After floods and storms, co-ops pick up the pieces – a story of international solidarity

When trouble strikes, it is to your family you turn first. When the news of floods and storms emerged late last year, co-ops in the UK acted as a global family in raising funds to go to local co-ops in the affected regions, to help support their members.

Two years after a spate of devastating rains, for example, Nepal was hit again in 2017 by catastrophic floods and landslides. Relentless rains affected 35 districts of Nepal. 75,000 families were hit by flooding.

I have told the story before of how the UK co-op sector rallied together late last year to raise funds to be channelled through the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), prompted by Southern Co-operative, with leadership from The Co-op and contributions from a wide range of co-ops, large and small. This is the story of what happened after…

Working through two national networks in Nepal, a programme of support for farmers has been established over 2018 through sixty local co-operatives in the districts of Saptari, Morang, Bardiya and Banke. This has supported 500 members to rebuild buildings, reinstate their farms and restock their livestock. This is invaluable help, deeply appreciated.

Alongside this work, led by the Asia Pacific Region of the ICA, Co-ops UK commissioned a research report by the Co-operative College on good practice for disaster relief through the co-operative sector. Report author, Dr Sarah Alldred comments that:

“The importance of the global co‐operative movement in post‐disaster reconstruction is that it has the solidarity to act together to join forces and mobilise the required resources, whether that be materials, funding or knowledge, skills and people, to rebuild the communities and livelihoods of fellow co‐operative members and their families.”

In the Americas, the preparation has been slower, but with a focus on area with high needs, the State of Oaxaca in Mexico. An earthquake of September 7th 2017 – 8.2 on the Richter scale – destroyed homes, public buildings, markets and churches. Over a year later, the area is still suffering with an estimated twenty thousand people still living without shelter and safety.

One of the targets for support is the coastal municipality of San Dionisio del Mar, with a population of 5,165 (for half of whom, their first tongue is an indigenous language). With resources raised from members of Co-operatives UK, the development work is with three groups of fishermen, associated with the Confederacion Cooperativa Pesquera de Mexico.

The co‐operative movement has frequently played a significant role in responding to crises around post‐disaster relief and reconstruction. Previous examples include:

  • a response in Haiti following on from the 2010 earthquake that killed 316,000 people, left 300,000 injured and made 1.3 million homeless as well as catastrophically damaging infrastructure.
  • In the USA electricity co‐operatives were quick to mobilise and provide disaster relief assistance to isolated and vulnerable communities when over 1.5m electric co‐operative members were left without power after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017.
  • Israeli co‐operative development organisation AJEEC‐NISPED has contributed to relief, reconstruction, and co‐ operative development projects in locations such as Sri Lanka after the 2005 tsunami, Burma after the 2008 cyclone, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and Japan after the 2012 tsunami, as well as the ongoing refugee disaster in the Middle East and Europe.
  • The Swedish co‐operative development agency We Effect works in the field of sustainable international co‐operative development, but focuses on post‐disaster reconstruction work to support co‐operatives rebuild for example in cases such as where farmers’ fields have been destroyed in the severe floods in northern Vietnam.

The journal Stir to Action has an excellent recent issue, describing some of these, including work by Co-operatives UK in support of co-ops in Asia affected by past tsunamis.

On the back of all of this, I argued at the recent General Assembly of the ICA in Argentina that it is time for the ICA to explore a more consistent set of arrangements for co-operative action in the context of disasters.

With the support of the European Union, the ICA has built a strong infrastructure of activity around co-operatives for development. But, there is as yet no agreed system for practical global action in the context of disasters, evident in the slow response in the Americas region. A draft protocol was developed a decade ago at a meeting of the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives which links to the United Nations system.

This needs to move from ideas into practical reality. A good model exists in the system proposed in the research by the Co-operative College

In a climate-stressed world, disasters are on the rise. After emergency responses have faded away, typically we find local co-operatives who play a key role in picking up the pieces of reconstruction, focusing on the livelihoods of local people and accountable to them. Co-ops excel at this kind of localism, but the best co-ops are at the same time open and even global in their associations and outlook.

Co-operation prompt us to see a common humanity beyond differences of culture and distance: self-help and mutual aid are powerful tools for any who want to see a sustainable world.

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Lets get democratic in business

Information is power. Governance is control. So what do you do if you want a democratic system of decision making and a distributed system of power?

The paradox of hierarchies is that the more layers there are, the poorer the information that results, whether it is lost in the noise, not shared or distorted. Shann Turnbull has estimated that loss at 98% in an organisation with five layers of hierarchy. There is a case therefore that democratic governance, networked governance, can do better.

Slide1

The co-operative model is a proven model of business, based on principles of economic participation – ownership is by people involved in the business – and equality – member owners have an equal vote.

But, as it happens, we don’t have a systematic and cross-cultural account of how governance works in practice. We have been working on that, with research by Johnston Birchall on large co-operatives and in the coming week, we are running a deep dive workshop on co-operative governance in the Netherlands with sister networks from Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Belgium and Germany.

At a recent roundtable in Westminster, convened by Graham Allen MP,  I listened to Professor James Fishkin, Director of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy in the USA. His recent book, Democracy when the people are thinking, talks about distinct forms of democracy, including:

  • representative democracy – the most widely accepted concept of democracy, based on electoral competition
  • participatory democracy – emphasising mass participation of the people in decision making
  • deliberative democracy – involving deliberation by the people before key decisions are made

The co-operative models of democracy, particularly at scale, have leaned traditionally towards the representative model. But this is changing. Participatory practice – everyday democracy – and deliberative and open models around strategy and innovation are on the rise.

involveAt a personal level, I have learned a huge amount in my time as Chair of Involve, the democracy charity – time which is coming to an end as we look for new trustees and a new Chair.

My contribution to the workshop this week is to give this presentation, now up on Slideshare, on Information Design in Democratic Governance – ten steps towards a richer conception of governance in a co-operative.

The governance design at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing is a great example, using information in a liberating and participatory way.

Slide1As the late Paul Hirst said “democratic governance does not consist just in the powers of citizen election or majority decision, but in the continuous flow of information between governors and the governed, whereby the former seek the consent and co-operation of the latter.”