New Internationalist

Gem in a world of rocks

Issue 364

Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez explains why he puts his faith in co-operatives.

Over the past decade we have seen a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity but also depressing levels of human need and extreme suffering. While wealth accumulates in the hands of a privileged few, more than 40,000 children die each day from causes relating to hunger and poverty. Nearly a billion people are illiterate and nearly a billion and a half of our fellow human beings have no access to clean water.

Those who find themselves included in such bleak statistics are not passive victims of violence and poverty. They are people who want a dignified life and a hopeful future for their children. They are willing to struggle for that vision, but no-one can make it happen alone.

In the 21st century we must see the collective acceptance of a new value system, a new ethics. Its goal will be to create a world where, with each passing day, humans display more solidarity and less individualism; more honesty and less hypocrisy; more transparency and less corruption; more faith and less cynicism; more compassion and less selfishness. In short, a world with more love.

An inspiring example of such ethics put to use in the struggle against social exclusion is the co-operative: a self-governing enterprise of persons united to meet their common economic, political and cultural needs. Women, indigenous groups and others long excluded from the economic benefits of the marketplace and the social benefits of full citizenship have reaped tremendous benefits by joining together in different kinds of co-operatives, be they agricultural, craft-making, credit unions or housing co-ops.

The rapid growth of co-operatives during the late 1980s was not an entirely smooth journey. But in taking time to find solutions, the movement grew stronger. Today some 750 million people around the world belong to co-operatives. Some count only a handful of members, while others resemble huge corporations; some have flat, non-hierarchical structures and equal pay for all members; others are less radical in their organization. Whatever their structure, all co-operatives share a common base set of values: self-help, responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Each of these values is worth examining closely.

  • Self-help In a political sense, self-help is the process of the powerless claiming their voice, both as individuals and as communities. In Spanish, self-help is often translated as ‘mutual aid’, underlining the communal dimension of this value.
  • Responsibility In a co-operative, everyone must pull their weight. Responsibility is among the most important values for leadership in a co-operative and also for the leadership role that co-operatives can play in society at large.
  • Democracy It is a democratic crisis when 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day and are effectively excluded from public decision-making because of the wrenching poverty in which they live. Co-operatives, by providing members with a chance to prosper, also foster the healthy economy that buttresses a truly democratic society.
  • Equality Equality of worth, equality of opportunity and equality of voice are the pillars of a just society and the central tenets of co-operative membership. No individual may claim that his or her life has greater worth than that of another.
  • Equity Those who begin life in poverty and debt are unfairly disadvantaged and something must be done to right the balance; and those who have been given much should be expected to share something in return.
  • Solidarity Solidarity is compassion. It is showing, through our daily conduct and personal conviction, that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. To the extent that we as individuals display solidarity amongst each other, we will be able to practise it in our organizations and demand it in our governments and social institutions.

I believe that these six values have accounted for the co-operative movement’s international success over the past two decades. There are encouraging signs that as the movement expands, its values spill out into society at large and become a tremendous force in the struggle against poverty and exclusion. Two examples from Latin America suggest the potential of the co-operative movement to alleviate some of the world’s most intractable difficulties.

Co-operatives have helped Costa Rica maintain the democratic tradition which we so treasure. Our small country abolished its standing army in 1949, henceforth enjoying a remarkable degree of political stability and social development. Almost a quarter of our national budget goes to education and the adult literacy rate exceeds 95 percent. Moreover, the quality of healthcare in Costa Rica is high and the population enjoys universal health insurance; Costa Rican life expectancies are comparable to those in the US and Europe.

But in Costa Rica as everywhere, the dizzying pace of modernization, development and foreign investment can sharply increase the gap between the wealthy and the poor. When I became President of Costa Rica in 1986, my administration was determined not to allow that to happen. Instead, we wanted to achieve greater economic democracy than Costa Rica had ever known. Co-operatives were central to that effort.

During my time in office, the need to privatize certain state-owned non-strategic businesses became obvious. In view of my commitment to economic democracy, I was faced with a dilemma when the time came to sell the state-owned sugar enterprise, CATSA. It was clear that selling this enterprise to private investors would have concentrated the profits in a few hands and the benefits to Costa Ricans would have been negligible. Instead, we made the decision to sell it to the co-operative sector. An agreement was signed and the shares were sold to already-existing co-operatives and to CATSA workers.

In Costa Rica, a strong political democracy helped co-operatives to take root. Co-operatives then made important contributions to the development of Costa Rican economic democracy, which we understand to be the basis for social justice.

In contrast to Costa Rica’s relative stability, nearby Colombia has been suffering the effects of a civil war for more than 40 years. Terrorized by left- and rightwing extremists alike, civilians need ways to band together. At no time is the value of mutual aid so important as in times of war – and co-operatives are key allies in this effort.

Co-operatives could contribute to the end of conflict in Colombia, supplying viable alternatives to coca farming, which has been the only productive – though illegal – activity for many Colombian peasants.

Co-operatives also have an important role to play in promoting democratic politics in Colombia by raising their collective voice in a cry for peace, exhorting all groups in the conflict to lay down their arms and honestly work for a negotiated solution.

Whether the challenge is reinforcing or initiating democracy, co-operatives are a powerful force for reducing poverty, strengthening civil society and promoting civic participation. This is true not only in Latin America, but anywhere in the world.

The co-operative movement is a gem in a world full of ugly rocks. It is a priceless tool to wield in humanity’s struggle to create, in the words of Costa Rican poet Jorge Debravo, a world which:

will give parcels
of land to each person,
of love to each person,
of bread to each person,
of light to each person.

And never again, never, will the earth have men
with thousands of shirts
and men with millions of sorrows.

Co-operative origins

Co-operative ways of working and organizing are a common model in many indigenous communities around the world. Inca and other indigenous American cultures had – and their descendants continue to have – co-operative methods of farming and maintaining public goods, such as irrigation systems. In 1752 the first successful co-operative in the US was organized when Benjamin Franklin formed the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. It is the oldest continuing co-operative in the US. In 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society opened a co-operative store in Toad Lane in Rochdale, England. Although this wasn’t the first co-op, it is considered to be the birthplace of modern co-operatives because the principles and practices of the Pioneers assured the success of the co-operative model.

Oscar Arias Sánchez, former President of Costa Rica and recipient of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, is an internationally known promoter of human development, democracy and demilitarization.

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