Globally 1.5bn people live in countries affected by violence and conflict, and co-operatives, as people-centered enterprises, are playing an active role in promoting peace and mutual understanding.
While it is difficult to measure co-operative performance in terms of peace building at global level, various case studies show that the business model can contribute to peace processes and conflict resolution, whether it is working on the ground to unite people or organising boycotts.
In Israel a co-operative village brings together around 230 Israeli Jews and Palestinian-Israeli Arabs who live together in peace. The village was founded by Bruno Hussar, a Dominican brother, who wanted to create a place where people would live together in spite of national and cultural differences. Its name, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam translates as Oasis for Peace.
The first five families settled in 1978, and now the village, which lies midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is managed by an annually elected steering committee chaired by a secretary general, a position equivalent to the one of a mayor. However, on issues such as acceptance of new members or annual budget, decisions are taken in assemblies of all members. The land and public buildings are owned by the village.
Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is also the home to the School for Peace, set up in 1979. The school runs workshops and training programmes, encouraging participants to take responsibility to change present relations between Jewish and Palestinian communities.
If co-operation can help create communities like Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, co-operative enterprises, as promoters of democracy, can also contribute to building a peaceful, democratic civil society. Some of the underlying causes on war are extreme poverty and social tensions. In the aftermath of a conflict, co-ops can help address these issues and bridge differences. They provide solutions for issues such as inequalities of income, workplace insecurities, community disruption and food security.
To respond to similar concerns, the Center for Microfinance in Nepal and the Canadian Co-operative Association (the international arm of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada) developed a joint project that helped women members of credit and saving co-operatives (SACCOs) better understand how they can influence election issues or get involved in the election process. A similar project was also developed in 2009 in collaboration with the Self-Employed Women’s Federation (SEWA) in India.
Through their co-operatives, these women could generate income for themselves and their families. Following on from this project, in 2011 the CCA carried out a study to explore how women’s co-operatives enabled peace building at grassroots level. Their research, which was based on group discussions on site and in-depth interviews, revealed that women’s co-operatives can address injustices and inequalities, and in doing so, empower women to undertake social transformation, especially in a country like Nepal, which is still recovering from a ten year civil war that ended in 2006.
As well as contributing to the peace-making process, co-operatives can help make a difference at times of conflict by providing services or aid to local communities. In war situations they can help mobilise consumer goods fairly, distributing them more equitably.
A large number of Sri Lankan credit unions continued to operate during the country’s civil war, providing support and financial services. The war ended in 2009, after 26 years of hostilities, and co-operatives and credit unions have since helped rebuild the country.
The credit union movement is represented by the National Federation of Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies (SANASA). With 8,424 societies, SANASA covers all provinces in Sri Lanka – and with 3.1 million members, is the most representative co-operative organisation in the country. It provides saving services and loans to members, many of whom lost family members during the war. The small locally owned SANASA societies are effective at financing small business development in rural areas.
Other co-operatives are also helping Sri Lanka’s post-war recovery. In the northern district of Kilinochichi, fishermen had to start from scratch, with no boats or fishing gear. With a grant through the Local Empowerment through Economic Development (LEED) project, they were able to rehabilitate the co-op’s fishery.
The project, led by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has also helped set up a boatyard where new boats were built that could then be used by the co-operative. As part of LEED, throughout 2011-2012, the ILO provided support to Vavuniya North and Karachchi South Multi-Purpose Cooperative, a rice mill in the North of the country. This helped create 22 jobs and, with financial support from CIC and USAID, the building of a new dairy.
Stirling Smith, an associate with the Co-operative College was in India earlier this year to deliver a workshop for Sri Lankan co-operators. All participants had lost a family member in the civil war.
Due to the conflict some co-operative societies have lost touch with co-operative values and principles, while new members joining these societies are not familiar with them. The workshop aimed to help them understand how to put in practice co-operative values and principles and how to revive old co-operatives or start new ones.
For this project the College partnered with a group of Tamils living in Europe, the Co-operative Society of the Netherlands for Humanitarian Activities (CSNHA). “People understood co-operative values then liked them, but needed to understand and apply them,” explains Mr Smith. The country has 14,000 co-operative societies registered with the Co-operative Council of Sri Lanka, which provide services to 14 million members. The Council has representatives from both the Sinhalese and Tamils ethnic groups.