Co-operatives Unite Strengths of Markets with Power of Universal Ideals

Co-operatives Unite Strengths of Markets with Power of Universal Ideals

‘We don’t have campaigns to fight poverty. We create co-operatives and allow people to take themselves out of poverty.’

From eradicating poverty, to supplying locally owned and operated wave energy, to cultivating the leadership of women in surprising places, co-operatives around the globe are doing what former UN secretary general Kofi Annan tasked business leaders with in 2004 — finding a way to unite the strengths of markets with the power of universal ideals.

Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), who took a few minutes during her first official visit to Canada last week to speak with Axiom News, tells the story of one among many inspiring examples of co-operatives doing such great work.

A team from the well-established network of U.S. electricity co-ops — there are about 470 of them — has gone to Bangladesh, one of the most deprived areas of the world and, with the support of various national governments, is working to bring electricity to villages that don’t have power through the development of local co-ops.

“I think that’s a very good example of the way in which developed co-operatives can take that (model) and transport it into parts of the world that desperately need support,” says Dame Pauline.

“For the first time, these villagers are seeing the lightbulbs turned on . . . kids are doing their homework in the light . . . things like that are truly inspiring.

“Those are the sort of things our movement does. . . . It’s part of our DNA.”

Another story she tells is of a tiny island at the epicentre of the 2006 tsunami, which was anchored in a native co-operative culture and economy but devastated after the natural disaster.

The U.K. donated half a million pounds for the long-term reconstruction and reinvigoration of the island, but what was most inspiring about the whole experience, says Dame Pauline, is how the islanders, after they had completed the refurbishment of a warehouse and purchased a truck to support their specific industry, were ready to give back the leftover cash to be donated to another area in need.

There are some who believe social-purpose business has a massive contribution to make to global well-being.

While not referring specifically to co-operatives, organizational behaviour thought leader and Case Western Reserve University professor David Cooperrider has put forward that perhaps a “new threshold of co-operative capability” can take people “to a higher stage of moral development, while serving to build a more sustainable world future.”

Dame Pauline proposes co-operatives align with both these ideals and offer some key lessons for businesses to help create a better world than this planet has ever known.

She first emphasizes that co-operatives are businesses, they are not grant-funded, they have to make a profit, in order to be able to reinvest in the business, make an economic return to their members and support the community from which they come.

“I think that’s a very important distinction that sometimes is forgotten,” says Dame Pauline.

“There is a sense sometimes that co-operatives are some sort of social service. Co-operatives are businesses that make surpluses. It’s what we do with the profits that’s different.”

What’s also outstanding about the movement is its democratic ownership, she says.

“We are the only form of business enterprise that actually have member ownership, and members not just sitting in some room somewhere as a member because they’ve paid a pound or a dollar, but they are actually the ones who lead the direction of the co-op society through elections to local, regional and central boards,” says Dame Pauline.

“And they are the ones who employ professional managers to run the business and they are the ones who oversee professional managers in running the business.”

She adds that because the co-operative has this model, it does much more than just create wealth and jobs in an area.

“What it also does is generate leadership in communities,” she says, noting she’s seen endless examples of African villages where women have come through co-operative training who over a period of time become very significant community leaders, as well as economically active in their own villages in a tribal environment in which women didn’t have those sorts of roles in the past.

“So you can see the regeneration of a community, new leadership in a community.

“(The co-operative) also brings greater knowledge,” says Dame Pauline, noting education is a core principle of co-operatives.

“We educate board members and they educate their children, so you’re getting a rounded picture of a community that is regenerated by the co-operative model of business,” says Dame Pauline.

A local core group will launch a co-op, see success, and then build a local school or have a village well dug. In that way the movement also supports the eradication of poverty.

“We don’t have campaigns to fight poverty. We create co-operatives and allow people to take themselves out of poverty and we support those people through the development of their co-ops until they’re self-sufficient, and that’s what’s happening across the world,” she says.

She adds it’s imperative that much greater visibility be given to the movement and its potential to create self-help so “people can drag themselves out of poverty . . . and have the dignity of their own employment and their own leadership in their communities.”

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