How are co-operatives ensuring no one is left behind?

As this year’s International Day of Co-operatives takes the theme of inclusion, we look at the movement’s efforts on disability and gender

On 1 July co-operators around the world are celebrating the International Day of Co-operatives. This year’s theme is inclusion, with the slogan: Co-operatives ensure no one is left behind.

The theme for the 2017 International Day of Co-operatives (1 July) is ‘Co-ops ensure no one is left behind’

The International Day of Co-operatives, observed on the first Saturday of July every year, was first celebrated by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1923. Its theme is chosen by the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Co-operatives (COPAC), currently chaired by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

COPAC also includes the International Co-operative Alliance, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO).

In 1994, following engagement with COPAC, the UN recognised and reaffirmed that co-operatives have an important role to play in the economic, social and cultural development and proclaimed a UN International Day of Co-operatives to be celebrated for the first time in 1995, marking the centenary of the Alliance.

Explaining why this theme had been chosen, the Alliance said co-operatives provided a space where all people, regardless of race, gender, culture, social background or economic circumstances could meet their needs and build better communities. But what makes co-ops uniquely placed to promote such inclusion?

A 2015 brief from the International Labour Organisation for the series Co-operatives and the World of Work highlights how co-operatives provide an advantage for people with disabilities both as employers and as service providers. Coordinated data on the number of people with disabilities working for co-operatives is not currently available. However, the ILO’s paper points out that, increasingly, co-ops encourage active involvement of people with disabilities in the management of their enterprise, such as social co-operatives in Italy, which employ over 35,000 workers from disadvantaged groups.

Another example is French co-operative TitiFloris, which specialises in transportation services for people with disabilities. In addition, 60 of its 350 employees have disabilities, and the co-operative was a prize winner in 2014 for workplace inclusion.

TitiFloris specialises in transportation services for people with disabilities

In Brazil, Especial Coop Taxi provides services to physically disabled persons with a dedicated fleet and drivers trained to understand their clients’ needs.

And in the USA, the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions has teamed up with Disability Outreach Network to enable people with disabilities to have access to financial services. The credit union provides deaf persons access to low-interest loans to purchase special equipment, as well as income tax advice.

Spanish co-op Manchalan – part of Mondragon, the world’s largest federation of worker co-opes – provides services including industrial assembly work, plastics injection, and direct marketing and contact centre services for client companies. Around 90% of the workforce are employees with disabilities. The co-op strives to deliver social benefit by helping people with disabilities integrate into the workplace.

On gender, a 2015 report by the International Labour Organization says co-ops should enhance their capacity to empower women by working with civil society and gaining government recognition. Based on surveys and interviews with experts and practitioners from the co-operative, labour and women’s movements, the report suggests that within the co-operative movement there is a growing attention to gender issues, a progression of women into leadership roles, and an increase in the number of women owned co-operatives. ILO research also indicates strong links between women’s involvement in co-operatives and poverty reduction.

Last year ICMIF, the International Co-operative and Mutual Insurance Federation, published a study showing that in 2010, around 14.3% of its member’s directors were women – up from 11.5% in 2005. The report also showed that in 2010, one in four members had three or more women sitting on their boards, and 14% had a woman CEO. Furthermore, nine of the largest 100 co-op and mutual insurers in the world have women CEOs, while only one of the top 100 stock company insurers globally is led by a woman.

Similarly, research by CICOPA shows that in France, 25% of worker co-ops are managed by women – seven points more than in traditional enterprises. In Spain women account for 50% of the jobs in co-operatives.

In 2012, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a report looking at the role of agricultural co-operatives in gender equality. The study highlights that co-operatives can play important roles in overcoming the barriers faced by women and in supporting small agricultural producers. Efficient co-ops empower their members economically and socially, it says, and create sustainable employment through equitable and inclusive business models that are more resilient to shocks.

Informal employment also continues to represent a considerable share of the global economy and workforce, accounting for 82% of non agricultural-employment in South Asia, 22% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 65% in East and Southeast Asia and 51% in Latin America. Co-operative models are often used to enable workers to transition from the informal to the formal economy, improving the lives of workers. An ILO report highlights how co-ops offer workers the means of gaining legal recognition.

The organisation is working in a number of countries, leading projects that aim to support workers by providing training and assistance for the creation and administration of co-operatives. Co-ops also help by providing services for workers in the informal economy. In India, mobile pre-school services and co-operatives for social and child care, including family co-operatives, have been developed to respond to the needs of working parents in the informal economy.

In recent years, co-ops have enjoyed increased recognition from EU bodies regarding their contribution to development. EU member states recently signed a joint strategy for the future of European development which includes several mentions of the co-operative movement.

In its three mentions of co-operatives, the document highlights their role as key actors in international development and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new Consensus on Development highlights that “co-operatives … have become instrumental partners in reaching the most vulnerable and marginalised people”. The EU also pledges to promote co-ops, to boost the provision of local services as well as inclusive and green business models.

With research showing how co-operatives contribute to fostering inclusion by providing employment, equal opportunities and services for the disadvantages, the International Day of Co-operatives is an opportunity for the movement to emphasise some of its achievements.

COPAC is organising the celebration the movement’s achievements in promoting inclusion at the UN’s headquarters in New York during the High-level Political Forum for Sustainable Development. The forum will be an opportunity for governments and UN officials to review the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Monique Leroux, president of the International Co-operative Alliance, says: “At a time when inequality is rising around the world, it is important to remember on the occasion of the International day of co-operatives, that solutions for a more inclusive future exist. The co-operative model is foremost among these. Its principles and values set it apart from all other forms of businesses. Co-operatives are people-centered. They distribute wealth in a fairer way. They are community-based and they are committed to the sustainable development of their communities – environmentally, socially and economically. Globalization should be done through a set of values such as those of the co-operative movement ensuring that no-one is left behind in order to build a better world.”

Read More: Four co-ops ensuring no one is left behind:

East of England: Supporting small local producers – and the women involved

The Wales Co-operative Centre: enabling more people to own and manage their own accommodation

Argentina: A co-op of prisoners helping ex-offenders to return to society

Singapore: Services for the elderly in an ageing population

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