How can co-ops help displaced people?

A new report from the ILO looks at the role the role of social economy organisations in providing work, services and peace-building opportunities

A new report from a project by the International Labour Organization (ILO), Unicef, World Bank and other organisations says co-ops and organisations in the social economy are well placed for a role meeting the escalating crisis of displaced people.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 70.8 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations at the end of 2018.

The new report says these displaced people, and the communities that host them, need economic opportunities which will help them mitigate the effects of the crisis.

Co-ops can engage with the problem in a number of ways – offering work, offering services, offering membership and building communities, says the ILO.

“Establishing structures that the local community can trust, and strengthening local governance, are key to peacebuilding,” says the report. “Co-operatives and other social and solidarity economy organisations (SSEOs) are well positioned to address the needs of both displaced persons and host populations, as they often combine practical services through collective action, underpinned by principles of self-help, mutualism and democratic governance.”

The report is an update on the work of Prospects, a partnership led by the Netherlands government with the ILO, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank.

Prospects carried out a mapping exercise of responses by co-ops and SSEOs to displacement, to identify good practices, lessons learned and potential areas of innovation.

The work found a variety of roles played by co-operatives and SSEOs – from practical functions, such as access to goods and services, employment, income generation, finance and knowledge exchange, to social capacity and peace-building functions, such as networking, solidarity and trust building, problem solving, collective action, women’s empowerment, reconciliation, and cultural sensitisation.

“Many co-operatives work across both categories and are able to leverage an integrated response to provide a combination of mutually reinforcing benefits to those involved,” the report said.

Examples include:

  • Barikama, near Rome, Italy, which was started by a group of African refugees and migrants who had been exploited while working as fruit pickers. They formed a small organic business that makes yoghurt and grows vegetables.
  • There are 15 Tibetan worker co-ops in India supporting the livelihoods of 36 refugees. Established in the 1960s and 1970s, their activities range from agricultural production and handicrafts to running guesthouses.
  • A series of 40 co-ops set up by UNHCR across five camps in Ethiopia, since 2012, working in agriculture, livestock, gum and incense, construction, energy and environment

Co-ops can be mixed membership – comprising refugees and locals, and can serve either or both groups. The report gives the example of the SADA Women’s Cooperative in Gaziantep, Turkey, which includes Syrian, Turkish
and Afghan members and engages in a variety of activities.

Other co-ops comprise former refugees who have returned home but have not fully reintegrated – such as Cooperativa Agricola Insieme in Bratunac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has helped women in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. They turn small berries grown by local families into jams and nectars.

The report adds that there are many SSEOs performing similar roles to co-ops such as Earth Heir in Malaysia and Women Craft in Tanzania, which market products made by refugee artisans, and Nut & Feder in Vienna which trains and employs refugees to make products.

Co-ops and SSEOs have had a number of significant impacts, says the report, including:

  • helping to facilitate more than 40,000 flexible work permits for Syrian refugees in the agricultural sector
  • the Regina Community Clinic, a consumer co-operative in Saskatchewan, Canada, providing care to refugees since 2004
  • the Refugee Directors’ Cooperative in Montana, USA brings together refugees from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo interested in documentary filmmaking. They work together to create self-directed stories to share with the public.
  • the Kalandia Camp Women’s Handicraft Cooperative, the oldest women’s society established and formally registered by Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, which financially empowers Palestinian women.

The role of co-ops includes acting as a “cultural broker”, says the report. Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op (MCHB) helps refugees “navigate the Canadian health system, taking a holistic and comprehensive view of health”.

“Co-operatives not only provide for practical needs, but through co-operation, members are able to access training and services, and can also lobby for more strategic needs through their collective voice,” the report says.

“This is particularly critical in the context of displacement, where social capacities, solidarity, trust, problem-solving, psychosocial support and peace-building, both with the displaced persons as well as host communities, are strongly required.”

To pursue effective peace-building, co-ops should support activities that already have links in the community, give priority to economic and social objectives; address structural injustices that cause conflict rather than providing short-term responses; and have mixed membership of host communities and displaced persons.

Meanwhile their flexibility, community base and sustainability gives the co-op model valuable advantages when working with refugee groups, which are often in flux and contain a diverse range of needs, such as training, childcare and mental health support.

For co-ops to succeed, the report says a favourable legal and regulatory environment is vital. Specific recommendations from consultation included: providing co-ops with their own tax designation; ensuring that legislation protects their autonomy; establishing an apex body that is well versed with the legal and policy environment, for lobbying and guidance; and policy development that allows for emerging global trends such as information technology, e-commerce and inclusivity.

Good governance is essential for trust, ensuring the co-op is “clear, democratic and participatory”, while the co-op values and principles help to build in the element of trust that allows a peace-building role. Trust and solidarity can be difficult to build among refugee communities who will have been through troubling experiences, so it is important for co-ops to devote time and care to this process.

Support from local, national and international organisations is also important, helping to build partnerships, facilitate market access, enable knowledge exchange and offer technical guidance.

For instance MADE51, a project partnership between UNHCR, social enterprises, co-opes and artisans, markets refugee crafts at a global scale. At local level, its partnerships offer livelihoods, sustain artistic traditions and preserve culture; at trading level these collections are promoted via MADE51’s website. The initiative has 13 social enterprise
partners working in 10 countries – Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Malaysia; there will soon be partners from Thailand, Israel, India, South Sudan and Turkey.

Challenges to co-ops working with displaced people include hostile national regulatory frameworks; distrust of co-ops “where their past misuses of
co-operatives by state authorities and/or political parties has undermined their effective function”, and a negative perception of co-ops in regions where poor management and governance have caused problems.

There are also problems accessing finance and a risk that international agencies can hamper the organic growth of co-ops by imposing too much control instead of facilitating a bottom-up approach.

To develop the role of co-ops in helping displaced people, the report calls for “a community of practice” through workshops and knowledge-sharing platforms. This could include adapting ILO tools, capacity building and training services for co-ops working with refugees.

There is also a need for more awareness, through policy briefs and media placements, and for more research, the report adds.


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