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So… co-operatives can build a better world, right?


‘Co-operatives can deliver to you the economic, social and environmental sustainability that the world needs. We can change the world.’

I don’t know what you think about these two sentences, but to be honest, when I heard them a few days ago in Cape Town, at the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) annual conference, I couldn’t help thinking what a big statement it was. I was expecting to find positive opinions about co-operatives there, but this was certainly a strong proposition for that early on a Monday morning. Was Rodrigo Gouveia, director of Policy of the ICA, using these words as a way of cheering (or waking) people up? Or was he expressing his true beliefs?

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am a member of several co-operatives and I have been working in the co-operative sector for nearly three years, and was glad to see the nods of agreement and the subtle smiles Rodrigo’s message generated in the audience.

Making co-operatives not just contribute but lead the way to a better, fairer and more sustainable future is the objective the movement set for itself before closing the International Year of Co-operatives in the autumn of 2012. The plan was detailed in the ICA’s Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade: by 2020, co-operatives should become the acknowledged and indisputable leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability; the model preferred by people (producers, consumers, users), and the fastest-growing form of enterprise.

By the look of things, the plan was clear enough, but are co-operatives ready to take the challenge?

The slogan of the ICA’s campaign for a co-operative decade is ‘co-operatives build a better world’; the 150-plus years of co-operative history back it up.

For centuries co-operatives have contributed to poverty reduction by empowering producers and consumers all over the world – look, for example, at the 887,000 people who are involved in Fairtrade in poor countries through co-operative organizations. Co-operatives have also been committed to reducing their impact on the environment and helping fight climate change – think of their role in the promotion of renewable energy in Britain. And they’ve given leadership to women and have ensured job creation even in times of economic downturn – in countries like Spain, employment in co-operatives have grown over seven per cent while the public and private sectors kept destroying jobs. However, where are they when it comes to getting the solutions for the most pressing global challenges?  

Gather a group of random people together and ask them about how to face disenchantment, loss of trust and empower citizenship, and you’ll quickly realize co-operatives are usually left out of the equation. Why has no-one noticed yet? Is it the co-operatives’ fault? Why have they been so silent and quiet about their contribution to the world?

It could be that they take all their good actions for granted and don’t even realize they are doing it, so they don’t talk about it. It could also be that they’ve got better things to worry about – I appreciate it is difficult to think ‘big’ when you have to keep your business running. But, sometimes, it just comes across as if they lack the confidence in themselves and in other co-ops to proudly exhibit their co-operative difference.

There are still loads of co-operatives that don’t buy from other co-operatives or believe their fellow organizations are as competitive as the selfish profit-before-people corporations. Some of the new start-ups are even embarrassed to have ‘co-operative’ in their names because they think it will reduce their success in the marketplace. And with this attitude, they are not just missing out on a great opportunity to make a positive impact on the world, but also going against one of the seven co-operative principles: ‘Co-operation amongst co-operatives.’ If co-operatives don’t believe in themselves, how do they expect anyone else to?

Despite the high-level plans for co-operatives worldwide, it is co-operatives on the ground that can make that Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade a success. Co-operatives need to campaign and shout about what they do, how they do it and what they believe in. They need actively to be involved in the direst challenges the world is facing, from unemployment and loss of trust in politics and economy to food security and climate change, because they have something to contribute to them. If they have an advantage over other business models, it is that they don’t need to pretend; they don’t need to dress up and put on their corporate social responsibility mask before crossing their doorstep; they are making a difference with their everyday practice.

Dame Pauline Green, recently re-elected President of the ICA, said in Cape Town: ‘We have the moment, we have the knowledge, and the public mood is with us. We’ve got the strength and voice from one billion from all over the world. Let’s use that slogan that was given to us by the United Nations and show that co-operatives build a better a world.’ It’s their call.

Isabel Benitez is member and PR Executive of The Phone Co-op, a consumer co-operative and Britain’s only telecoms provider owned by its customers.

New Internationalist has just published a book on the co-operative alternative: People Over Capital: the co-operative alternative to capitalism.

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