Editorial

2012: The Year Co-ops Became a Global Movement

With the United Nation’s (UN) International Year of the Co-operatives (IYC) 2012 just wrapping up, it’s hard to immediately discern the impact of the year. But for us, one thing rings loud and clear: IYC has built a global co-op movement whose strength is still being understood.

It’s important not to underestimate the impact an international year dedicated to co-operatives could have. It’s the first time the UN has designated a business model with the prestige of its own 365-day celebration.

On spotlighting co-ops in this way, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon says the democratic business model is a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility. And the sleeping giant that is the co-op sector slowly woke to its possibility.

During IYC, a number of events helped bring the global movement together to understand its collective strength. Quebec City hosted the International Summit of Co-operatives, convening nearly 3,000 co-op leaders from 91 countries.

During this event, Desjardins Group president and CEO Monique F. Leroux painted a staggering picture of the sector’s power:

“There are about 1 million co-operatives in the world that serve over 1 billion members and employ more than 100 million people. The 300 largest co-operatives and mutuals generate an annual turnover of 2,200 billion dollars. Together they would form the 9th largest economy in the world.”

A pre-event to the international summit was the Imagine conference, which brought together economists, political scientists and co-op leaders to explore the development of a universally-accepted discipline of co-operative economics.

One of the conclusions from Imagination is that current economic teaching doesn’t include words like “co-operation,” or “co-operative model.” The conference resolved to focus on teaching co-operative economics to the next generation, who will carry the torch for this model in the years to come. 

In the background of Imagination and the international summit, another lesser-known story continued to unfold. A delegation from Cuba was able to meet with Canadian co-op leaders and discuss progress to transition Cuba’s state-owned economy into a co-operative, local economy.

Progress on this front continues, just last week the New York Times published an article on the latest round of Cuba’s reforms, with the Cuban government authorizing a wide range of co-ops, allowing workers to collectively open new businesses or take over existing state-run businesses in construction, transportation and other industries.

Perhaps Cuba will be the first economy to demonstrate not only the viability but the thrivability of co-operative business and ownership at the local level. If this happens, the co-operative movement will have a major asset demonstrating the potential of co-operative economics, in addition to Mondragon in Spain.

2012 saw other movement-building activities, too. From Canada announcing its first-ever national Co-op Investment Fund to 12,000 people taking the pilgrimage to the birthplace of the global co-operative movement, Manchester, for the Co-operatives United conference.

It was at this latter event that International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) Dame Pauline Green shared that never before have co-operatives come together around a shared purpose, co-ops build a better world, and as a result, co-ops have never been as cohesive as they are now.

With the culmination of the year, ICA took the opportunity to introduce the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, which notes that while the year has significantly raised the profile of co-ops, there is much work that still needs to be done.

The dominant economic trends are that of environmental degradation and resource depletion, an unstable financial sector and increasing income inequality. Not to mention a growing global governance gap, and a seemingly disenfranchised younger generation.

In the face of these global problems, the blueprint challenges the co-op sector to elevate participation within membership and governance to a new level. Co-ops must also take leadership in demonstrating a deep commitment to sustainability in three  spheres: economic, environmental and social, among other goals.

ICA admits the blueprint is ambitious, and will need uptake and endorsement by national bodies, individual societies, and all people who believe in the co-operative way of doing business.

Perhaps then, the story of IYC’s impact is just getting started.
 
 

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