How co-operatives can change the world

THE theme of International Co-operatives Day this year was peace. Legacoop, the National Federation of Co-operatives in Italy, organised an international conference in Rome on the theme "Co-operative...

THE theme of International Co-operatives Day this year was peace. Legacoop, the National Federation of Co-operatives in Italy, organised an international conference in Rome on the theme "Co-operative work giving hope in lands of conflict". Attended by ministers from the new Italian government and members of the diplomatic corps in Rome, the conference was held in one of the most prestigious venues in the city, overlooking the Forum. Stirling Smith of the Co-operative College was one of speakers ? this is an edited version of his speech.

I AM a historian by training, so forgive me if I start with some history. The Co-operative College in Manchester was founded in 1919. The resolution to form such a College was passed at the first Co-operative Congress to be held in Britain following the end of the Great War.
The resolution considered that a College was the "best memorial to peace and the memory of co-operators who had died in the conflict". The College would "contribute to peace by teaching the principles of co-operation and harmony in international relationships".
In the same year the International Labour Organisation was established, as part of the peace settlement of the Treaty of Versailles.
The Preamble of the ILO&#039s constitution states that: "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice; ? conditions of labour exist involving such injustice hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled ?"
Social injustice gives rise to conflict. And, in turn, conflict gives rise to huge economic and social costs.
In 2000, over half the countries in Africa and 20 per cent of the population were affected by conflict. In 2003, 46 per cent of all developing countries affected by conflict were in Africa, during the previous decade over six million people died and over 20 million persons were displaced.
In turn, war has led to consistent negative economic growth ? at least two per cent per year according to the World Bank.
It has been calculated that every dollar invested in prevention of conflict saves the international community $4 spent on dealing with the results of conflict.
So, what is the role of our Movement? I would propose that economic re-construction and social reconstruction must march "hand in hand". I would like to refer to some examples of co-operatives in re-construction after conflict. Firstly, Rwanda is still recovering from experiencing the worst genocide in recent history. Almost a million people were killed in 1994 and many tens of thousands of women raped. It is estimated that over 12 per cent of Rwandans are HIV positive.
The 1994 genocide decimated Rwanda&#039s fragile economic base and impoverished an already poor population even further. Nearly two thirds of Rwanda&#039s 8.5 million people live below the poverty line.
In this situation, co-operatives are not only providing livelihoods, they are also providing important psychological support ? a place where people can associate, can work and support each other.
The group Amizero, which means "hope" in the Rwandan language, is a support group for the widows and orphans of the genocide.
Amizero assists them by setting up small income generating schemes, which take the form of co-operatives. One group in Gatenga, a district of the capital Kigali, grows and sells vegetables. Another group collects and recycles rubbish but is in urgent need of personal protective clothing.
I would like to quote Florida Mukarubga, an office bearer in Amizero, who recently visited our College: "Thanks to greater social mobilization, co-operatives have been able to bring together many women in particular who were the victims of rape during the genocide and whose husbands have either died of or are still ill with HIV/AIDS.
"The co-operatives have been able to mobilise them for voluntary screenings and then, in the case of women who are ill, get them medical treatment."
Secondly, Afghanistan. According to the UN, 5.5 million Afghans are extremely poor and chronically food-insecure and another 8.5 million are seasonally food-insecure.
In addition, around 400,000 people each year are seriously affected by natural disasters, such as droughts, floods, earthquakes and extreme weather conditions.
More than half of the children are stunted, and life expectancy is 44 years. The West has spent more than ?1.6 billion in trying to suppress the growing of the poppy in Afghanistan, but with such poverty, is it any wonder that this year&#039s crop will be double last year&#039s harvest? Is it any wonder that the Taliban are now growing stronger?
Instead of sending in the troops, maybe co-operatives are the answer?
The Afghan government wishes to re-establish a Co-operative Movement and the International Co-operative Alliance has sent a mission to the country.
Recently, a farmers&#039 co-operative was revived, I understand with help from USAID, and given help to re-build a processing plant. It has started exporting dried fruit ? a product for which the country was always famous.
Giving farmers a livelihood and hope for the future is surely the way to provide an alternative to poppy growing.
Finally, closer to Europe, the former Yugoslavia. Following the series of conflicts known to historians as the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, the livelihoods of thousands in the Balkans was destroyed, and there was deep suspicion between communities.
Macedonia has been a flash point for conflict since the 19th century, claimed by different nations and groups. Indeed the first modern "terrorist" movement came about because of the status of Macedonia.
In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, multi-ethnic local farmers&#039 associations (the term co-operatives is avoided because of past connotations), were established in the late 1990s, breeding sheep for dairy and meat. These associations survived the outbreak of fighting in early 2001 between different ethics groups.
The co-ops increased members&#039 incomes by 15 per cent and have extended their activities to include other parts of the supply chain.
In Bosnia, Muslims and Serbs have formed a mixed co-operative in the Vlasic plateau, that has played an important role in re-building the economy in its area.
There is a good market for its agricultural produce, and people are returning and investing. The co-operative is built on the simple proposition that working together is of economic benefit. Jobs and increased family income are the basis for re-integrating people who fled from the area during the conflict.
Some of the areas where co-ops could play a role in post conflict situations are:
? They could be set up to engage in physical re-construction: making building materials, wells, re-building clinics, schools and homes. The best practice in re-construction is already based on the idea of involving local people. Why not develop this further by using the reconstruction process to also construct new co-operatives?
? Co-ops have a very important role in creating livelihoods. I have already given three examples ? from Rwanda, Afghanistan and the Balkans. In some cases, this could be a case of reviving a co-operative that existed before and needs a little assistance. In other cases, an entirely new co-operative may be needed.
? Co-operatives could be set up for ex-combatants. A vital part of ending conflicts in many countries is disarmament and demobilisation. This is the phase of separating the soldiers from their weapons and transforming them from combatants to former-combatants.
? A co-operative could provide a substitute organisation and the sense of solidarity that the former combatants may miss in civilian life. These co-operatives could undertake re-construction work, provide skills training and some psycho-social counselling.
? Finally, social co-operatives for the victims of conflict, such as amputees, widows and orphans must have a role.
One problem with reconstruction after any disaster or crisis whether it is an act of God like the tsunami, or the folly of man like global warming, is that agencies are in a hurry. We saw this in the tsunami, where often the wrong kind of support was offered.
Many development agencies want quick results. They think co-ops will be too slow, the time to set them up will be too long and that the "transaction costs" will be too high.
In fact, it is these so-called "transaction costs", the democracy, the building of trust that are also part of reconstruction. This is what I call social reconstruction.
When bombs fall or houses are burnt in a process of ethnic cleansing, it destroys more than bridges, roads and houses. Just re-building them does not take a community back to where they were before.
Livelihoods and physical assets are not in themselves sufficient. What helps to restore communities, and prevent the outbreak of conflict in the future is re-building trust.
This may happen through education. But the examples from several parts of the world show that joint activity through an enterprise with a shared purpose, such as a co-operative, is another way to try to heal the psychological trauma of conflict.
Co-operators do not curse the dark, they light a candle. We know from experience that co-operatives are a flexible, powerful instrument. They are not the complete solution, but they can be part of the solution.
We can help co-operative movements in countries where there has been conflict. We can lobby our own governments to provide more assistance to co-operatives in conflict countries.
A group of co-operative development organisations has been meeting and working together to provide co-operative solutions for post tsunami re-construction. This collaboration can surely be extended to include joint work for peace and reconstruction.

In this article

Join the Conversation