Drafting cooperative statements at the United Nations

International Year of Cooperatives

2012 has a lot of meaning to people all over the world, from the end of the Mayan calendar, a US presidential year, economic turmoil, and the year my little sister became a teenager. For the billion people worldwide, who are members of cooperatives, 2012 means something else. 2012 was deemed the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC), by the United Nations. The IYC was created to spread awareness about the cooperative business model, especially as a tool in the realm of poverty reduction, job creation and other components of socio-economic development.

Mid-November brought the official closing ceremonies of the International Year of Cooperatives, to which I was invited to attend. During my time there I was one of a dozen youth delegates selected to meet and craft the International Youth Cooperative Statement (pdf). During the course of October, and early November, the UN solicited opinions on the role of cooperatives in young people’s lives. A majority of respondents were young cooperators, from across the globe. And it was the role of the dozen of us to compile all the feedback into a cohesive youth statement. No small task! So we got to work on the first day of the closing ceremony, and tinkered away until 1am to get the document to as inclusive, assertive, and complete a form as we could before presenting it the next day.

The process of crafting the International Cooperative Youth Statement was amazing. Young people from countries including Ethiopia, China, Ghana, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Argentina, and the United States worked together to draft the document. The statement recognizes that through co-ops youth can overcome many challenges that affect them ranging from unemployment, underemployment, disempowerment and disengagement. The statement is intended to be a document that is acted upon. So in crafting it we included recommendations for governments, policy makers, educational and research institutions, cooperatives, broader society and the international community in working together with us to address youth engagement in the cooperative sector. What is key is that as creators of this document, as young people, and as young cooperators, we also made a set of commitments that we, along with other young people, are going to carry forward. I see this as being crucial for the success of youth engagement in cooperatives, beyond the International Year of Cooperatives.

I urge you to read and sign on with support as either a youth signatory to the statement, or as a supporter and promoter of youth engagement and empowerment through cooperatives. You can do so through this link. And while you do so, jam out to the official anthem of the International Year of the Coop, found at the top of this post.

The International Summit of Cooperatives: A Battle for the Soul of the Cooperative Movement?

2012 International Summit of Cooperatives

I just got home from the International Summit of Cooperatives, in Quebec City. My head is still grappling with the people and contesting ideas that swirled around me for four days. Generally, I hate conferences, but I am grateful I went, for a number of reasons, not the least of which that I had a chance to meet brilliant, inspirational coop leaders from other countries, especially Canada.

I traveled to the conference equipped with a long list of names of people whom my Southern Grassroots Economies Project (SGEP) friends told me I just had to meet. I copied all these names out on a card in a feeble effort to burn them into my brain, in the hope that somehow, I’d recognize them in the crowd of 2,800. (Believe it or not, I am shy, so this was frightening to me!) I arrived, picked up my translation equipment and sat down, thinking, “Now what? I don’t know a soul here!” I introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me. She was polite and immediately resumed her conversation with her friends to the other side — in French. I was really starting to sweat it, when a woman who was animatedly speaking with two other people walked down the long row of seats and sat down next to me on the other side. Serendipity! It was none other than Hazel Corcoran, Executive Director of the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF)! Hazel’s name was the top name on every list of suggested contacts that I received in advance of the conference! We introduced ourselves, and over the next three days Hazel made sure I got a chance to meet with just about everyone who cares about worker cooperatives in Canada and on the international scene. Thank you, Hazel!

Through these personal connections and in the course of a vibrant forum on worker coops on the second day of the conference, I became more solidly convinced of the importance of F4DC’s work in the area of worker coop development, as a primary vehicle for democratic, just, and sustainable economic development. I got lots of exposure to the benefits of consumer coops (especially credit unions—they were there in huge numbers) and producer coops. But it became clearer as the week went on how easy it can be for these kinds of coops to lose the thread of democracy. There is something about the worker coop movement — especially its assertion of the “instrumental and subordinate nature of capital” — that keeps worker coops grounded in the democratic principle of one person—one vote and the idea that humanity’s real power lies in our coordinated, productive labor from which we generate community wealth.

2012 International Summit of Cooperatives
2012 International Summit of Cooperatives

Don’t get me wrong — I learned about lots of principled, successful consumer and producer coops at the conference. But I also saw how many coops are coops in name only, especially some of the very large ones. In fact, the dominant paradigm of the conference, as promulgated from the main stage via a stream of “experts” from McKinsey & Co, Deloitte, Price Waterhouse Coopers and the Harvard Business School, was that coops should do a better job adapting to capitalism, and grow (up) into mega businesses using more or less the same unsustainable business practices of the mega-corps. And that we should accept the current capitalist frame as the only possible economy. Sure, these experts conceded, the global financial crisis (or GFC as many called it) shows us that capitalism has had some problems, and maybe capitalism can learn a thing or two about sustainability from coops. But the cooperative model can only ever be a small portion of the capitalist economy. After all — capital has other plans!

What was really encouraging was the steady growth, throughout the four days of the conference, of a noisier and noisier pushback against this paradigm, coming from this very polite crowd! Sonja Novkovic began the critique on the very first morning, asserting that coops needed to guard against becoming part of the problem by developing new kinds of growth models rooted in values. By the last day, several main stage speakers (Jacques Attali, Felice Scalvini, and Ricardo Petrella in the final panel) cogently and directly critiqued the capital-centric focus, and called on the cooperative movement to establish itself as a revolutionary, new kind of economy that will replace capitalism. Whenever any speaker would make a comment along these more hopeful lines, the crowd applauded wildly!

I return to our work in North Carolina and the U.S. South more hopeful than ever, more convinced we’re onto something vital in our focus on cooperative economic development, and absolutely terrified by the work we have laid out for ourselves. Thank heavens we have some more friends around the globe to help us figure it out!