Ela Bhatt’s Congress keynote looks to a nurturing economy in 100-mile communities

‘The co-operative being a collective, by creating an identity of its own, also establishes the individual identity of the members’

Ela Bhatt, veteran co-operative organiser and founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), gave the keynote at the plenary on committing to our co-operative identity for positive change.

Calling for a feminine-led “economy of nurturers” based on “100 mile communities” to ensure accountability and sustainability, Ms Bhatt reaffirmed her lifelong commitment to the co-operative identity. She said the co-operative movement is committed to the future of humanity “through freedom and self-rule”.

Ms Bhatt, who is also a founding member of the Elders, a group of global leaders working for peace, justice and human rights, said her life since founding SEWA in 1972 has revolved around unionising and organising India’s poor rural and urban women workers.

SEWA discovered that its members wanted to be freed from the grip of exploitative money lenders who charged 10% interest a day; in response, in 1974 SEWA formed the first women’s co-operative bank.

“The co-operative is an answer to poverty in any country,” said Ms Bhatt.

The relationship with bank members gave SEWA closer insight into their lives; investigating the cause of large number loan defaults, it found that 21 of 50 women given loans had died in childbirth.

With no health or social safety net in place for women, SEWA decided to create its own, creating health and life insurance co-operatives.

“The co-operative being a collective, by creating an identity of its own, also establishes the individual identity of the members,” she said.

For a woman dairy farmer, co-operative membership brings recognition as a worker in the supply chain rather than an anonymous part of the national workforce, with status as a producer and owner, with an income and dividend. “She has gained visibility, voice and representation.”

Related: Strengthening the co-operative identity at the Cooperative World Congress

This work – which makes co-operatives “preservers of peace, agents of change”  – is vital with poverty becoming more widespread and work being central to the life of the poor.

Formal work and informal work is a false divide of work, added Ms Bhatt. “All work is precious work”, but there is pressure to promote only those types of work which serve the global economy; others are dismissed as unproductive.

It is the duty of co-operatives to change this limited concept of work, said Ms Bhatt, and build “an economy of nurturers”.

Being a nurturer comes naturally to human beings, she said, and they can create “an economy that plants trees and does not go on cutting trees”, which is based on collaboration, not competition. 

Ms Bhatt advocates the “100 miles principle” of a decentralised economy, which cuts the distance between producer and consumer, government and people – as well as reducing carbon footprints.

“The 100 mile community has a human scale that allows for voices to be heard and problems to be solved; the shorter the distance the more accountable we are to each other,” she said. 

Co-operatives will be more viable in this system, and services like healthcare and banking would improve, she argued. “Our co-operatives will be local in origin but its direct benefit will be nurturing for people everywhere”, using the co-operative movement’s immense human and social capital.

The application and ownership of technology is very important and will decentralise the economy of nurturers, she added: “The user will be owner, manager, producer, beneficiary.”

Women will be the key to creating this economy of nurturers, she said, by thinking communally and globally. “We all live under one sky, we breathe the common air … we draw our water from the common ground, we draw our food from the same earth.” Women’s participation brings sustainable solutions, she said; they are workers, providers, caretakers, educators and networkers.

She does not mean to exclude men with these ideas, she added: “It is a feminine way of thinking that I trust. We do honour the feminine within men, the feminine is closely linked to nature, it has no time-bound goals, but values.”

Co-operatives can respond to the need to put decision-making back in the hands of people, she said, and are well placed to meet the world’s primary needs: food, shelter and healthcare.