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Opinion

Cooperatives build a better world

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

While society holds individual achievement in high esteem, humanity’s greatest achievements have always come about from concerted efforts. I do not believe that history is primarily made by the acts of great men and women, but instead by collective action that may be inspired by the acts, words or examples of such individuals. We make history when we break through barriers, when we achieve what was previously thought to be impossible – and almost every single time we punch above our weight class, this is only made possible through cooperation.

The word cooperate uses the Latin prefix for “together” (co-) with the word for “work” (operari), combining them to mean working together. Working together is the best means that we have – particularly those in vulnerable, underprivileged and disadvantaged positions – to make positive change in the world, to overcome entrenched and structural inequities, or advance our interests in the face of opposition by the powers-that-be. In our country, which continues to be one of the worst places for laborers according to the 2022 Global Rights Index by the International Trade Union Confederation, workers are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This is why cooperation among workers is essential, and why cooperatives remain important and relevant business and organizational models.

Last Saturday (July 2) was the International Day of Cooperatives – the 100th such day in fact – and it’s a good time to remember the role that cooperatives have played and continue to play in our country, as a means to promote economic participation, financial security and more equitable working and material conditions. Supporting cooperatives was important enough to merit a provision in the 1987 Constitution, where it is mandated that Congress create an agency to promote the viability and growth of cooperatives as instruments for social justice and economic development.

But what exactly is a cooperative? There’s a legal definition under RA 9520 (The Philippine Cooperative Code), but it’s easier to understand by focusing on the established cooperative principles. A cooperative is an organization characterized by: (1) voluntary and open membership (it is non-discriminatory); (2) democratically controlled by its members (it is accountable); (3) economic participation by its members (it involves co-ownership); (4) autonomy and independence (it cannot be dictated to against the wishes of its members); (5) training and educating its members (it encourages member growth); (6) cooperation with other cooperatives (it embodies the spirit of cooperation); (7) aims for the sustainable development of its community (it is beneficial to its locality).

Cooperatives as a legal framework for a private organization were established by the Americans when the Philippines was still a colony, but the cooperative spirit – the bayanihan spirit – long predates their arrival on our shores. As can be seen from the principles, cooperatives are meant to pool the resources of a group in order to better achieve their economic goal, while that pool still remains in some sense owned/controlled by the members. In a society where so many workers are alienated from the products of their toil, one where there is an untenable and still increasing gap between the income of the executives/owners and the rank and file laborers, cooperatives represent a more equitable alternative path.

Research has also shown that cooperatives do make a difference in the lives of its members. Last year, the Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) released the results of a 2019 multi-year, multi-country study on cooperatives which included the Philippines within its scope. The theme of the study was to answer a simple but important question: “What difference do cooperatives make?” As it turns out, quite a lot.

The study’s key  findings revealed that: (a) Cooperative members report higher incomes than non-members and equate their greater economic well-being to their cooperative membership; (b) A large majority of cooperative members cite economic benefits as a key incentive for cooperative membership; (c) Both men and women cooperative members report higher incomes than their non-member counterparts. Membership has an even more positive impact on women’s economic status, compared to men’s; (d) Women are well represented in the cooperative sector in the Philippines and public perception supports that women receive equal opportunities in cooperatives; (e) Cooperative members demonstrate higher levels of social capital (as measured by trust) than non-members.

As a means towards better economic rewards, cooperatives in general seem to work. Not only that, but the greater impact on women supports the idea of the cooperative framework as a means to achieve more equitable distribution. The co-dependence inherent in the cooperative mode also results in more willingness to help and be helped by others in both the organization and their community. As stated by the UN, a cooperative model helps create wealth and fosters equality. Our Cooperative Development Authority has also stated that cooperatives not only assist their members and communities, but also help the nation as a whole make progress in attaining our Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in the areas of poverty eradication, quality education, decent work, reduced inequalities, responsive production, peace and justice, gender equality and even climate action. As in other areas, what benefits the most vulnerable among us, benefits all of us.

Of course, at the end of the day a cooperative is only a framework, a means of organizing a group of people. That alone will not magically improve the lives of its members. Yet cooperatives were born from a specific set of principles, and those that adhere to them stand an excellent chance of becoming engines of assistance and stability for their members and their communities. The State must do what it can to encourage the growth of these principled cooperatives and explore means of scaling up their abilities to make a difference, whether through links with local governments, educational resources or grants that would allow cooperatives access to technology that would facilitate their communal and democratic features.

Human beings are stronger when we stand together. As the theme of this year’s International Day of Cooperatives makes clear: Cooperatives Build a Better World.

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