.- Closing the International Year of Co-operatives. It is the moment for a global shift, says President of the ICA, Pauline Green -.

“There is not an economic crisis like the ones we have experienced before; what we are seeing is a change of the whole economic system”.

These are the words Manuel Mariscal uses to describe the current economic and financial collapse and, with them, he aligns himself with those who trust the present situation will lead to a radical shift in the way we think of capital, economy and society itself.

As the president of CICOPA, the organisation that represents Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Co-operatives worldwide, he was one of the 11,800 people that visited Manchester at the beginning of the month. There, at the birthplace of the co-operative movement, over 750 representatives of co-operative enterprises from 88 countries came together to mark the end of the International Year of Co-operatives, but also the start of a decade of co-operative growth. Led by the International Co-operative Alliance, these co-operators approved and presented an ambitious plan – their “2020 Challenge” – to make the co-operative the most popular business model, the fastest growing form of enterprise, and the acknowledged leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability in the upcoming years.

Leader in sustainability

According to The Resilience of the Co-operative Model report, published by CICOPA, it could be safely estimated that at least 650 million people across the world – 15% of the world’s adult population – are members of one or more co-operatives.

There are lots of different types of co-operative enterprises which operate in all the sectors, from retail to sports, insurance or funeral care. However, regardless of their activity or location – legislation differs from one country to another, all of them share a very particular way of doing business: they improve performance and guarantee business success by putting people at the very centre of economic decision making.

Of course, “they are not living in a parallel economy”, director of Cooperatives Europe Klaus Niederländer explains; “they are also suffering when consumption is going down, particularly in retail and agriculture”, but there is something that enables co-operatives to more effectively face economic downturn. Their levels of employment provide an example.

It is probably unnecessary to remember the unemployment rate has hit a high of 10% in the EU in 2012, affecting especially to young population. Nevertheless, amid the hundreds of enterprises shutting down every day, co-operatives are still creating jobs: 5.4 million citizens are employed across Europe by the 250,000 existing co-operatives. In France, these enterprises provide one million posts representing 13.5% of the active working population, while they account for 12.5% of employment in Spain.

Because they are oriented towards the long term objectives and can rely on their own resources, co-operatives have also proved their resilience in comparison with traditional businesses.

A study by the Canadian government concludes that co-operative organisations tend to last two times longer than other enterprises in the private sector. In Italy, between 2006 and 2010, co-operatives in the Trentino region outperformed shareholder companies in Bologna by a factor of almost three to one. And in the UK, the co-operative economy has grown by nearly 20% since 2008 whilst the British economy in 2011 was 1.7% smaller than three years ago.

Preferred by people

This is possible because co-operatives are owned and run by their members and for their members’ benefit, and they are therefore better at addressing people’s needs. They are flexible and adaptable, responding to society’s demands, but also being ready to face the challenges economy and business pose: “In an era of growing inequality, a business model based on democratic principles of responding to the needs of people is more relevant than ever”, explains Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, the trade organisation that works to promote and unite the co-operative movement in the UK. “It is notable, for example, that the new generation of clean energy enterprises that have emerged in pioneer countries like Denmark and Germany are established typically on co-operative lines”. In other words, co-operatives are up-to-date, innovative, and aware of the world around them.

Fastest growing business model

With this in mind, it is no wonder that economists like Professor Noreena Hertz – author of IOU: The Debt Threat – have talked about co-operatives as “part of the solution” to the unfair economic model.

At Co-operatives United, in Manchester, president of the International Co-operative Alliance Pauline Green presented the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade saying this is the moment for a shift. The objectives this paper sets are ambitious to the extent that the ICA would like to see co-operatives having a greater input in the way the global economy develops – “Why is it that there is not a single co-operative economist on the board of the World Bank? And why is it that when the B20, the Business Advisory Group sitting alongside the G20, none of the 125 businesses represented are co-operative or even mutual?”, asks Pauline.

In her opinion, the world needs a more balanced global economy which gives people a say and doesn’t leave them at the mercy of economic decision making. Whether this becomes a reality or not, time will tell, but it seems there are already many people fighting for the same cause all over the world.


Rochdale Pioneers. Photo: Manchester Libraries

Rochdale Pioneers. Photo: Manchester Libraries

Born in times of crisis

Maybe, the only reason why co-operatives are more resilient than conventional businesses in tough economic times is because they were born in a similar context. In 1884, when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was set up – there were previous experiences but this was the organisation that defined what we now know as the “co-operative principles” – the North West of England was marked by strikes and violent revolts. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in the discontentment of a vast majority of the population trapped by low-paid and unfair jobs and unable to cover their basic needs, like access to food. As a result, the 28 Rochdale pioneers created a co-operative shop that aimed to sell pure food at fair weights and better prices to their members.

Original text published on: http://www.wavemagazine.net/arhiva/73/econ/international-year-of-cooperatives.htm


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