Strengthening cooperatives beyond 2012

“As a strong partner in development, the cooperative movement works with the United Nations every day to empower people, enhance human dignity and help achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement as the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC) 2012 came full circle on 19-20 November with events and festivities at UN Headquarters in New York.

Some 150 representatives gathered for this two-day event themed “Promoting Cooperatives Beyond 2012”. A range of sessions, including on global food security, sustainable livelihoods, jobs creation and youth empowerment, were arranged to highlight the important role of cooperatives worldwide. Forthcoming initiatives to strengthen cooperatives beyond 2012 were also discussed.

The event was organized by DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development (DSPD) and consisted of panel discussions, a youth forum, and the official closing ceremony that culminated with the IYC Short Film Festival. The panel discussions and youth forum were organized in collaboration with various partners, including the International Labour Organization, the Permanent Mission of Mongolia to the UN, Desjardins Group, and Rabobank.

Seven winning films were presented from countries including Brazil, Canada, Peru, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago and USA. The films focused on various themes, including cooperative stories about chili farmers, women crafters, food coops and cooperative housing. These films put spotlight on cooperatives as a member-owned enterprise model that places people at the heart of business.

Movement energized by international year

Participating in the events, Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), shared some of the year’s major accomplishments with DESA News.

“This year has been fantastic,” Ms. Green said, emphasizing how the year has brought the cooperative movement together, creating a sense of cohesion. “They see themselves now as a global movement, looking up at the worldwide cooperative family, owned by a billion people, employing 100 million people in every village, town and city across the world”.

Ms. Green also underscored the importance of building on the achievements of the international year. “We absolutely have to keep the momentum of this year. We owe it to the next generation of cooperators, this is like a watershed moment for the global cooperative movement,” she said. Ms. Green also explained that with the impact of the global economic crisis still being felt by many, this is the right moment to show the potential of cooperatives serving different types of economies around the world.

Ms. Green described how the international year has brought people back to understanding that by working collectively, they can secure their communities, build cooperative businesses together and support the real economy on the ground. “The member-owned businesses are keeping their communities whole, keeping them going, giving hope and aspirations to people,” she said. “We’ve got to grow our movement across the world going forward, not just now when the economy is in crisis.”

Bank cooperatives show resilience

Also keeping the economy going are the 53,000 credit cooperatives and credit unions in operation around the world. In recent years, they have withstood tests brought by market failures and tough economic times. This is discussed in a new book just released by one of the main supporters of the IYC 2012, Rabobank, a cooperative and one of the 30 largest financial institutions in the world with headquarters in the Netherlands.

The book, “Raiffeisen’s Footprint – The Cooperative Way of Banking”, provides reflections on the cooperative business model and the governance structure of cooperative banks. It also features a series of case studies of cooperative banks in times of crisis.

“Cooperative banks have proven very resilient during the crisis,” said Bouke de Vries, Head of Financial Sector Research in Rabobank and one of the main contributors to the book, who also attended the events in New York.

“In the European countries, the cooperative model has done well right across the board. And now the challenge is, with the government crisis and the Euro crisis, all cooperative banks and commercial banks face enormous difficulties, and I really hope that the cooperative model will prove resilient again,” Mr. de Vries said.

Working for and with youth

With nearly 75 million young people unemployed and about 152 million young workers living in households below poverty line, youth development is an urgent concern and where cooperatives are believed to be able to play a vital role.

“We have the hope that cooperatives will bet on youth so that they can self-employ themselves, create cooperatives, create employment,” said José Antonio Chávez Villanueva, Chair of the ICA Youth Network Executive Committee. “This is an answer to the unemployment and the integration of youth into society.”

Mr. Villanueva chaired one of the interactive dialogues of the Youth Forum which was held as part of the IYC closing events. The Forum discussed benefits and challenges of youth engagement in cooperatives, with particular emphasis on issues of empowerment, employment and civic engagement.

During this session, it was stressed that there is a need for communities to listen to their youth and to take them seriously in decision making processes. Lack of awareness, resources, capacity and supportive environment were pointed out as some of the biggest obstacles for cooperatives in effectively engaging young people. Panelists agreed that more rigorous actions on global youth employment and entrepreneurship strategies were needed. An international cooperative youth statement was also delivered highlighting the role cooperatives can play to empower youth across the globe.

Ms. Monique Leroux, CEO of Desjardins Group, delivered the keynote address in the youth forum encouraging young people to be bold and be ambitious for themselves. She added, “You need to dream big and not be afraid to share your dreams with others… The co-op model belongs to all of us, but it will be your heritage. It will be yours to pass on to the next generation as we are doing with you.”

Pauline Green also emphasized the importance of working with young people, saying that “the critical thing that cooperatives have to do is to start looking how we develop with young people. How we bring young people into our family, how we maximize the value of the young to the young,” pointing to different events across the globe where young people are crying out for freedom and economic justice. “They want to be visible in the economy and I think the cooperative movement can do that for them, but to do that, we need to engage them,” Ms. Green explained.

Going forward, going green

In addition to focusing on young people, Ms. Green also highlighted cooperatives in Africa as another priority area going forward. “The other [priority for cooperatives] is to look after people particularly in the African continent, which I believe has the strong potential for development growth,” she said. “We have to start working with cooperative farmers at grass roots level, to build an African cooperative economy in agriculture. That’s the future, and we’ve got to drive it.”

Addressing the closing ceremony, Shamshad Akhtar, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in DESA, also talked about the route going forward and the opportunities for societies going green with the help of cooperatives.

“The cooperative movement is in an excellent position to promote the priority theme of a green economy – especially considering that energy cooperatives are already key providers in many countries. The successful experiences of cooperatives in operating renewable energy sources, such as wind farms and solar fields, can guide and inspire others,” Ms. Akhtar said.

As an eventful year came to a close, Ms. Akhtar concluded, “I would like to congratulate the one billion strong members of the cooperative movement who are strengthening economic vitality and upholding social responsibility.”

For more information:

International Year of Cooperatives 2012

Closing Ceremony of the International Year of Cooperatives


Global Food Security and the Role of Cooperatives – Panel Discussion (part 1)

Cooperatives and Youth: Empowerment, Employment and Engagement – Youth Forum (part 2)

Closing ceremony of the International Year of Cooperatives on the theme “Promoting cooperatives beyond 2012 (part 3)

Closing ceremony of the International Year of Cooperatives on the theme “Promoting cooperatives beyond 2012 (part 4)