I have travelled North by train to Stirling (castle here courtesy, under creative commons license, of to visit Johnston Birchall and colleagues. Johnston is a friend and one of the Britain’s leading researchers on co-operation and mutuality.

stirling castle

One of his current passions is for farmers’ co-operatives, but he warns against the tendencies encouraged overseas by development donors to see these as NGOs. They are businesses and have to deliver marketing benefits to their members to survive and thrive.

He distinguishes co-operatives and mutuals as democratic businesses that are about members rather than shareholders. The three defining characteristics he sees are member ownership, member control and member benefits. Johnston has recently completed a short report with Richard Simmons forthcoming for the Co-operative College on co-operatives in international development and has been working on what will be an outstanding project for Co-operative Development Scotland – looking at the comparative performance of the co-operative sector across different countries. In Finland, for example, the co-operative sector accounts for a remarkable 21% of overall GDP. In Switzerland, it is 16% and in Sweden, 13%.

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