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The United Nations Rome-based agencies committed to supporting agricultural cooperatives

The UN launched the International Year of Cooperatives 2012 (IYC) on October 31 at the General Assembly in New York. On this occasion, FAO, IFAD and WFP held a side event on the role of agricultural cooperatives in improving the lives of smallholder men and women farmers and increasing global food security, and announced they would remain committed to supporting agricultural cooperatives throughout the year ahead and beyond.

©FAO/G. Napolitano
31/10/201131 October 2011, New York  - Moderated by H.E. Mr. Lazarous Kapambew, Ambassador of Zambia and President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the event featured the participation of Eve Crowley, Deputy Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity, and Rural Employment Division, François Traoré, President of the Association of African Cotton Producers in Burkina Faso, Christian Pèes, Vice- President of the European Agri-Cooperatives in Belgium, Claudio Barriga, Vice-Chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research in Chile, and Yehualashet Aschenaki Argaw, General Manager of the Southern Regions Farmers Cooperative Federation in Ethiopia. What is a cooperative? A cooperative is an autonomous association of women and men united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. They are business enterprises that seek to strike a balance between pursuing profit and meeting the needs and interests of members and their communities, which differentiates them from other types of businesses. Cooperatives range from small-scale to multi-million dollar businesses across the globe, operate in all sectors of the economy, count over 800 million members and provide 100 million jobs worldwide -- 20 per cent more than multinational enterprises. In 2008, the largest 300 cooperatives in the world, 30 percent of which operate in the food and agriculture sector, had an aggregate turnover of US$1.1 trillion, comparable to the gross domestic product (GDP) of many large countries. Cooperatives: a pillar of agricultural development and food security Cooperatives market up to 50 percent of global agricultural output and Ms. Crowley presented the crucial role that agricultural cooperatives play in improving the lives of the 1.5 smallholder men and women farmers worldwide by offering them a sound and viable business model suited to their needs. These cooperatives are especially beneficial for marginalized rural groups including youth and women who lag behind in access to productive resources and economic opportunities. Agricultural cooperatives allow smallholder producers to pool their resources and achieve prospects that they would not be able to attain individually, such as better access to natural resources, productive assets and markets, information, technology, knowledge and skills, and give them a greater voice in the formulation of policies and systems. Empowered by being a part of a larger group, smallholders can also coordinate more efficiently and link with other groups, and through collective bargaining negotiate better terms for contract farming, lower prices for agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizer and equipment, and secure land rights and better market opportunities. This improves smallholders’ ability to secure a livelihood and improves rural development and agricultural production, helping to meet the growing global demand for food and contributing to poverty alleviation, food security and the eradication of hunger for all. Experiences have shown that cooperatives not only bring crucial support to women farmers, but their participation also accelerates progress and improves their socio-economic situation, as demonstrated by the success of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, among other organizations. Ms. Crowley underlined the fact that the role of agricultural cooperatives is especially significant in today’s global context of neglected agricultural sectors and widespread food insecurity. Over the past three decades, public institutions in developing countries have withdrawn investments in rural areas, leaving largely untapped the potential of rural farmers to better contribute to meeting the growing demand for food on local, national and international markets. Cooperatives invest where the public sector has cut financial expenditure and other parts of the business world do not have a financial interest. The other panelists gave an overview of the role of cooperatives in their countries: Ambassador Kapambwe noted that Zambia has 15,929 cooperatives, the majority of which are small agricultural cooperatives that help smallholder farmers increase their savings and access credit, and said that agricultural cooperatives represent a strategic avenue for economic and social development in his country. Mr. Traoré explained that 80 to 85% of people are farmers in Burkina Faso, and that most engage in a variety of activities simultaneously, such as producing different types of crop and rearing livestock, and are part of several cooperatives. He highlighted that cooperatives play an important role in giving young people incentives to stay in agriculture and provide the conditions and inputs for them to grow professionally in this sector. He also called for more cooperation between western and African cooperatives. Along with other speakers, Mr. Barriga highlighted the positive social and economic impacts of cooperatives, their role in decreasing poverty and promoting positive social values, and the importance of the partnerships formed through them between many types of organizations and stakeholders, including farmers, agri-businesses and NGOs. He gave an example from Mexico, where a cooperative of tobacco producers worked to group people together, leading to improved production and incomes. Mr. Argaw discussed the role cooperatives currently play in Ethiopia’s agricultural sector and the fact that they have already helped create about 82,074 jobs, as well as the country’s five-year cooperative development programme. He added that market access must still be substantially enhanced and that there is still much untapped entrepreneurial in Ethiopia, and talked of the need for a better coordination of production and post-harvest activities so that high quality and homogenous products can be delivered. He highlighted the important role cooperatives can play in achieving this. To read his full speech, click here.  Mr. Pées spoke about the cooperatives movement in Europe indicated that there are 38, 000.00 farmers’ cooperatives counting 7 million members, 770 000 employees and totaling a revenue of €360 billion. He underlined the need for cooperatives to play a greater place in the food chain as farmers are still in a weak position in relation to distributors, as well as that of better global governance on agricultural commodities. Supporting agricultural cooperatives: The IYC and beyond During the year ahead and beyond, the Rome-based UN agencies will remain committed to supporting agricultural cooperatives by: • Carrying out initiatives to better understand cooperatives and assess their socio-economic development impact, and to raise awareness of their role and impact on the lives of men and women smallholder farmers -- such as FAO's database of good practices in institutional innovations; • Supporting cooperatives to form networks through which smallholder producers can pool their assets and competencies to overcome market barriers and other constraints such as a lack of access to natural resources; • Assisting policy-makers in the design and implementation of policies, laws, regulations and projects that take into consideration the needs and concerns of both men and women smallholder farmers and create enabling environment for agricultural cooperatives to thrive; and • Strengthening the dialogue and cooperation between governments, agricultural cooperatives, the international research community and civil society representatives on analyzing the best conditions for cooperatives worldwide to develop.