Cooperatives are key to sustainable development, says ILO


In a 2013 survey, the complete results of which are yet to be published, the International Labour Organisation highlights how the cooperative model contributes to achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals by efficiently supporting sustainable development. But cooperatives will continue to face hurdles until they become a major development model.


On September 2, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) organised an “International Symposium on Cooperatives and the Sustainable Development Goals: Focus on Africa” in Berlin. They are also about to publish the extended results of a survey they conducted last year on the “Cooperative movement engagement in sustainable development and the post-2015 process,” the main findings of which are already available. These two events show how important the ILO believes cooperatives to be in building a more sustainable future. Wikipedia defines a cooperative enterprise as follows: “an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual social, economic, and cultural benefit. Cooperatives include non-profit community organizations and businesses that are owned and managed by the people who use its services (a consumer cooperative) or by the people who work there (a worker cooperative) or by the people who live there (a housing cooperative),”among other models. And they are proving to be very powerful in sustaining development. In fact, Simel Esim, Chief of the ILO Cooperative Unit (COOP), wrote in a recent opinion piece, “we firmly believe at the ILO that the values and principles governing cooperative enterprises respond to the pressing issues of economic development, environmental protection and social equity in a globalised world.” Here is why

Contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals

2015 is approaching: it was the deadline set by the United Nations when they defined the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) back in 2000. During the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, participating countries decided to amend and extend these goals beyond 2015. They agreed to define new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be discussed on November 12 and 13 in Australia during the “International Symposium on the Post-2015 Agenda”.

In this context, COOP launched its online survey (run via the ILO COOP website from September to December 2013) within the international cooperative movement, “to find out how the cooperative business model is contributing towards achieving sustainable development, and how the actors in the cooperative movement perceive the debate around the post-2015 development framework and the role of cooperatives in this debate,” as the survey findings detail.

The survey established that cooperatives strongly support sustainable development, in a number of areas. The respondents estimated that cooperatives contributed significantly to the following MDGs: developing a global partnership for development; ensuring environmental sustainability; and promoting gender equality and empowering women.

They also identified a series of SDGs where cooperatives have the most potential to contribute: ending poverty; creating jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth, followed by ensuring food security and good nutrition; providing quality education and lifelong learning; ensuring good governance and effective institutions; and empowering girls and women and achieving gender equality.

A powerful tool that still faces challenges

As Simel Esim writes, “cooperatives are often present where private or state service providers are unable or unwilling to go. Cooperatives thus play a key role in health and social care, access to financial services as well as water and energy provision in rural areas in many countries.” They also play a role in poverty reduction since the members have easier access to financial capital and support to help their businesses thrive; and they are major job providers (they employ at least 100 million people worldwide and promote indirect employment “through creating market opportunities and improving market conditions”). They facilitate more “inclusive and equal trade relations” and enable projects to “contribute to a low-carbon economy through innovative approaches.” As far as women’s empowerment is concerned, cooperatives weigh positively in the balance because they expand “women’s opportunities to participate in local economies.” Simel Esim gives the example of Tanzania, where 65% of the financial cooperative boards’ members are women.

Powerful as they are in fostering sustainable development in developing economies, cooperatives still face a number of challenges. The COOP survey highlights, for instance, an “inadequate enabling environment for cooperative development in many countries, either due to restrictive laws and regulations (…) or from the absence of a cooperative legal framework.” Respondents also pointed out the difficulties cooperatives have with articulating a global vision for sustainable development, and “persistent misconceptions on the cooperative business model among employers’ organisations and trade unions as well as research institutions.” In light of the importance of the model in making local populations actors of their local economies and of their own lives, cooperatives ought to be supported everywhere in the world. They defend a system based on cooperation and equality, and as such mirror the new horizon of 21st-century capitalism.

Photo © danm12 via shutterstock

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