Social economy at a glance
In Belgium it was estimated that there were approximatively 18 000 social enterprises in 2017, including:
- 17 500 associations (ASBL)
- 220 cooperatives
- 196 foundations
- 103 mutuals
- 378 social purpose companies
Social economy employed 393 000 full-time equivalents in 2017, weighting for 12% of employment in Belgium.
Source: Social Enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Reports, Belgium, 2019
* For this website we included this overall assessment of the level of development, it is based on the data and information about the social economy ecosystem currently available and therefore has some limitations. However, we still considered it useful to include this overall assessment.
** Source: EESC/CIRIEC (2016) Recent evolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union, please note that this estimate is on the high end as it is based on organisation type and did not apply a more narrow check for all elements in the social economy definition.
For more details on the data quality see our note on social economy data.
Tradition and origins
Traditional entities of the social economy emerged in the 19th century in Belgium, strongly rooted in workers’ movements which supported the creation of cooperative and mutuals, and the development of the associative sector. Cooperatives flourished during this period, often structuring themselves around political ideas movements (liberalist, socialist, Christian cooperatives).
During the 20th century, the advent of the welfare state nourished the development of social economy entities, especially associations, as they started to act as social service providers. Although cooperatives were already recognized during the 19th century, most entities obtained recognition throughout the 20th century, with a first law regulating associations in 1921 for instance.
Since the 1980s, one has witnessed several changes in the social economy landscape. Facing a diminution of public funding, associations have started to develop more commercial activities and have had to innovate to create new business models. Cooperatives started to restructure themselves, diversifying their work and getting more involved in activities oriented towards social innovation, the environment and general interest. Finally, the "new social economy" has emerged with the apparition of social enterprises
Framework conditions and social economy ecosystem
Policy and legal framework
There is no specific national legislation that fully encompasses the whole scope of the social economy in Belgium. Nonetheless, numerous laws and decrees relate to the different legal forms and missions of the social economy actors:
- At federal level, the 2019 reform on company codes formerly recognised the funding principles of cooperatives.
- At federal level, there is a recognition of social enterprises. It takes the form of an approval granted by the Minister of the Economy to cooperative societies that meet a certain number of conditions, based in particular on the following principles:
- the aim of the company must be, in the general interest, to generate a positive social impact for people, the environment or society;
- voluntary and open membership;
- equal rights and obligations for all members;
- democratic decision-making based on the principle of "one member, one vote" (or, at the very least, limited voting rights); and
- no distribution or moderate distribution of dividend.
- Companies recognised as social enterprises can become members of the National Council for Cooperation, Social Entrepreneurship and Agricultural Enterprise ("CNC"), which is a consultative body whose mission includes promoting and defending the cooperative principles and ideals and issuing opinions or proposals on questions relating to the cooperative activity and the social economy sector in Belgium.
- At regional level, some decrees (like in Wallonia, Brussels, and Flanders) have been settled to support social economy, social entrepreneurship and stimulate corporate social responsibility.
Administratively, social economy is a regional competence. Hence, strategies are rather defined at this level:
- In Flanders, actions on the social economy are formalised and foreseen thanks to a 5-years orientation document. For the period 2019-2024, the Flemish policy on employment and the social economy focuses on the support of social and sustainable entrepreneurship.
- In Wallonia, a 2008 law decree recognizes and defines Social Economy and organizes the social concertation. In 2020, the Government launched a 5-years strategy for the development of social economy, Alternativ’ES Wallonia. It sets 3 priority axes to work on by 2024: supporting social innovation, raising visibility and promoting social economy actors, and facilitating social economy up-scaling by reinforcing their social impact.
- In Brussels, the Common General Policy Statement for the 2019-2024 legislature commits the region to put the transition at the centre of its strategy. Social and democratic entrepreneurship are considered as priority tools to be supported in that context. The Brussels Region economic transition strategy, the “Shifting Economy”, devotes a chapter to social entrepreneurship and more broadly, aims to support all businesses in transition, drawing inspiration from the social economy (governance, purpose, environmental and social impact).
- In the German-speaking Community, the Regional Development Concept (its German acronym being “REK”) lays out a vision and strategy on how to live by 2025. The REK includes a project entitled “A strong social economy”, enhancing visibility of social businesses and creating a legal framework.
Policymakers in the field of the social economy
The political competence on social economy has been gradually transferred to the regions which are now autonomous on this question. The federal government is responsible for the status of social entrepreneurs in the Code of economic law definition and VAT rates. To ensure consistency between the policies led in the different regions agreements can be signed between the regions, at federal level, to set common objectives and give more visibility to the sector.
- In Flanders, the competent Minister for Social Economy is the Flemish Minister of Economy, Innovation, Work, Social Economy and Agriculture.
- In Wallonia, social economy is the sole prerogative of the Minister of Social Economy. A dedicated department for social economy within the public administration exists since 2009, the Social Economy Directorate. The government also put in place the Wallonia Council for Social Economy. The Walloon Parliament votes every year a specific budget dedicated to social economy. Furthermore, W.alter, a public investment agency has a key role in financing social economy companies.
- In Brussels, the service "Bruxelles Economie et Emploi" has a dedicated directorate for employment policies, also including the social economy.
- In the German-speaking community, the Directorate "Employment", and more precisely, the Unit "Employment Programmes and Social Economy" of the Ministry of the German-speaking Community, is responsible for the social economy.
Regions support the social economy by:
- Providing consultancy services,
- Supporting local authorities, especially municipalities through the development of policy lines on social economy,
- Supporting social innovation through calls for proposal,
- Regulating some parts of the ecosystem, such as WISEs, to favour their development,
- Providing funding opportunities for social economy entities.
Networks, federation and representative entities
There are many networks structuring social economy in Belgium which represent specific types of social enterprises, defend their interests by improving support and recognition and foster mutual learning and exchange of opportunities between them.
There are different kinds of networks and federations in the Belgian social economy:
- Networks focused on a specific organisational forms:
- Networks focused on a specific sector of activity for example:
- Réseau Financement Alternatif, Socrowd, Trividend and Hefboom on ethic finance,
- LDE on provision of proximity services,
- Herwin for social and circular entrepreneurs,
- Groep Maatwerk on providing adapted work for people distant to the labour market,
- Belgian fair trade association,
- Be Impact for social entrepreneurs.
- Some networks are also more transversal:
- ConcertES is a transversal platform on social economy intending to represent the ecosystem of Wallonia and Brussels regions.
- Solidarité des alternatives wallonnes et bruxelloises (SAW-B) and Syneco are also transversal network providing training and support for all sorts of social economy entities.
How to get involved in the social economy in Belgium?
Belgium is highly active in the promotion of the social economy.
- The website of the Federal Ministry of Economy clearly explains Social Economy and Entrepreneurship in Belgium.
- Wallonia launched a platform and documentary series to provide people with a clear understanding of social entrepreneurship. Other web-documentaries, series, specialized magazines are developing and offer multiple opportunities to get inspired. Check Focales and Plus de Sens for more information.
- For citizens who would like to go further, universities such as UCLouvain and ULB offer MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on the social economy, ranging from an introduction to the basic principles of social economy, to more targeted themes such as business models, entrepreneurship, etc. Furthermore, a university certificate and four university chairs in social economy (ULiège, UCLouvain, UMONS and ULB) have been recently put in place.
- Belgium participates in the European project Coop Lab to support the discovery of social economy at an early age.
- The website “Actors of the social economy” provides leads and orientations on how to get involved in the social economy in Wallonia and Brussels and contains a job board on the social economy. It also provides basic information on the ecosystem.
- In Flanders, the website “Sociale Economie” provides an overview of the WISEs active in Flanders and their economic activities. “Doeners” is a platform where companies and citizens can find services and products from the social economy sector and where matchmaking is done on the basis of a concrete and specific demand.
Decrees in the regions have reinforced their role in providing social economy with targeted support, including:
- Access to information,
- Organisation of exchanges of good practices,
- Tailored-made financial support,
- Consulting and management advice,
- Awarding grants,
- Co-working spaces
Regional organisations and agencies are mobilised to provide these services, like Coopcity in Brussels, iES (SE incubator) and the social economy advice agencies in Wallonia or the Loket platform in Flanders.
Furthermore, Belgium's rich ecosystem also contributes to provide interesting opportunities to social economy actors to develop themselves through incubation and acceleration programmes, as well as other kind of support.
Information on public funding for social enterprises can be found :
- For Brussels, on the 1819 Hub Brussels portal.
- For Wallonia via the Walloon public investment agency W.alter and iES!.
- For Flanders, on the social economy web portal.
In order to access funding, social enterprises in Belgium can also resort to other solutions:
- Foundations are very active in Belgium offering financial support to the social economy. The Belgian federation of philanthropic foundations has a directory of foundations in the country.
- Some prices and awards designed by public and private actors are offered to social economy entities.
- Credit and micro-credit: Several specialised organisations offer credit solutions to social economy entities which cannot get funding on the market: CREDAL, New B, Triodos or Microstart.
- Impact Investing is growing as a solution in the social economy ecosystem. Structures like Funds for Good, or Impulse offer to invest in social enterprises but can also provide specific guidance services to ensure maximised impact.
Learn more about the social economy in Belgium
Official federal and regional websites
- To know more about social economy and entrepreneurship at federal level: https://economie.fgov.be/fr/themes/entreprises/economie-durable/economie-sociale-et
- To know more about social economy in Wallonia: https://economiesociale.be/
- To know more about social economy in Flanders: https://www.socialeeconomie.be/
- To know more about social economy in Brussels: https://economie-emploi.brussels/entreprise-sociale
- To know more about social economy in the German-speaking Community: Ostbelgien Live - Sozialökonomie
- A directory of social economy entities is also available: https://conso.economiesociale.be/
Other sources and websites :
- “Belgium.be” offers thematic pages on social economy in Belgium: https://www.belgium.be/en/economy/sustainable_development/sustainable_economy/innovative_economic_models/social_economy
- The "Observatory of social economy" provides statistics and studies on the social economy in Wallonia and Brussels: https://observatoire-es.be/
- “Pour la Solidarité” is a think tank on social economy at European level. It manages an observatory on social economy and its European dimension: https://www.ess-europe.eu/
- “SMartBe” is a major cooperative in Belgium. Some of the reflections from its work, in relation to work and participation practices, are published on its webpage: https://smartbe.be/fr/publications/education-permanente-sommaire-general-des-analyses/
- Social Enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe, Country Reports, Belgium, 2019. Link: Document database - Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion - European Commission (europa.eu)