How are co-ops helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

Co-operatives have a role to play in achieving the goals – and telling their members about them

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Adopted on 25 September 2015, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to end all forms of poverty across the world. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) associated with it continue the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, which started with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) back in 2000.

According to the final MDG Report, the global partnership to reduce extreme poverty resulted in the most successful anti-poverty movement in history. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half.

The SDGs were designed to build on the achievements of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. However, they are broader in scope and go further than the MDGs by addressing the root causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people. The SDGs are also intended for action in all countries, while the MDGs were aimed at developing countries.

A key target for the SDGs is to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030. This is currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day. Furthermore, the goals aim to ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance. As people-centred enterprises, co-operatives can play a key role in achieving these goals.

What is sustainable development?

A concept coined by Gro Harlem Brundtland in the 1987 report Our Common Future, sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres says: “Sustainable development also depends fundamentally on upholding human rights and ensuring peace and security. Leaving no one behind also means reducing inequalities within and among countries, reaching those most at risk, and strengthening our resolve to prevent conflict and sustain peace.”

While they are not legally binding, governments are expected to set out frameworks for the achievement of the SDGs. Businesses, the civil society and individuals are also expected to contribute.

The 17 SDGs focus on the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. In total 169 targets have been set.

The implementation of the SDGs will be monitored and reviewed at the annual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Statistics from the 2017 UN report on the progress made on achieving the goals reveal some important figures Almost 10% of the employed population worldwide lived with their families on less than USD $1.90 US per person per day in 2016.

Globally, about 793 million people were undernourished in 2014-2016, down from 930 million in 2000-2002. In the majority of the 67 countries with data from 2009 -2015, fewer than a third of senior- and middle-management positions were held by women. In 2014, 85.3% of the global population had access to electricity, up from 77.6% in 2000. However, 1.06 billion people still lived without this basic service.

What is the role of co-ops?

Co-operatives were mentioned in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development.

To create an opportunity for the co-operative movement to demonstrate its contributions and commitment to engage with the SDGs, the International Co-operative Alliance created the online platform Coopsfor2030.

The Coopsfor2030 campaign was created in 2016 within the framework of the ICA-EU partnership, also called #coops4dev, to enable co-operatives to learn more about the SDGs, commit to pledges to contribute to achieving the SDGs, and report their progress.

The partnership is built around activities focused on increasing visibility, enhancing advocacy, sharing capacity building, strengthening cooperative development networking, and supporting all these with evidence from exhaustive research. A recent report by PwC showed that two in five firms are still either ignoring or having no meaningful engagement with SDGs. But co-operatives are leading the way through the Coopsfor2030 platform.

The campaign proposes four action areas where co-ops can make a difference: protecting the environment, improving access to basic goods and services, building a more sustainable food system and eradicating poverty. The platform also includes suggested pledges to make it easier for co-ops to set targets.

Since its launch in July 2016, Coopsfor2030 has attracted almost 300 pledges from 100 co-operatives, some with more than one pledge. The Committee on the Promotion and Advancement of Co-operatives (COPAC) is also raising awareness about the significant contributions of co-operative enterprises towards achieving the 2030 Agenda through a series of 17 briefs looking at how co-ops contribute to each of the SDGs.

The brief exploring how co-ops help reduce poverty (SDG1) highlights how the sector has more than a billion members around the world and provides or organises work for at least 279.4 million people, describing it as a considerable contribution to the goal. For example, in India the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) has more than 36,000 member co-ops, with a reach of more than 55 million farmers. The co-op helps improve the living conditions and livelihoods of small-scale producers by providing essential services, such as product marketing, rural telecommunications and insurance.

Similarly, in Pipinas, a small town in Argentina, the worker co-op Pipinas Viva restored the local hotel, which helped to draw tourists, contributing to boosting other micro and small enterprises in the local economy.

Gender equality is another key area of the goals. The COPAC brief argues the co-operative model is well suited to advancing women’s economic participation in three key ways: increasing access to employment and work, enabling economic democracy and agency and boosting leadership and management experience. One of the co-operatives featured is Consorzio Copernico, a consortium of six social co-operatives established in 1997 in the Piemonte region of Italy. The co-operatives produce educational and social welfare services for children, teenagers, families, immigrants and asylum seekers and provide 200 jobs to people with challenges for securing work. All of its board members are women.

In terms of providing decent work and economic growth (SDG8), co-operatives have the advantage of being democratically run and focused on the needs of their members, argues the COPAC brief. The paper states that co-ops often provide competitive pay and prioritize job security more so than other private sector enterprises. The brief features various case studies, including one on COOJAD, a Rwandan financial co-operative that provides low-interest loans for young people to create self employment opportunities. Young people are also actively involved in the co-operative and are among the board members. By showing how their enterprise is meeting the SDGs, these co-operatives are also proving how they are different from other businesses, which can give them a competitive advantage.

  • Read more from our recent series on co-operatives and the Sustainable Development Goals here.