Friday, February 13, 2015

The Case for an Open Cooperativist Development Agency

Economic systems and practices that exploit workers, users, communities and the environment to the detriment of our common good have long ceased to command respect. The only reason they nonetheless persist is that most people do not see other, more viable, options as to how they can satisfactorily live and work. But in reality, there are plenty of alternatives.

Alongside the spread of economic democracy, and the renewal of cooperative enterprise as an economic and social model, there is gathering momentum in the building of new forms of Social and Solidarity Economy; the displacement of a myopic conception of ‘growth’ by a vision and strategy for sustainability; the emergence of more inclusive, commons-orientated politics in Greece, Italy and Spain; and grassroots transformation movements encompassing community land trusts, Transition Towns, and ‘Shareable Cities’.

Furthermore, all these alternative approaches share core values and beliefs that place mutuality, power equality, and common stewardship at the heart of productive human relationships. Together they are constructing the route to a different and better future for all.

However, anyone involved in advancing these approaches must recognise that the issue of scale has to be addressed. Advocacy for many of these ideas and their adoption in diverse localities have been going on for decades. The championing of commons and cooperative models has indeed been taking place since at least the 19th century. Although they flourish in a variety of locations, they remain a small minority when people look for opportunities to find work, make a fair return on what they have to offer, obtain financial support, or acquire the goods and services they seek. Conventional businesses that manage transactions between the many to generate profits for the few remain the dominant model of operation almost everywhere we go.

Advocates for alternative socio-economic models that embrace open and inclusive cooperation are increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts to promote what they have to offer. But to reach the tipping point where their favoured practices become the majority across society, it is necessary that in parallel with such advocacy and knowledge-sharing, a robust organisation structure is put in place to raise the resources needed to support the development of these practices on a much more extensive scale.

It is time, therefore, for advocates, organisations, funders, foundations who share the vision of building open, sustainable, cooperative commons in every sphere of human interaction, to join forces in establishing an Open Cooperativist Development Agency with a Board tasked with delivering the following eight functions:

1. Promote knowledge-sharing, highlight common ideals, and provide learning on why and how open cooperatives should be set up and developed.
2. Provide coop business angels to give advice on start-up, consolidation, and/or collaboration with others with shared interests or geographical focus (on a voluntary basis; funded by a central body supported by members’ contributions; or a fee on terms agreed with the advice-receiver).
3. Raise money from supportive funders and provide low cost loans/investment to pro-open cooperative organisations.
4. Arrange cooperatisation of non open coop businesses (arranging for discussions/voting sessions, lending money to workers to take over the business).
5. Work with unions, community groups, democratic campaigners, and political parties to develop pro-open cooperativist policies and secure wide support for their introduction.
6. Negotiate with local and national govt to set up community owned trusts, and other appropriate policy actions.
7. Adjudicate/mediate between multi-stakeholders.
8. Safeguard open coops from sell-outs or unprincipled takeovers.

Ideas are important in changing how people think about how organizations can be made to serve our needs more effectively. Yet we cannot live by ideas alone. Practical outreach, sustained technology transfer, political alliance building, intervention to repel corporate encroachment, and access to substantial funding are indispensable. Relying solely on diverse groups making ad hoc small-scale contributions to run a variety of projects will only take societal transformation so far. With a well-funded development agency guided by multi-stakeholder accountability, we would be much closer to a step-change in substituting plutocratic exploitation by authentic cooperation.

For the report, ‘Toward an Open Cooperativism’, by David Bollier & Pat Conaty, go to:
& ‘Why We Need a New Kind of Open Cooperativism’, by Michel Bauwens, go to: