Co-ops are here to stay

Simel Esim

By Simel Esim, Chief of the ILO’s Co-operatives Branch

There’s quite a buzz in Manchester Central (United Kingdom), where 10,000 men and women from co-operatives around the world have gathered to share their ideas and experiences.

The three-day Co-operatives United event marks the close of the UN International Year of Co-operatives and highlights the staying power of a movement that is gaining renewed attention worldwide.

Personally, I find it inspiring to be in the land of the Rochdale pioneers – 10 weavers and 20 others who in 1844 decided to band together to sell food items they could not otherwise afford, as the industrial revolution forced skilled workers into poverty. They started off with just a few items – butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles. A decade later, the British movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives.

Their story, 168 years on, still rings true.

For three days, the followers of the pioneers from all sectors will be attending workshops and engaging in discussions.

Looking around, one may well ask what these people have in common. The co-ops are from various parts of the world; they come in all sizes and represent a wide array of sectors – from credit unions to consumer stores. But their members all engage in collective economic action, devising their own institutions to address their needs together.

Pauline Green, the President of the International Co-operative Alliance, has described the Manchester event as “the global culmination of a momentous year.” She is a formidable woman with a quick wit and a powerful presence, quite an accurate reflection of the movement she represents.

Throughout this extraordinary year of activities, I had the opportunity to meet co-operative members from different walks of life: Members of a women’s dairy co-operative in Indonesia who were asking for better trade policies that would allow them to flourish in the national market and even compete in regional ones; the Turkish pharmacy co-operatives that got together to provide a lower cost alternative to the monopoly of drug suppliers and distributors; the financial co-operatives that continued providing credit for small businesses when no other banks would.

Co-operatives are institutions that can bring out the best in humans. In these times of crisis and change, we all need such institutions, and they do appear to be making a comeback.

It is also important to stress that co-operatives are not just here in times of crisis but survive and thrive across time. They may not have the same ups and downs as other businesses – because of their connection to members’ needs and the local economies – but they have longevity and breadth.

If this International Year of Co-operatives has taught us one thing, it is that co-operatives are an alternative model of sustainable enterprise whose time has come back to stay. A billion co-operative members can’t be wrong.

Co-operatives are everywhere we look, from banks to farms, hotels and bakeries. It’s high time that we stop and take notice.

2012 is the International Year of Co-operatives 

9 thoughts on “Co-ops are here to stay

  1. Congratulations Simel… a very tasty eye-witness account of cooperative world.. I share it with the ILO field colleagues here in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka..

  2. This is exciting and inspiring! I hope you will have write-ups of the success stories (perhaps, one-pagers?) that provide references to more detailed reports) so that groups can learn and avoid potential pitfalls. I would certainly want to use those in teaching my economic development course.

  3. Indeed, non-profits, including coops, are here to stay. Coops, especially worker coops and credit unions have doing terrific work in several developing countries where I’ve lived and worked. And in my home country of Canada, we have the renowned Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University that teaches the principles of coops, credit unions, and women’s leadership for participants from many developing countries.

    • John you are right on in pointing out the example of cooperative education in Canada. There are many good post secondary cooperative education programmes across the country from British Columbia and Saskatchewan to Ontario and Quebec. And the Canadian Association for Cooperative Education (http://www.cafce.ca/en/home) brings together all these post secondary institutions to work together in developing resources to promote better quality of post-secondary cooperative education. Quite inspiring really.

  4. Dear Gunseli, Cooperatives have largely disappeared from economic and business textbooks and curricula. Bringing them back at a time when people are looking for alternative enterprise governance models that are more sustainable is a great idea. You can access some of the one page success stories from http://www.ilo.org/coop and stories.coop. Let us know if you would like to have access to more/other resources.

  5. Ciao Simel!
    Your aticle is very inspiring. I shared it with many collegues on our youth co-operatives entrepreneurs network http://www.generazioni.coop

    E visto che parli meglio di me italiano, ecco l’articolo che abbiamo fatto noi! (in realtà è un comunicato stampa, più tardi ti invio il racconto più emotivo!)

    http://www.legacoop.coop/visualizzaNews.aspx?id=7875

    Ciao!
    Roberto
    (ricordi? ci siamo conosciuti alla fine del Big Debate)

    • (Ciao Roberto. Bello sentire da te qui. Ho visto il sito http://www.generazioni.coop e anche ho letto l’articolo che hai condiviso da Legacoop on vuoi participazioni a Manchester.)
      Hi Roberto, good to hear from you. I visited the website and read the article you shared regarding the participation of young cooperators from Emiglia Romania in Cooperatives United in Manchester. I think the sentiments shared in the site and in the article regarding youth wanting to be a part of an environmentally, socially and economically more responsible world order resonate across the Mediterranean and the world. The principles of independence, autonomy and democracy enshrined in cooperative enterprises can provide a good match for such aspirations. At the same time cooperatives can provide young women and men with the advantages of economies of scale and strength of collective voice to overcome the challenges of youth unemployment and limitations to their participation in the public realm. The dynamism and innovation of young cooperators can in turn help the international cooperative movement become more energized. It is a win-win scenario really. We need to get cooperative education integrated into education systems, formal and informal, across countries of the world. And needless to say we need more young cooperative champions like you. Avanti giovani cooperatori!

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