Published: 03 December 2012
Extracted chapter from Griffiths, David (Ed.) Co-operators - Co-operation and Co-operatives, Southeast Housing Co-operative Ltd, 2012, pp 82-83.
Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, co-op and credit union pioneer once said, ‘In order to fight poverty one should fight dependency first’. I can’t past those words. Co-ops are not all about fighting poverty but they are about creating a bedrock of equality, shifting capital and assets from financial elites to people through their neat trick of member ownership and profit redistribution - importantly they are about economic independence.
Raiffeisen’s seminal words are pertinent even here in the so called ‘Lucky Country’ where for all our affluence and mineral wealth, we are aware of the yawning gaps between the financially marginalised, the ‘just lucky to be in’ and the super wealthy. We’re aware that government is sweating on the rising costs of essential public services like health and aged care, housing, transport and education, and doesn’t seem to have the solutions, except to suggest either chucking heaps more money at the problem or taking heaps away! We’re aware of a growing concentration of the market in so many areas from food retail to banking, from pubs to petrol stations - we’re aware, dare I say, that all is not right with the world, that maybe we only just squeaked by the Global Financial Crisis, that corporations take too much and give to little, and that we’re just a little fed up with capitalism in its present form.
Back to Raiffeisen and his thesis on dependency, which needs to be tackled - but how? What a moment then to shine a light on another way of doing business; a proven, robust, super effective and profitable way to combine commercial activity and social purpose.
The United Nations thought so too, when almost 36 months ago, it declared 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives in recognition of the vital role co-operatives play in global socio-economic development. The world needs the power of the co-op to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the UN said.
‘Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility,’ UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. And, the FAO declared that 2012 World Food Day would be themed Agricultural Cooperatives: Key to feeding the world.
So far, so good. What we realised early on in planning for this wonderful, once in a lifetime co-operative opportunity, is that we were not going to go anywhere further than a feel-good party year for co-ops, if we missed this moment to really grasp what it is we have to offer society. We needed to bond as a sector and with our mutual ‘brethren’, employee owned businesses, customer owned banks and member owned organisations, to organise and legitimize our business model and most importantly to answer to that Raiffeisen call to action - to tackle dependency in all its forms.
Speaking at Federation Square this year, I suggested all of us needed in some way to become disruptive capitalists and agitators in the market place, through the simple act of consumer choice - to choose, when we can, to ‘shop co-op’. Mindfulness when we transact, I suggested, is a powerful thing. You can make your money serve communities rather than investors, you can spend into the local economy, not extract capital from it, and you can examine the beneficiaries of the monetary exchange simply by asking the question, Who are the members of this business?
Because the members are the owners - we are the owners.
I hope you enjoy this International Year dedicated to our fantastic business model as much as me - the only time the United Nations has dedicated an International Year to a business structure; the one built by people for people.
Melina is director of Australia’s Secretariat for the UN International Year of Co-operatives (www.australia2012.coop) and a founding director of Social Business Australia (www.socialbusiness.coop), an organisation that champions the role of member-owned businesses in the mainstream economy. She has written widely on co-operatives and the social economy for international and national publications including four years editing the Digest for the global peak body for co-ops, the International Co-operative Alliance (www.2012.coop). She has wide experience engaging the media on how we build social capital through profitable social businesses.