10/03/2013 05:27 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Co-operating Out of Poverty: How Co-ops Provide Support

I've worked in the co-operative movement for most of my adult life, so long that I can't say for sure when I first drank the co-op Kool-Aid. But somewhere along the way -- probably after one of my first overseas missions, I bought in, even though at the time I couldn't articulate why.

After all, the co-operative model is nothing more than a set of principles -- not rules or laws, but guidelines. To see those seven simple statements together is hardly a cause for great excitement; in fact, none of them is completely unique to co-operatives. Yet together, when applied with the right spirit, they can change lives and the world.

I suppose that is what I saw on that early trip to Asia, or Africa or Latin America (I really don't remember where I was). I saw a group of people who were doing their best to follow those principles, and in the process they were thriving. Certainly not rich, but living a life where by working together they had enough food, shelter, clothing and income to send their children to school and cover the inevitable setbacks that come to everyone. They were also doing without the stresses that come from scratching a living through competition, where neighbours become competitors and sometimes enemies.


Co-operatives around the world help people, like these women in Malawi, realize a better return from their hard work.

That's what this blog is about -- examining the co-operative model in the context of international development and against the backdrop of conflict and competition that dominates our modern world. I have had the same conversation many times with friends, neighbours, even strangers on the bus: "Human beings are hardwired to compete. We get our satisfaction from winning, not from sharing and co-operating." Hardwired? I rather doubt it. In our comfy western world we have the luxury of entertaining ourselves by competing. Even the "losers" in this society generally get enough to eat, even if they suffer in myriad other ways. But historically in the harshest environments on earth - Canada's Arctic, for example, I think the opposite is true. Where survival is most difficult, people are hardwired to co-operate.

The Canadian Co-operative Association, the organization I work for, is all about helping people co-operate for their own economic and social good -- here in Canada and around the world. Elvis Costello once sang, "What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?" Good question. I might paraphrase, "What's so funny about fairness, equity and economic justice?" As far as I'm concerned, we could all use a whole lot more co-operation. Remember those principles I mentioned earlier? Put them into practice and amazing things can happen.

Here's what I've observed. Most, but not all, co-operatives are businesses. But instead of the profits going into one person's pocket, or out of the country into the pockets of shareholders, it stays in the community where the money was earned. It goes back to the people who use the services of that organization. As a result, a business or institution is created that is bigger than the sum of its parts. It is not dependent on one person or even one family. If done right, it can survive for generations. These businesses may earn money, but they are run for the good of the members, not the bottom line. That means the social welfare of the members is as important as profit. For example, an agricultural co-operative can decide to use its profits to build and run a medical clinic if that is what the community needs.

Those are also the people who run the co-operative through the exercise of democracy. For a poor person who has no control over anything, to be able to vote and make decisions about something that can affect their life profoundly is huge. In the process, leaders can be developed from some very humble origins.

The education principle also plays a big role. It says that even though people work collectively, the individual is still important. Co-operatives have an obligation to empower individuals through education or information-sharing so they can effectively participate in the work of the co-operative and thrive in the other aspects of their lives.

There is another cool thing about co-operatives. It may seem like an oxymoron, but co-operatives are profoundly local organizations, with worldwide reach and connections. Over the years co-operatives all around the world have linked to create economies of scale and support each other. That's what we do through the Canadian Co-operative Association. With the support of generous Canadians and big funders like the Government of Canada we are using the co-operative model to help people find their way out of poverty around the world. We're going to hear different voices on that topic in this space. I hope you'll join us on the journey -- or better yet, contribute your thoughts through comments.

By John Julian, Director of International Communications and Policy, Canadian Co-operative Association. John Julian has written about, photographed, and videotaped co-operative development around the world for nearly 30 years.