Today, cooperatives throughout the world are going through a period of seious questioning. The capitalist model has proved, after all, not capable of ensuring generalized prosperity for all: on the contrary, it is currently leading to a widening of the gap between the haves (those with a job) and the have-nots (those without one). Instead of peace and equity, there is less security, social tension, drugs, violence, massive migration both within countries and across borders, the break-up of the family unit.
The communist model has also disappointed. Based on a philosophy built on conditions reigning over a century ago, taken over by apparatchiks intent on pursuing their own selfish ends, it failed as a system of government. While it did provide a high degree of social security, this was at a high cost in terms of personal freedom and the stifling of individual initiative and dynamism. It has left behind it economic chaos and environmental disaster.
The South has suffered from the negative effects of one or both of these philosophies. Traditional organisational structures and the social order they ensured have been weakened. All-out exploitation of natural resources has, among other factors, led to rural exodus and massive social tensions in overcrowded cities. Regrettably, the response to these difficulties has more often been authoritarianism than dialogue.
Where is the world going?
The cooperative provides a potential means of reconciling the ideals of both systems: it extols private enterprise and the profit motive (termed “surplus”) while, at the same time, incorporating equity concerns and social responsibility. Moreover, it is based on democracy, which both capitalism and communism claim as theirs. It can resituate people at the centre of global concerns, rather than on the margin.
Two things are clear:
cooperatives have succeeded best in the West, where they have been able to develop without the constraints of excessive government bureaucracy and interference;
the strength of the cooperative model is its grassroots and local character; as cooperatives have increased in size, either through artificially conferred monopolies or amalgamation of primary societies, their special nature has become increasingly diluted and member participation has fallen.
The major immediate obstacle to a renaissance of the cooperative form of economic and social organisation is the sullied image of the cooperative, especially in the developing world. Many people who have been exposed to “cooperatives” in the past three decades are intent on avoiding them, rather than embracing them, in future. If cooperatives are to be revived and play the role which could be theirs, confidence-building measures are urgently needed.
In the light of all the above, is it not time for an open and honest debate on what a cooperative should be in the 21st Century? This might require further modest revisions of the principles according to the type and level of cooperative. Perhaps the cooperative directory needs reviewing, some societies being placed on probation, and others striken off the list altogether. This would reduce the current confusion in many peoples' minds about what a cooperative really is. Conversely, would it not be a sign of modernisation and openness for the rather closed cooperative family to accept into its fold institutions that operate like cooperatives, even if they prefer not to carry the “cooperative” label?
In North America and Europe, there is much rethinking of social values, including the role of cooperatives20. This is generally directed towards locally-based, socially-oriented, mutual-support actions founded on the notion of solidarity, though this still cannot forego economic viability. Maybe those involved are the new cooperative pioneers!
|A Coop By Any Other Name Can Work As Well *|
|The FAO People's Participation Programme (PPP) is an innovative rural poverty programme which aims at establishing sustainable networks of rural people's organizations run by the poor themselves to improve their living conditions through self-help. Small groups of 8 – 15 members are used as the principal “building blocks” for constructing larger, more participatory and sustainable farmers' organizations, including cooperatives.|
|An outstanding example of the power of this approach is the Zambia PPP project set up in 1983 in the Western Province of Zambia. By 1993, in its final phase, the project was working with 240 stable groups federated into 32 inter-group associations and representing the needs of 2800 members and their families. The focus was on income generation, savings and credit, and food security.|
|The project had two distinctive features. One was that women were targeted as group leaders, and 73 per cent of the members were women. The other was the participatory monitoring and evaluation system, whereby participants defined what was important to them, regularly recorded and analyzed data and decided on any corrective action.|
|The groups were organized around their own income-generating activities which they themselves identified with the help of specially trained Group Promoters. While some emphasis was given to providing group credit facilities at later stages, the initial focus was on building the savings capacities of the groups, thus creating strong bonds and financial discipline before seeking outside help. Even though 30 percent of groups failed this consolidation test, the remaining 70 percent have since become highly motivated and able to develop autonomously.|
|Once consolidated, groups were encouraged to federate into Action Area Committees to enable them to command greater negotiating power in discussions with the authorities.|
|The results achieved have been considerable: 50 percent increase in land cultivated per family, doubling of crop income, considerable diversification of crops grown, introduction of savings, increase in paid off-farm activities by groups, and higher food security and family incomes.|
|* With apologies to William Shakespeare.|
|Freeing Maize Markets in Zambia|
|Up to 1986, Zambian cooperatives enjoyed a monopoly in maize marketing. Private traders were allowed in but the National Agricultural Marketing Board continued to receive subsidies while the government controlled producer and mill prices. In 1991, liberalisation was fully implemented: the cooperatives lost their monopoly, the government withdrew from the market with the exception of partial financing of marketing and provision of information, the private sector moved in in force. The effect on cooperatives was radical as they were simply unable to compete for resources and maize.|
|Cooperatives took delivery at depots; private traders collected on-farm. Cooperatives paid by cheque upon approval from the head office; private traders paid cash on delivery. Cooperatives dealt only in cash; private traders could also pay in kind (fertilizer, seed, clothing…).|
|The cooperatives' already poor financial position was worsened by their having to pay for storage facilities and seek bank funding for maize purchases. The downward spiral had begun and today many unions have closed while most others are on the verge of collapse.|
20 See for example Strumenti Finanziari per Nuove Imprenditorialita, IRED Nord, Rome, June 1995.