Policymakers are getting busy – so how can co-ops catch their eye?

Lessons from the US federal Covid programmes were discussed at the Co-op Impact Conference

Global issues such as the post-Covid economic recovery and climate change are driving policymaking efforts around the world – which opens opportunities for co-operative action.

But how can co-ops ensure new policy takes their model into account – and how do they ensure a place at the table when funding is being granted?

At the US Co-op Impact conference, organised by national sector apex NCBA CLUSA, the session Connecting Policy and Action saw panelists share insights from the multi-billion dollar federal Covid-19 support programmes. 

Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), said co-ops had stepped up during the Covid-19 crisis, demonstrating the sector’s worth. For instance, farmer co-ops in the FSC sent 40,000lb of produce north to provide food for families.

Juan Fernandez, president and CEO, Credit Union Association of New Mexico, added that credit unions had been “first responders” during the pandemic by supporting their members with measures such as rental assistance for those who lost their jobs. “Co-operatives were built for crisis”.

This made the sector an ideal partner for government support programmes, and Mr Fernandez paid tribute to NCBA CLUSA’s work advocacy with federal lawmakers to make sure co-ops were eligible for Covid packages.

He said even small credit unions in New Mexico had stepped up to make sure they were involved in government programmes, and had given feedback to policymakers to help these run more smoothly. 

“The programmes were set up on the fly so there were a lot of challenges,” said Mr Fernandez, “and we communicated on those issues.

One of the biggest victories, he added, was that New Mexico saw $12bn invested in(community development financial institutions (CDFIs). “We’s now asking  the question, how do we leverage some of those dollars to tackle some of the issues we have in New Mexico?”

Five credit unions in New Mexico received over $1.3m in grants, said Mr Fernandez – “an amazing and significant infusion of grant dollars … now the exciting part will be how we come together to leverage those dollars”.

He suggested credit unions could take advantage of funding boosts by marrying loan funds with other co-op sectors to promote economic vitality and help minority businesses. National efforts to confront the crisis are a “game changer when it comes to showing the value of the co-operative model” he added.

Access to loans and access to credit is a pressing issue to black farming co-ops represented by te FSC. Ms Davy said: “One of the issues that black farmers face is the lack of access to credit in general … they face significant racist discrimination.”

Loans that do go to farmers often leave them over-collateralised, she said, prompting the FSC to  of lobby for debt relief when Covid support measures were drawn up. 

“Farmers were having a very difficult time paying off their debts,” she added – which was adding to the problem of land loss from the black farming sector.

Land loss is a historic problem for black farmers, whose numbers fell from 218,000 in 1910 to just 18,000 in 1992. The fact black farming survived this decline, and that there are still black farming co-ops, is testament to years of advocacy work by the co-op movement to the government, said Ms Davy.

Now, with a younger generation going through “a resurgence of interest in racial equity,” it is important for organisations like the FSC, which works at “the intersection of civil rights movement and black co-op movement”, to continue that advocacy, she said.

“USDA (US Department of Agriculture) programmes have been very careful in terms of affording black farmer co-ops the opportunity to do what they need to do, to think creatively,’ said Ms Davy – but she warned that FSC members in remote rural areas face huge barriers in accessing these programmes. Many have no or limited access to the internet and in many cases the application process is online only. “We need to think strategically to make sure the infrastructure offers broader access.”

A more supportive physical infrastructure is also desperately needed, she said, with farmers hampered by a lack of adequate processing facilities, and needing better access to refrigeration and transportation.  

“People take for granted that once a co-op is formed it’s going to be successful,” she said, but co-ops have “a fundamental need” for policymakers to meet these infrastructure needs, from data to processing. 

“Every single policy that comes out … we’re looking for opportunities,” she said.