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UN hails cooperatives as vehicle to make sustainable development a reality for all

Members of the Cooperative Agriculture Maraicher for Boulbi, water and hoe their vegetable fields in Kieryaghin village, Burkina Faso.
Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Members of the Cooperative Agriculture Maraicher for Boulbi, water and hoe their vegetable fields in Kieryaghin village, Burkina Faso.

UN hails cooperatives as vehicle to make sustainable development a reality for all

Cooperatives will play an “invaluable role” in the international community's roll-out of a sustainable development goals, said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who today marked the International Day of Cooperatives with an appeal for all to recommit to the business model, which could help make the vision of a sustainable future a reality for everyone.

“Inequality is a fundamental obstacle to development, depriving people of basic services and opportunities to build better lives for themselves and their children,” the Secretary-General declared in his message for the Day, which is on the theme 'Choose Cooperative's, Choose Equality.'

“The cooperative model helps meet this challenge. Cooperatives strive to uphold the principles of equality and democratic participation,” says Mr. Ban

According to Cooperatives and Sustainable Development Goals, a recently-produced study by the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), cooperatives contribute to sustainable development and hold the potential to do much more: from creating employment and enhancing gender equality to providing clean energy and financial inclusion to ensuring food security and extending social protection.

Cooperatives are strongly committed to the communities they serve, Mr. Ban continued.

“This business model, built on inclusion and sustainability, offers a pathway toward economic, social and political justice for all.”

At the same time, the UN has long noted that the benefits of the cooperative model expand well beyond its contribution towards sustainable development.

Ranging from small-scale to multi-million dollar businesses across the globe, cooperatives operate in all sectors of the economy, and provide 100 million jobs worldwide – 20 per cent more than multinational enterprises, according to 2011 figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

In 2008 alone, in the midst of the global financial crisis, the largest 300 cooperatives in the world had an aggregate turnover of $1.1 trillion, comparable to the gross domestic product (GDP) of many large economies.

In his message, the Secretary-General pointed to a wealth of research showing how cooperatives have helped lower wage difference between men and women and promote greater equality in the work place and training opportunities.

With an estimated one in every six people in the world either a member or client of a cooperative and some 2.6 million cooperatives employing 12.6 million people globally, the potential contribution to sustainable development is “enormous,” he added.

“In this crucially important year in which the world will commit itself to an inspiring new development agenda, including a set of sustainable development goals, let us recommit to the cooperative business model and use its many benefits to fulfil our vision of a life of dignity for all,” concluded Mr. Ban.

In his message message on the Day, Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour organization (ILO) said that as people-centered, principle driven, member owned businesses, cooperatives have a long tradition of promoting equality. Their values of “equality and equity” are translated into members' equal voting rights and access to the products and services of the cooperative, as well as to an equitable distribution of surpluses.

“In addition to creating a viable enterprise model that generates productivity and income, cooperatives are well placed to help tackle social inequalities, discrimination and exclusion based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and differential abilities,” he said, adding that not surprisingly, cooperatives have also proved to be effective vehicles for realizing decent work for all.

For example, Mr. Ryder noted that in the rural and informal economies “we have seen first-hand how women, youth and indigenous peoples are increasing their income and their standard of living by using the cooperative way of working,” and in low income communities, cooperatives of housing, tourism and renewable energy can help to achieve an equitable distribution of economic returns.

The ILO is examining how cooperative arrangements for the provision of care services can improve the well-being of care workers, care beneficiaries and the community at large. “And, as the world of work evolves, the cooperative model can be used to bring technological, social and organizational innovation through pooling of people, knowledge, technology and resources helping to bridge the gaps that perpetuate economic and social inequality,” he said.