Co-op principles point the way through this crisis

Simel Esim, head of the co-operatives unit at the ILO, looks at the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic

Co-op News is running a series of blog posts from prominent voices in the movement. We start with Simel Esim head of the co-operatives unit at the ILO

Historically, values of co-operation, mutualism, self-help and solidarity witness a surge in popularity during times of crisis, including financial crashes, natural disasters and conflicts. Such popularity manifests itself in three main forms: first, as an increasing interest in existing co-ops and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) institutions; second, in the creation and expansion of such institutions; and third, in the repurposing of existing institutions with new missions. 

Around the global financial and economic crisis, people gravitated toward existing co-ops. This led to an increase in membership and turnover, notably in credit unions and food co-operatives as noted in this ILO report. Responses to the Argentinian financial crisis  included the creation of new types of institutions like “emprezas recuperadas”. Workers took over bankrupt businesses and transformed them into worker co-operatives – hundreds of these continue to exist in a financially sustainable manner to this day. 

During the Greek debt crisis  a range of new self-help and mutualistic initiatives emerged, from social and worker co-operatives to community gardens and community kitchens. Co-operatives and other social and solidarity economy institutions may also transform their existing functions or expand upon them during crises. This has been the case during public health epidemics such as AIDS. It has also been the case in relief and reconstruction efforts after natural disasters and in post-conflict settings

Simel Esim

In the face of the pandemic and its aftermath, business activities for many co-operatives and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) institutions have suffered across sectors. As funding shifts to emergency, other causes suffer. Lockdowns meant total stoppage or dwindling of activities for many. In such cases, adequate access to government relief measures, where such measures exist, can be critical. Co-operative apex organisations and SSE support institutions have a role to play in such cases, by providing guidance on legal and financial options. They also have an advocacy role to play with governments. 

In some instances, sectors such as food retail, where co-operatives abound in many countries, have seen a surge. Retail co-operatives have put in place relevant occupational safety and health measures for workers’ and members’ safety, and implemented financial support for childcare for workers, higher wages, bonuses for working under risk, and other measures. Some of these measures could be extended beyond the immediate crises, notably childcare.

During this period there is also a surge in credit unions’ and financial co-operatives’ provision of liquidity support to affected members. Solidarity funds and crowdfunding initiatives have been put in place to support local micro, small, and medium enterprises and vulnerable people. It is not clear whether these funds will be time-bound or continue in the medium to long term. Their continuation would help toward building a conducive ecosystem for co-operatives and wider SSE. Some ILO initiatives working with co-operatives and SSE institutions in developing countries are also establishing solidarity funds by adapting their work plans. 

The potential of health co-operatives has come to the forefront in handling the pandemic. Co-operative provision of public health can play an essential role in vulnerable communities in rural and informal economies, where public and private provision of such services are limited. International organisations like WHO can improve their understanding of such community-based efforts. The ILO is joining forces with the International Health Cooperative Organisation (IHCO) and other partners in setting up a global platform and pilot testing public health service provision through existing agricultural and financial cooperatives in Cameroon and Kenya.

The pandemic is also exposing the deficits in care provision around the word. This gap has been growing for some time especially in ageing societies. Co-operatives and wider SSE institutions have emerged to fill the gap in a number of countries. Among them are co-operatives set up by domestic workers and home-care workers. There are some promising examples of franchising of domestic worker co-operatives that would be worth studying for replication. ILO research on provision of care through co-operatives has shown that co-ops providing care services need to coordinate and collaborate closely with local governments. They need financing, mentorship and incubation for successful replication. 

With the mandatory lockdowns around the world, informal economy workers have been among the first to lose their livelihoods, facing a cruel choice between hunger and infection. Traditionally informal economy workers, like waste-pickers, street vendors, and home-based workers use co-operatives and other SSE institutions for improving well-being of their members. During the pandemic they have been advocating for their members with governments and facilitating access to much needed income and assistance services. HomeNet South Asia, an organisation of home-based workers in South Asia, notes that 90,000 of their 900,000 members who still have work and income during this crisis belong to co-operatives and producer companies. Therefore it calls for economy recovery funds for all  informal workers & support for workers’ co-operatives.

Producer and consumer co-operatives are among key players keeping supply chains of essential foods and goods moving while also relocalising production – especially when produce coming from elsewhere is blocked due to restrictions on movements of people and goods. There are a few examples of such shorter, fairer supply chains among SSE institutions for instance in the Fairtrade movement. It will be important to invest in more of these co-operative-to-co-operative trade and wider social economy trade initiatives. 

Many micro, small and medium enterprises will be facing bankruptcies. In order to preserve jobs struggling enterprises could be restructured through worker-buyouts, such as worker co-operatives. The ILO has developed an overview of practices and strategies on such business transition from around the globe. Conducive policies, financing for the transition and training for workers about management are key aspects to such good practices.

The value of co-operatives and other SSE institutions has been increasingly recognised in the immediate crisis response. Their existing infrastructure and networks are deemed useful in outreach in the emergency phase. In some countries, SSE institutions are included in both consultation and implementation processes of government support measures. There are instances of governments establishing SSE funds in partnership with social economy movements although these are few and far in between. 

This crisis provides an opportunity to get governments, regional and international organisations to acknowledge the diversity of the economy and to recognise the contributions and needs of SSE institutions. It is essential that co-operatives, along with other SSE institutions, are involved in the development of social and economic policies, not just during the response and recovery around the COVID-19 crisis, but for the longer term in rebuilding a more sustainable future.

International organisations, including the UN, can ensure that co-operatives and the wider SSE institutions are an integral part of the recovery and rebuilding agenda in the medium- to long-term. As we commemorate the centenary of ILO COOP, our commitment to this task is reflected in our engagements within the ILO, with our constituents, with co-operative and wider SSE movements, in the UN system, and in the broader development community. As noted in our message of solidarity, we have all the confidence that their values and principles can guide the transition toward not only a new normal but a better and a stronger one.