One of my favorite tidbits in the news was when the United Nations proclaimed 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. Many of us are familiar with things like “National Pie Day,” which are created by congressional resolution. But international bureaucrats recognizing a year-long celebration of an idea? That’s a pretty tall order. In the Untied States cooperatives are recognized as legal entities, despite the fact that throughout much of the world they form loosely and frequently by default.
The now famous women’s marketing cooperative in the village of Worni, Mali—which inspired my significant other Jock, [founder of The Full Belly Project,] to invent the peanut sheller—was formed entirely through necessity. There are simply not enough hours in the day for women in the village to farm, harvest, process, and deliver to market their product while caring for children, the elderly, sick and housekeeping. They must pool resources in order for the village to survive. Jock describes them as “the most pure form of communism I have ever seen.”
So that’s one view of co-ops, but the globe is composed of many different scales of economy—not just the village level. Why would the UN consider the co-op to be important enough to devote an entire year to recognizing its contributions? Human Rights Day is only one day. Co-ops include electrical providers to rural areas, banking co-ops, housing cooperatives and most visibly in the U.S., retail cooperatives. What role do they play in the world’s economy?
According to the UN, more than 100 million jobs around the world are with co-ops—that is 20 percent more than those provided by multinational enterprises. In the U.S. more than 2 millions jobs are with co-ops. According to the National Cooperative Business Association, “30,000 cooperatives that operate 73,000 places of business throughout the U.S. own more than 3 trillion dollars in assets, and generate over 500 billion dollars in revenue and 25 billion dollars in wages.”
I personally have joined several co-ops in my lifetime. I belonged to a wholesale co-op to make bulk purchasing for small business affordable. Many of us shop at Ace Hardware, which allows the member stores to purchase items at a competitive wholesale price. Of course, my favorite grocery store that we are “owner members” of is Tidal Creek Cooperative. I love getting our patronage refund checks; I love supporting a local, community-owned business structure; and I love a locally focused buying agenda.
My parents have been members of State Employees Credit Union for over 30 years. It is just one example of a cooperative financial institution in our area. As I start to look around, I am amazed at the number of points where co-ops touch my life.
In the developing world, co-ops are major players. In Honduras the UN reports that one out of every three people belong to a co-op. In Kenya that number is one out of every five. My assumption is that these stats refer to established, identified co-ops rather than the village-level collective that was described earlier, so those numbers could be higher.
What is the appeal of cooperative membership that it is so pervasive in the human experience? The seven principles of cooperative guidance that the International Cooperative Alliance cites are: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation; concern for community.
In a world that can feel very dangerous and limiting, I think the option of voluntary participation, with a vote, is very appealing to many people. I am not overly vocal about the decisions made at Tidal Creek, but I have the option to be. My voice can genuinely be heard instead of lost in the pipeline of customer service, which is nice to know.
Economic participation is also appealing because a member is personally invested and reaps rewards based upon their own participation. That is the ultimate goal of civilization: to peacefully coexist and flourish, not to drive out others.
“Autonomy and independence” might sound surprising to some, but if you are concerned about government control or manipulation from a cartel, which is not an unreasonable concern in many parts of the world, the preservation of the autonomy of the organization is essential.
I like the cooperation and concern for community principals a lot, of course. Celebrate the year of the cooperative and invest your money with your community—it’s making a big difference worldwide—with a lot more care and concern than the multinational corporations can offer us all.