project.

“It was interesting to learn how this region has developed the social economy and having the necessary infrastructure and supports in place to help social enterprises develop and grow.

“The importance of having all actors involved - Minister, Government departments and agencies, academia, financial institutions and social enterprises and co-operatives themselves - highlighted the importance of collaboration and working together to make the social economy a viable model to creating employment and sustaining regional development,” she observed.