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