The growing importance and influence of cooperatives in the lives of many people these days can no longer be taken for granted. The cooperative movement is becoming a social force to reckon with especially in the areas of politics and governance. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), a cooperative union that represents cooperative federations and organizations worldwide, estimates that there are already one billion coop members spread across the globe.
Similarly, the United Nations (UN) assessed that three billion people have benefitted from the movement by providing them with livelihood and thereby improving their economic and social standing in the community (“Cooperative Facts”, 2012). At the practical level, the working class communities are the direct recipients of whatever benefits the cooperative movement may bring to them. The need therefore to protect the gains of the movement becomes necessary and indispensable otherwise many lives will be adversely affected.
Yet, early in its inception cooperatives have a neutral and apolitical stand with regard to the larger society where they operate. Initially, they mainly focus on improving their members’ welfare and think of ways to improve the operational and organizational sustainability of the individual co-operative, nothing more, nothing less. Taking a valiant stand and marching on the streets to protect the movement and its members is not that widespread yet. Although, it can be argued that (taking the Rochdale Pioneers as example) the birth of cooperativism was already a stand against the excesses of capitalism and that can be considered a political position and a statement already.
Assigning a political role to the cooperatives is not a far-fetched idea especially when the coop members/activists are simply trying to protect the movement from certain inequalities. These inequalities can take the form of unjust laws, repressive taxation or policies meant to stifle the growth of the co-operative movement as a whole. Political roles for the cooperatives may also take the form of suggesting framework for reforms that will not only benefit the movement but the whole society as well. There is power in numbers and a good idea.
The economic and developmental aspects are the major challenges cooperatives try to address today and even in the near future. This will require the members to actively pursue in the national and international levels an active voice in policy determination and implementation. This is already an obvious by-product when an individual joins a co-operative and embraces its ideals. Even the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon recognized this fact when the UN declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives in order to give the movement the attention it deserves and further spread its ideals.
But one not so obvious responsibility of every member and even leaders of the movement is forgetting or wilfully deviating from the original vision and mission statement of the movement in general and the primary cooperatives in particular.
The general membership base and the leaders may become too engrossed and too pre-occupied in watching over the profits of the co-operative or protecting its name that they now come to believe that anything not related to growing the revenue or anything that can tarnish its reputation are a waste of time and resources.
As a political force, cooperatives must not lose sight of its original mandate otherwise it will lose its relevance and significance to the people it is championing. The movement may even end up as not knowing what it is fighting for if the original vision and mission is lost.
Co-operative facts and figures (2012), Retrieved January 18, 2013 from http://2012.coop/en/whats-co-op/co-operative-facts-figures