Promoting Social Inclusion and Economic Cohesion through Communities of Practice

Summary of the Learning Café on 'Social Inclusion and Economic Cohesion', which was conducted during the Final Conference of DISCUSS at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany in October 2015.

Social Inclusion can be described as the “provision of certain rights to all individuals and groups in society”, such as Education and Training (E&T), employment, adequate housing, health care, participation in sports and cultural activities etc. Social Inclusion is also a “term that can be used to describe a series of positive actions to achieve equality of access to goods and services, to assist all individuals to participate in community and society, to encourage the contribution of all persons to social and cultural life and to be aware of and to challenge all forms of discrimination. By ensuring that the marginalised and those living in poverty have greater participation in decision-making which affects their lives, will allow them to improve their standard of living and overall well-being.”

Economic Cohesion in turn, often used in combination with Social Inclusion “is an expression of solidarity between the Member States and regions of the European Union. This means balanced and sustainable development, reducing structural disparities between regions and countries and promoting equal opportunities for all individuals.”

The Roundtable Community Discussion on ‘Promoting Social Inclusion and Economic Cohesion’ centred first of all on the current refugee crisis.

At the beginning of the discussion the participants mentioned that the distinction between forced (e.g. due to a military conflict) and so-called ‘voluntary’ migration (e.g. due to economic reasons) is blur and will become more and more obsolete in the future.

The discussants then focused on the shift of skills and competences from the home country of the refugees/migrants to the receiving host country. The case of Syria was used to illustrate the current ‘brain drain’ as economically successful and well educated citizens are often the first ones to leave the country.

In the host country the incoming migrants are on the one hand bringing in new skills and competences and this increases the body of knowledge in the host country and decreases the shortage of qualified labour force in certain professions. On the other hand these skills and competences are needed in their countries of origin. This applies for the short term, but especially for the long term perspective when it e.g. comes to re-build, re-develop, re-generate a country.

When the application of asylum is processed and officially accepted by the host country refugees/migrants are trying to build up a new life. After a while some of them might decide to return to their home countries in case the conditions allow them to do so, some of them however decide to stay forever in the host country. The participants agreed that this is entirely their own decision and cannot be forced. Also the conditions (e.g. individual, social, economical, political) are constantly changing and in flux, which makes predictions about the voluntary return of migrants rather difficult.

The massive influx of refugees/migrants in the last months provoked two, rather diametric reactions throughout the European member states: on the one hand a welcoming culture helping refugees/migrants after their arrival and at the same time increasing doubt and anxiety, whether the host countries will be able to accommodate and integrate large numbers of refugees/migrants.

Participants also highlighted that refugees/migrants are ‘only’ one part of socially excluded groups in a country. These groups include:

  • Persons with Special Needs (e.g. physical disabilities, mentally handicapped);
  • Persons with Learning Needs;
  • Persons with lower Educational Background (e.g. no access to information à lack of information à insufficient basis for decision making à e.g. racism);
  • Persons with insufficient digital skills and competences;
  • Older persons (especially women) with low pension payments.

Thus refugees/migrants compete (e.g. for social benefits, on the labour market) with these disadvantaged and/or socially excluded groups in the host society, which might lead to tensions, if not conflicts and spur racism and xenophobia.

It was also mentioned that some refugees/migrants do not accept the culture, norms and (formal and informal) rules of the host country, that they tend to resist integrating into the host society and that they build their own ‘parallel societies’. Thus self-exclusive effects amongst parts of the refugees/migrants are observable.

Furthermore the question was raised whether having a job / an income is fundamental for the integration into society or in other words: Is economic participation the necessary basis for social integration? Or are there other possible way of integration e.g. through culture, sports etc?

During the Learning Café the aspect of ‘institutional exclusion’ was introduced, meaning that missing legal papers of refugees/migrants and/or the existing, rather inflexible asylum regulations prevent refugees/migrants to enter the labour market and thus affect their integration in society. This might result in anger and frustration amongst the population of the host country accusing refugees/migrants not to contribute to the economy in particular and society in general. On the flipside the majority of refugees/migrants are willing to work, but are forced to stay in their refugee homes while their application for asylum is processed, which in turn causes anger and frustration amongst refugees/migrants.

The participants then discussed the necessary investment in Education and Training (E&T) because the existing skills, competences and qualifications of refugees/migrants often don’t fit to the requirements of the host country. The Return of Investment (RoI) of those investments through the subsequent work of migrants/refugees in the host country has been discussed.

It was agreed that in order to achieve short term effects in terms of employment, General Education, Vocational Education and Training (VET), Continuous Professional Development and Empowerment (CPD & E) for socially excluded groups need to be linked in a more flexible way than before.

The economic transformation through Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is playing an additional important role. It is nowadays widely agreed that ICTs are mostly beneficial for the already well educated, not for hard-to-reach persons. As a consequence special emphasis needs to be placed on the reduction of the Digital Divide without further supporting so-called ‘cloud/click work’ i.e. employment without social insurance.

Given the above situation and its implications the participants agreed that multiple, multi-level and multi-modal actions/interventions are needed. This might range from awareness raising activities at societal level to practical guidance and support at individual level.

The participants finally agreed that ‘Communities of Practice’ (CoPs) can play an important role to support social inclusion and economic cohesion at national level and for different target groups. The following aspects and conditions have been mentioned:

  • CoPs can support learning face-to-face as well as online;
  • CoPs are building on small, flexible and adaptable structures;
  • CoPs can often create better fitting solutions to specific problems and/or settings;
  • Learning should be combined with programmes such as Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL) or Credit Accumulation and Transfer Schemes (CATS).

Communities of Practice (CoPs) can contribute to social inclusion and economic cohesion in the following ways:

  1. The pre-existing knowledge of learners (of all kinds) can be assessed and accredited through communities of experts and/or practitioners of a specific field e.g. nurses, doctors, educators, engineers etc.
  2. This assessment then contributes to the design of individual qualification programmes and thus supports new (individual and social) learning. (For migrants this assessment and the subsequent intervention planning may start already during the asylum process).
  3. Specialised CoPs are responsible for the assignment of ‘credits’ after learning and qualification activities. The accumulation of those credits over time might lead to a degree in a specific professional field.