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Shopping at Tidal Creek Cooperative is just one example of how Wilmingtonians can celebrate the year of the co-op. Courtesy photo

It is an interesting world we live in. The longer I stumble through it, the more surprised I am by it. To be honest, my world view feels very schizophrenic at times: living in a small business and writing the Live Local column while sharing my life with a man whose head is halfway around the world in small villages. Like many informed and aware people, we follow politics and world developments, but the big topic in our household for the last week has been the change of power in Malawi (a country in sub-Saharan Africa made famous by Madonna‘s adoption activities there), which for us has seriously overshadowed Rick Santorum dropping out of the presidential primary.

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.”

Wow.

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.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. MSF

    April 20, 2012 at 5:06 am

    Having just received an order from North Carolina for “This Way Out: A Guide To Starting A Worker Cooperative” 2 DVD set (four hours) of material useful for starting a new, or revitalizing an existing, cooperative.
    Got curious what kind of coop action is afoot in North Carolina and was delighted to find your lovely article. Beautiful!

    • Rebecca Dunn (Reinmann)

      April 23, 2012 at 12:48 am

      As someone involved in cooperatives for many years as well as running a community loan fund for 26 years that has funded co-ops since 1975, I found your article very succinct and well done… a good summary of cooperatives. I appreciated seeing it in a local publication. thank you! In fact, I would love to bring a copy of it to DC with me. I have been asked to join a group of cooperators to participate in a community leader beriefing at the White House on May 4th on cooperatives, jobs and the economy.

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