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U.N. to Launch International Year of Cooperatives

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, May 17 2011 (IPS) - When the United Nations commemorates the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC) in 2012, the world body will recognise the contributions made by cooperatives to socioeconomic development, including poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.

Currently, an estimated 800 million cooperative members are involved in diverse sectors throughout the world economy.

And these enterprises sustain around 100 million jobs worldwide, says Donald Lee, chief of the Social Perspective on Development Branch at the U.N.’s Division for Social Policy and Development.

According to the Geneva-based International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), cooperatives played a key role in providing relief to the more than 20 million people affected by the catastrophic floods in Pakistan last year.

“In conflict and disaster zones, cooperatives have been instrumental in reconstruction and peace-building,” Lee told IPS.

He pointed out that cooperatives are people-centred, self-help organisations engaged in economic enterprises.

“They empower their members to improve their living conditions through the pursuit of sustainable business ventures,” Lee added.

The United Nations has long recognised the contribution of cooperatives to social and economic development.

In declaring the International Year of Cooperatives, the United Nations seeks to raise awareness on the contribution of cooperatives to socioeconomic development and to promote and strengthen cooperatives worldwide.

According to the IYC Secretariat, cooperatives are guided by seven principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation; and concern for community.

The United Nations recognises four main types of cooperatives: consumer cooperatives; purchasing cooperatives; producer cooperatives, including agricultural cooperatives; and worker or employee-owned cooperatives.

The formal launch of IYC at the General Assembly next October is expected to kick off a global discussion on cooperatives among the 192 member states.

There is also a proposal to hold a Special Session of the General Assembly specifically on cooperatives.

Asked what role cooperatives can play in advancing the U.N.’s social and economic agenda, and specifically the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Lee said cooperatives allow people with limited resources to expand their participation in beneficial economic activities.

For instance, they can help create opportunities for those with certain skills but without the necessary capital for greater involvement in the economy.

“In these capacities, cooperatives not only contribute to economic growth by fostering the livelihoods of members and employees, but enhance the social fabric of the communities in which they operate,” he added.

Lee said cooperatives also provide social protection by emphasising principles of mutual aid and collective assistance.

From a development perspective, cooperatives thus contribute to socio- economic development, even as the primary objective remains the attainment of goals determined by the members, he explained.

As examples, Lee said agricultural cooperatives play vital roles in food production and distribution, and are important components of a long-term solution for food security.

Financial cooperatives provide accessible and diverse financial services, especially for poorer and less accessible communities in developed and developing countries.

During the recent financial crisis, these cooperatives demonstrated their resilience, and even experienced growth in savings and in loan volumes.

Cooperatives also help promote social cohesion and community spirit by adhering to principles consistent with an interest in the common good.

Additionally, cooperatives generate productive employment and improve incomes, thus reducing poverty and contributing to the attainment of the MDGs.

These goals include the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achievement of universal primary education, reduction of child mortality and maternal deaths and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

Asked if he expects a major international conference on cooperatives culminating on IYC in 2012, Lee said several international conferences have been planned by cooperative organisations and academia, and these will address the role of cooperatives in various global issues.

Also, many member states have already set up national committees to coordinate national observance of the IYC.

At the launch of IYC in October, there will be an informal roundtable discussion among member states, cooperatives, civil society and the United Nations. This will most likely focus on the significance of cooperatives in the context of the current socioeconomic climate.

And the possibility of a U.N. Conference may emerge from these discussions.

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