On Being Cooperative

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, highlighting the contribution of cooperatives to socio-economic development, particularly their impact on poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.  With the theme of “Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World”, the Year seeks to encourage the growth and establishment of cooperatives all over the world. It also encourages individuals, communities and governments to recognize the agency of cooperatives in helping to achieve internationally agreed upon development goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals.                     -U.N. IYC Webpage Introduction

It’s about time.  Finally, there is light being shown on a methodology which has for too long been relegated to the very back pages of economic and organizational development.  Like one of its cousins in the U.S., employee ownership, cooperativism has the potential to create sustainable and meaningful change for organizations and individuals alike, and the U.N. declaration hopes to advance that awareness around the world.  I know that we will be taking note with our partners in Nicaragua.

The themes are entirely consistent with the focus and methodologies that Winds of Peace has employed over the past year, in particular:

  • Increase public awareness about cooperatives and their contributions to socio-economic development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals
Promote growth
  • Promote the formation and growth of co-operatives among individuals and institutions to address common economic needs and for socio-economic empowerment
  • Encourage Governments and regulatory bodies to establish policies, laws and regulation conducive to co-operative formation and growth.

Cooperatives are not a panacea or even a simple way of organizing an economic enterprise.  In fact, when done with excellence, coops are a more complex way of doing business.  There is a demand for more and better communication among the participants.  Participants come to expect more information about the causes-and-effects of their business, decisions are more frequently made by participant teams rather than one individual, participants expect to have a greater “say” in the business, the organizational configuration often more closely resembles a circle than a triangle, and coops as a result sometimes respond more slowly to changing circumstances.  But when done with excellence, coops can promote business growth, learning, entrepreneurial skills individual development and accelerated wealth creation faster than more traditional forms of ownership/management.  It’s why the U.N. has taken such a visible stand with its declaration.  And it’s why Winds of Peace has provided increasing support to the coops of Nicaragua.  The good news is that we know what the excellent practices consist of and that they can be learned and replicated anywhere.

Read the advantages cited by the IYC in its description of coop strengths:

  • Cooperative enterprises build a better world.
  • Cooperative enterprises are member owned, member serving and member driven
  • Cooperatives empower people
  • Cooperatives improve livelihoods and strengthen the economy
  • Cooperatives enable sustainable development
  • Cooperatives promote rural development
  • Cooperatives balance both social and economic demands
  • Cooperatives promote democratic principles
  • Cooperatives and gender: a pathway out of poverty
  • Cooperatives: a sustainable business model for youth
If even a portion of such claims are true (and there is ample evidence to support such claims), the case to be made in support of cooperative development is solid.  And we think that our evolving experiences at Winds of Peace further confirms the potential contained in the coop movement.  Spend some time reviewing the growing body of research and experiences under the Rural Development heading on the left side of the WPF homepage.  The articles and experiences there reflect our belief in the importance of the cooperative movement, but also the ways in which the strengthening occurs when done with excellence.  Elements of collaborative work, open-book financial literacy, wealth sharing, participative decision-making and holistic strategic thinking can create a very different reality for, in this case, coffee farmers who can see the advantage in strengthening one another.
The year 2012 might well prove to be a threshold year for coops around the world.  I hope lawmakers in the United States take heed of the essential elements in cooperativism, particularly in light of the misdeeds and mismanagement of so many of our large public corporations brought to light over the past several years; ownership structures like cooperatives and employee-owned companies represent a healthy alternative to such sick environments on the basis of greater involvement by more of the participants.  I know that Winds of Peace will continue to seek out Nicaraguan coops that are committed to the principles of effective cooperativism and who are eager to experience cooperative life done with excellence….

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