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Can co-operation help address the challenges of our time?

29 January 2019

This blog is written by Hazel Johnson, Emeritus Professor of Development Policy and Practice in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Development and Geography in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She has collaborated with the Co-operative College over some years in research student supervision, a research project on co-operative resilience in Malawi and is currently a Trustee.

Can co-operation and forms of co-operative organisation help address the social and economic challenges of our time? In particular, can co-operatives and related forms of organisation go beyond addressing corners of market and state failure and help promote structural change? These are questions that grow in importance the more that our societies become fractured socially, economically and politically in the face of global, regional and national tensions, increasing inequality and persistent disadvantage.

They are also big questions for organisations that are often perceived to be marginal to mainstream producers and distributors of goods and services, whether by the private sector or the state. However co-operatives are a significant global phenomenon, with more than 1 billion members worldwide. In the UK, there are ‘7,226 independent co-operatives…with a combined turnover of £36.1 billion’.

Co-operatives vary hugely in scale and can be found in many sectors, such as: food production, processing and marketing; savings, credit, insurance and banking; energy; housing; health and social care; the provision of services of general interest and the disadvantaged; education and creative industries; small and medium enterprises and co-operatives of the self-employed; and digital platforms offering services to online members. 

Jointly-owned by their members, co-operatives are different from other private sector enterprises. They are informed by the values of self-help, self- responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. They are based on the principles of voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, co-operation among co-operatives and a concern for community (see ICA link above).

But what does this mean in practice and how far can such values and principles inform wider social and economic organisation, and service provision that is increasingly marketized? To what extent can co-operatives and related forms of organisation (the social and solidarity economy) meet the needs of disadvantaged populations, and promote social justice? To what extent can their experiences challenge ‘what is’ and enable us to think ‘what might be’?

These and other issues informed a lively seminar held at the OU in December. Researchers with policy and practice experience from, or linked to, the OU and the Co-operative College in Manchester came together for an afternoon to discuss co-operative education, social and economic hardship, youth, the strengths and weaknesses of co-operatives, and reflections for the future in the global North and South. The timing was highly appropriate for both institutions with the Co-operative College celebrating its Centenary in 2019 and the OU its 50th anniversary – a good moment for both to reflect on the past and imagine the future.

You can find the recordings on the Innovation, Knowledge and Development Centre website. Many thanks to the Strategic Area in International Development and Inclusive Innovation and Development Policy and Practice for the financial and organisational support given to this seminar.

Download the joint report.

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