|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference on International Year of Cooperatives
Having fared relatively well in the current difficult economic climate, cooperatives were positioned to provide the most sustainable, fastest-growing business model in the coming decade, panellists said today at a Headquarters press conference marking the close of the International Year of Cooperatives.
“A new era opened for cooperative movement,” said Pauline Green, President of International Co-operative Alliance, a Geneva-based non-profit group, citing many successful initiatives during the International Year, which sought the growth and establishment of cooperatives worldwide as a way to advance socio-economic development.
She said the movement had received a huge boost from the United Nations, as it had helped raise confidence in the roles of such enterprises and their capacity to do more. Her organization had developed a global strategy that would help cooperatives become the most sustainable business model by the end of the decade, she added. Describing how fast that sector was growing, she said the world’s top 300 cooperatives had a turnover of $2 trillion in 2010.
Cooperatives could be a tool to create a sustainable “cooperative economy” in Africa, she said. Indeed, a range of stakeholders, including the United Nations system, should work together toward that goal, rather than some “predator States” buying land, she said. Providing other examples of the socio-economic appeal of cooperatives, she said that in some financially stretched European States like Spain, cooperative workers had agreed to take pay cuts in order to save jobs.
In Japan, cooperatives were powerful, she continued, adding that their practice of moving food directly from producer to consumer had received kudos in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. In Benin, women had organized themselves in groups, generating surplus capital. “Unlike many other development programmes, cooperative associations survive once development aid wanes,” she said.
Ms. Green was joined by other speakers; Monique Leroux, Chair of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Desjardins Group; Vincent Lokin, Executive Director, Cooperative Banking and Sustainability, Rabobank; and Marcella Villarreal, Acting Director, Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Ms. Leroux said she had attended a separate event at Headquarters earlier in the day that highlighted major outcomes of the International Year, as well as forthcoming initiatives to strengthen cooperatives beyond 2012. Introducing the outcome document of the International Summit of Cooperatives held in October in Quebec, she said there was a need to create a more pluralistic economy consisting of three pillars, namely a solid private sector, an efficient public sector and a strong, growing mutual sector. The Summit had generated momentum, drawing 3,000 participants from 91 countries, she said, expressing the hope that the overall discussion could be taken to the next level with a view to holding a new summit focusing on the link between cooperatives and the economy.
Mr. Lokin focused on food security by underscoring the importance of tapping into the underused production potential of the existing small-scale farms in developing countries. Most of the additional food required to meet global demand by 2050 could be realized by improving the low crop yields of the small farmers on existing agricultural land, especially in low- and middle-income countries. In Africa and Asia, smallholders represented the overwhelming majority of farms, accounting for 95 percent of the agricultural holdings, cultivating about 80 per cent of the land and providing some 80 per cent local food consumption.
He said that the basic premise was to educate small farmers to regard food production as a long-term business and to ingrain smallholders in the food value chain. Smallholders often lacked access to affordable financial services, knowledge and education, information, land, water and fertilizers. “There is a long list” of such constraints, he said. Solving their obstacles could take more than providing farm inputs and finances, and there was a need to build on their capacity by aggregating them into closely-knit producers’ organizations or co-operatives, which he described “a proven tool”.
Ms. Villarreal said that with nearly 870 million people still going hungry every day, agricultural cooperatives had a specific role to play in reducing hunger. Cooperatives could increase their price negotiating and other powers based on the economy of scale. They could also have better access to market and financial services. A study showed that farmers in cooperatives withstood the food price crisis better, she said.
Acknowledging that the Year had raised awareness about the potential contribution of cooperatives to socio-economic development, including Millennium Development Goals, she said: “That was only a first step.” The priority beyond 2012 was to create an enabling environment for small-scale farmers, which would entail Governments putting in place a policy framework, legislation, economic incentives and training programmes, among others. Developing innovative financing and making funds available for smallholding farmers were also vital. “We are successful in advancing the agenda but the best is yet to come,” she said.
To a question about financing for vulnerable groups hit hard by the food crisis, Mr. Lokin said there was no standard answer and it all depended on circumstances of each case. The important thing was to listen to customers’ problems to find out how cooperatives could help. “In some cases, such as clients wanting to become rich quickly, cooperatives are not a solution,” he said. His bank could provide low-interest loans, but it was important to bear in mind those seeking the funds would not become addicted to help. “They eventually need to connect with the real world without us,” he said.
On the role of the United Nations, Ms. Villarreal said the world body could bring States together in preventing food prices from sharply rising. In the 2007 and 2008 crisis, unilateral export bans by some States had caused prices of food, particularly that of rice, to spike.
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