In praise of the co-operative economy

Iain-Macdonald-2323-0322I am constantly reading articles by various commentators bemoaning the failures of our neo-liberal economy and calling for a more responsible form of capitalism. Perhaps the nature of capitalism cannot be changed but an obvious, if rarely lauded, alternative does exist.

2012 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Co-operatives and was launched in New York in October 2011 by among others, Gordon Brown.

I have recently returned from Manchester whose enormous exhibition centre hosted Co-operatives United, the official closing event of the Year. This included the third global co-operative trade fair and attracted over 10,000 visitors. The sheer scale and success of the international co-operative movement was there for all to see, whether it was the world famous co-operative banks of France, the enormous agricultural co-operatives of India or the coffee co-operatives of Tanzania.

Co-operative enterprises from 70 countries were represented displaying a huge variety of goods and services. The event was hosted by the UK’s Co-operative Group, one of the largest consumer co-operatives in the world with an annual turnover of £18 billion.

Indeed co-operatives are collectively one of the biggest contributors to the world economy, owned democratically by over one billion members and providing over 100 million jobs.

They are surviving the financial crisis much more successfully than their capitalist counterparts owing to their more stable, risk averse, democratic and community based ownership model.

As a GlobalScot, I am pleased to see the Scottish Government’s promotion of co-operative enterprise through Co-operative Development Scotland. But more can be done.

Co-operatives have existed in Scotland since the 18th century and in New Lanark we have the world heritage site of Robert Owen’s social and economic projects. He was ahead of his time and recognised as one of the founding fathers of the co-operative movement.

However, hardly any of our business schools give serious consideration to co-operative enterprise, preferring instead to promote the, somewhat discredited, investor owned business model.

One last point: co-operators from Iran, Israel, Palestine and the USA were among those present in Manchester, all promoting business success through fairness, social justice and peace. Co-operation is more than just another business model.

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