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“The co-operative ideal is as old as human society. It is the idea of conflict and competition as a principle of economic progress that is new. The development of the idea of co-operation in the 19th century can best be understood as an attempt to make explicit a principle that is inherent in the constitution of society, but which has been forgotten in the turmoil and disintegration of rapid economic progress.”
Cooperation has had a long and varied history and its staying power in this dominant global capitalist environment cannot be questioned. The above quotation is displayed with the Statement on the Cooperative Identity in the museum dedicated to the Rochdale Pioneers, considered the founders of modern cooperation, who pooled their meagre resources during the ‘hungry forties’ and opened a small consumer shop on 15 August 1844 in Rochdale, England. The Rochdale venture began as a struggle against inequality and poverty. The growth of these conditions in Guyana and globally has made co-operatives again attractive and I have been requested to do a piece on cooperation focusing on its history, possibilities and principles.
In passing, it is necessary to note that absence of investment capital is rarely the only obstacle confronting the poor: political factors having to do with class, race, etc. are sometimes in the mix. Consider that earlier this year, the IMF stated that consumer prices by the end of 2022 would increase by 9.4% but at the end of the year public servants would only have gotten 8% increase in salaries! The late Cheddi Jagan argued that a salary increase should cover inflation with additions for growth in the economy but since he died the PPP has obviously found a better way to make public servants better off!
The largest 300 co-operatives and mutual sectors from a group of some 2,575 cooperatives considered worldwide, had total turnover of US$2,360 billion in 2016 and 1,156 of these had turnover of over US$100M each (https://www.ica.coop/sites/
In terms of membership, the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative formed in 1967 is the world’s largest cooperative society. In 2021 it was owned by some 36,000 primary co-operative societies with a membership of 50 million farmers and about US$7 billion in turnover. In that year Nigeria’s 300,000 cooperatives with a membership of 31 million were reported to have contributed some US$3 billion to its GDP, and created some 600,000 new direct jobs.
Cooperatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity and are autonomous associations of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. In 1970, in an attempt to capture the cooperative ideal to help mend an ethnically fractured state, Guyana was declared a Cooperative Republic and both the traditional and modern forms of cooperation were emphasised.
The official narrative celebrated the traditional cooperative living of the Amerindians, the Africans pooling their resources to purchase largely abandoned plantations and establish villages, the cooperatives activities of Indians in their agricultural endeavours, etc. Modern cooperation had grown from 183 societies with share capital (SC) of $91,155 in 1951 to 568 societies with SC of $1.4million in 1961 and 1,177 societies with SC of $8 million in 1974 and this bolstered the belief that cooperatives could indeed be the instrument to transform the lives of the ‘small man’ and make a nation out of diverse peoples. Needless to say, the venture failed largely because the political underpinnings were unrealistic, but its resilience and the present levels of global inequalities have made the cooperative idea again attractive.
The International Cooperative Alliance is the global steward of the Statement on Cooperative Identity and the following are the seven core principles of international cooperation. In 2016 the Alliance provided Guidance Notes on these principles to give detailed advice on the practical application of the principles to cooperative in the 21st century. (https://www.ica.coop/sites/
1. Voluntary and Open Membership: Cooperatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
2. Democratic Member Control: Cooperatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Those serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and cooperatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.
3. Member Economic Participation: Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their cooperative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
4. Autonomy and Independence: Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.
5. Education, Training, and Information: Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
6. Cooperation among Cooperatives: Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
7. Concern for Community: Cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.
The principles are given verbatim and cooperators are advised to pay keen attention to the Guidance Notes.