Act local, think global: How NYC Coops advance development


Self‑help, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity are the key values uniting cooperatives all over the world. Coops promote empowerment and sustainable living through helping people help themselves, and in the process they are advancing the Millennium Development Goals. New York based cooperatives are no exception, demonstrating that what happens at the local level has global impact.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Historically, the growth of cooperatives tends to coincide with difficult economic and social conditions and high levels of unemployment. The world economy is limping through one crisis after another starting with the financial downturn and spreading to sovereign debt. The climate of hardship has created fertile ground for the growth of cooperatives in a year the UN General Assembly declared the International Year of Cooperatives.

To mark the International Day of Cooperatives, DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development (DSPD), alongside the UN Federal Credit Union, hosted a panel discussion entitled “Sustainable Development Goes Local: How New York City Cooperatives are advancing the MDGs”.

Ms. Felice Llamas from DSPD moderated the discussion and elaborated on the definition of cooperatives, saying, “a cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratic controlled enterprise, enabling individuals to pool and coordinate their efforts and resources”.

The real value of the contribution cooperatives make to socio-economic development, specifically their impact on poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration is starting to be recognised in the international community. Cooperatives offer a member‑owned model of economic organization balancing the principles of a market economy with the desire for social goods.  

Cooperatives help advance development goals in a number of important ways most notably in job creation. Although employment generated is often an outcome of meeting the needs of their members, coops can be thanked for providing productive and decent work and have generated an estimated 100 million jobs worldwide according to the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA).

The self-governing, non-elitist nature of coops means that they enable members to enhance skill sets and cultivate entrepreneurial capacity. Additionally, working as a group often enables access to credit and other financial resources needed to get started that could not have been obtained alone. Cooperatives have also been found to integrate marginalised social groups including women, youth, older persons, people with disabilities and indigenous peoples allowing them flexibility in their involvement.

As business enterprises owned and controlled by the very members that they serve, coops are seen as being good for democracy and can encourage other acts of civil involvement and strengthen communities. Lastly, coops help alleviate poverty through equitably distributing wealth. In 2008, the largest 300 cooperatives in the world, based on revenues, had a combined income of $1.1trn.

New York has a long history of involvement with cooperatives, explained by Ms. Mary Ann Rothman, Executive Director of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. “There are more than a million units of housing provided by cooperatives nationwide and more than half of these are in New York City, very often these provide the first type of home ownership for New York families. Housing cooperatives have played a strong part in making New York the vibrant world center that it is today.”

Another example of New York coops transforming communities is the Si Se Puede! We Can Do It! Women’s’ Cooperative, founded in 2006. This coop is a cleaning business owned and run by women, mandated to create a living wage for its employees and safe working conditions. Ms. Vanessa Bransburg, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, explained why Si Se Puede! was set up and why it is so important.

“For a decade Sunset Park has been a first destination for waves of immigrants born outside of the United States coming to New York. 73% of residents over the age of five speak another language other than English at home and 24% of Sunset Park residents live in poverty. With this large population of recent immigrants Sunset Park was hit especially hard by the economic downturn and recent immigrants confront social and economic barriers that limit their access to jobs, often having few employment options other than working for low wages in bad conditions.”

Another example is the Flatbush Food Coop, established in 1976 in a member’s Brooklyn basement. It has now grown into a 6,000 square foot store with over 5,000 members. Flatbush Food Coop supports the community through providing healthy, organic local food, rising awareness on environmental issues, sponsoring e-waste programs and giving apples to local schools. 

With the economic climate creating a need and the International Year of Cooperatives raising awareness, now is an important time for cooperatives to help members help themselves, foster real change in their communities and advance development by acting locally and thinking globally.

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