I am convinced that co-operatives offer a fair, equitable and ethical tool for generating employment and income -- both here in Canada and in communities throughout the developing world. That is probably not a very surprising statement, coming from someone who has worked for co-operatives for most of my adult life. But even after more than 30 years, there are times when I have to stop and reflect on what I "know" and what I "believe."
To be sure, for something that at face value is a simple business model co-operatives come with a lot of baggage. In fact it is safe to say that for many people co-operatives come wrapped in a complete belief system. Perhaps the fundamental belief that underpins this whole exercise is that people -- particularly people who are challenged or disadvantaged in some way -- are better off working together for the common good than competing against each other.
I believe that but how do I know it to be true, particularly when it comes to the risky business of helping poor, uneducated people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas build co-operatives that are supposed to make their lives better? Sometimes belief is enough, but there are times when we really need to know. A few weeks ago I read an interesting blog post by Colm Moloney, a bright young intern working for CCA in Ghana. He was talking about the belief system that is attached to international development as a whole -- above and beyond the co-operative angle. Here's an excerpt (with permission).
"Over the past few days I've been reminded of an even deeper existential crisis within the development field. Several casual conversations I've had with people I've met here in Ghana as well as recent high-profile critiques -- such as that leveled at celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs in Nina Munk's The Idealist -- reflect an endemic uncertainty among development professionals: does aid make a difference? Or in other words, do the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent each year contribute to positive change? For skeptics such as William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, aid is, at best, a waste of money, and, at worst, more harmful than helpful. For others, such as the vilified Sachs, it's simply a matter of needing to spend more.
For me, the key is learning about what works. It might look like a cop-out, like I'm avoiding having to take a stance. In reality, however, I believe there are projects that can produce sustainable results, and that by promoting accountability (in terms of demonstrating impact) and transparency, we can avoid some of the potential problems (such as dependence, corruption, and ineffectiveness) discussed by aid skeptics.
In other words, by putting the onus on NGOs and governments to credibly demonstrate the impact of their projects, we can improve their accountability to donors and to the beneficiaries themselves. Furthermore, it enables us to learn about what works and to make better decisions in future planning."
I'm with Colm on this one. Like him I want to believe that this global effort to reduce poverty is making a difference, but we both need to see some proof.
Last year the Canadian International Development Agency -- now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) commissioned a third party research initiative to see if Canadian efforts to support co-operatives in the developing world are making a difference in the lives of poor people. It was a fairly comprehensive effort involving the work of three Canadian organizations -- CCA among them.
As well, the study specifically looked at some "deviant" cases, projects that were deemed failures, in an effort to better identify those elements that make projects successful, or unsuccessful. I think Colm would agree with me that the results were encouraging. The study found that co-operatives in the developing world are improving the livelihoods of their members, and that Canadian efforts to support those co-operatives are helping them do that.
There is ample proof that improved production of staple foods, like this rice crop in Rwanda, has a direct impact on poverty. Co-operatives are an important part of the value chain, equitably sharing the benefits of improved yields, storage, processing and marketing.
Good news, but of course there was a lot more than that. For example, the study identified certain conditions that help ensure success. Good governance, a reasonable legislative environment, and social cohesion all contribute to successful co-operative ventures -- among the poor in the developing world or the affluent here at home.
So, back to that question of what I know and what I believe. I am convinced that it is important to believe in what you do. That's what generates the passion to make a difference and that's what helps you push through when the going gets tough. But we also need facts to sustain that belief and some of the facts we particularly need are the ones that do not support our beliefs. If we shut those out we don't learn from our mistakes. If we don't learn, we don't succeed, and even the most strongly held beliefs are pretty hard to sustain in the face of failure.
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.