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Let’s celebrate the world’s 2.6 million co-ops


Let’s celebrate the world’s 2.6 million co-ops

What did we find when we looked into the co-operative values?
This is a blog by Ed Mayo
Ed is the Secretary General at Co-operatives UK and author of the new book ‘Values: how to bring values to life in your business’.

There are around 2.6 million co-operative enterprises worldwide, with a combined membership of around one billion people. The beauty of co-ops is that they have a global code of values and principles, so tend to be interested not just in business (as usual), but in re-imagining the economy to be fairer and more sustainable. The 1st July was the 95th annual International Day of Co-operatives, a global celebration of co-ops backed by the United Nations.

The theme of the 2017 International Day of Co-operatives was, fittingly, inclusion – that no-one is left behind. To achieve this theme across business and markets would go a long way towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations.

But do these values chime with people at large? Or are there in fact one billion hip and hippy entrepreneurial co-operators around the world, but no more than that one billion?

To answer this, we teamed up with the values experts, Common Cause Foundation. It turns out that the global code of values for co-operatives maps relatively straightforwardly onto the well-established values framework developed by Professor Shalom Schwartz and used as a basis for values surveys the world over. Above all, they line up behind the two key dimensions of ‘universalism’ and ‘benevolence’.

With this, we were able to interrogate the European and World Values Surveys and look at the prevalence of co-operative values worldwide. By comparing results for countries, subtracting for each a balancing factor of the more individual dimensions of ‘power’ and ‘achievement’, we could derive a Co-operative Values Index.

You can read the report for the full analysis, of course, but here is my interpretation…

The first and most important finding was that in all but one country of the 88 that we had data for, people ranked the values of co-operation higher than those of individual power and achievement.

The second was that there are a number of countries that have very high pro-co-operative values and, no surprise perhaps, these are countries with longstanding and proud traditions of co-operative enterprise.

Brazil ranks as the most co-operative nation on Earth. That fits. The country has two and a half times as many member owners of co-ops than it does shareholders in listed firms. One of the most inspiring health co-operatives in the world, Unimed, is Brazilian. Its work to extend healthcare across the country is an emblematic example of enterprise and inclusion.

Norway ranks second. Again, that fits well. I shared this news with my counterpart in Norway, May Woldsnes, and her response was to point to the characteristic Norwegian joke of co-operation and competition – that it doesn’t matter who wins… as long as Norway comes ahead of Sweden!

There is a wonderful short video released, with a similar dash of humour, by Coop Norway, which tells the story of how some Sharing Economy geeks reinvent the co-operative. They travel to Norway, one of the world’s richest country by GDP per capita, to test how the idea of an open access, member owned business, sharing profits and ownership would work. When they arrive, they find ‘Co-op’ signs everywhere and assume someone has stolen their brand new idea!

However, we also know from the work of the Common Cause Foundation that there is a paradox at work, which is that most people think that they themselves are more co-operative and others are less co-operatives minded. The scope for increasing co-operation in practice is therefore considerable, if the public realm of media and marketing held up were a less bleak and narrowly individualistic mirror for us to look into.

The United Nations International Day of Co-operatives, like our #coopstories campaign for Co-operatives Fortnight which culminates on the International Day, can be part of that effort.

Co-ops are the only businesses and the only business model to be back by the United Nations. According to the data on trust from GlobeScan, the United Nations is more trusted worldwide than religions and faiths – even in the USA. It is more trusted than the world of music and film. The United Nations is our celebrity backer.

In recent years, we have seen efforts to link up co-operatives across the world, through the International Co-operative Alliance. In Delhi, co-operators came together. In Germany, the consumer genossenschaften met to celebrate. In Cameroon, there was a poster campaign reaching thousands. Co-ops celebrated in Columbia, Malaysia, Spain…

Values can come off the page. I charted in an article for the Equality Trust the close connection between regions with a high penetration of co-operatives and the levels of relative equality compared to elsewhere.

My conclusion is that we should recognise and celebrate the extent to which we live in a co-operative world. For a day, we can set aside competition, power and status and learn from that for every other day.

Read the full International Prevalence of Co-operative Values report here.

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