11/05/2013 05:48 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:52 EST

Co-operating for Peace

The Canadian Co-operative Association is not, and has never been, a humanitarian relief effort. You won't often find us in the middle of a major humanitarian crisis or a shooting war -- in Afghanistan, or Darfur, or Syria. Yet in the last few years I have been struck by how much of the work we are doing has its roots in conflict. I'm painfully aware of how difficult it is to rebuild communities that have been shattered by conflict, but also I've seen how co-operatives can be an olive branch in a conflict-affected community. Our support for co-operatives is offering hope -- both for economic progress and for peace -- in so many troubled places.

I'm amazed at the list of places where our co-operative and credit union development is part of the healing process. Some are obvious, but some less so -- Aceh, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and Nepal are all emerging from civil wars that have ended within the last few years. Those scars are fresh. But we also work in Northern Uganda, which is emerging from 20 years of terror inflicted by the Lord's Resistance Army. We support co-operative development in Northern Ghana, a generally peaceful country where a long-standing land dispute has resulted in tribal bloodshed. The co-operatives we work with in El Salvador are one result of land reform that came about due to civil strife. We're also working in Colombia where a civil war, followed by a prolonged period of organized narco-terrorism, has left a damaged society. The Rwandan genocide is approaching its twentieth anniversary, but that nation is still working to recover from that horrific chapter. By working with agricultural co-operatives to improve the food supply there, we're helping to cement the stability of the peace. Hunger can easily become a catalyst for conflict.

Conflict often starts because of poverty, and conflict inevitably causes poverty. Co-operative development is all about finding long-term solutions to poverty -- economic and social progress are inextricably linked. Where people find a new common purpose, where they work together for the benefit of all, the tensions that linger long after a conflict ends are reduced. That is what co-operation is all about. Would it make sense to encourage competition in communities where animosity is just below the surface? I don't think so.

I'm reminded of a scene I witnessed a few years ago in the Middle East where Israeli and Palestinian co-operators doggedly continued to work together to improve the economic circumstances of Palestinian farmers against a backdrop of animosity and suspicion. As far as I know they are still pursuing that dream, in spite of the construction of the "security wall," and continuing frictions and flare-ups.

I could go on about how the co-operative principles offer a careful blueprint for avoiding and healing the frictions that cause conflict. But let me say instead that the slogan chosen by the United Nations, when it declared 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives, is powerful and so true: "Co-operative enterprises build a better world." In the context of post-conflict situations all over the world, that simple phrase applies. So when the headlines start to get you down -- bloody stalemate in Syria, a new conflict in the Ivory Coast -- check out the activities of co-operatives all over the world. It might just make you feel better.

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