Many of us still remember co-operatives as those friendly corner shops where you got a ‘divi’ each year. Times have changed and we now see the co-operative brand applied to banking, travel, funeral care, and many other sectors. With the advent of the credit crunch and our governments’ espousal of ‘The Big Society’, co-operatives are now being seen by some as a serious alternative model to ‘tooth and claw’ capitalism on the one hand and public sector provision on the other.
This could have far reaching consequences, both for local government, and in the way services are provided in the UK over the next few years.
A good example is education. There are now over 100 co-operative Trust schools in the UK and this will increase to over 250 within the next year.
How is it that a concept that has been around for over 150 years is now suddenly catching on in education? The Fair Traders Co-operative attended their 3rd annual conference to try and find out.
The shortcomings of purely private and state funded educational experiments over the years is one answer, but perhaps there are more fundamental changes driving this growth. It seems that the involvement of families, students, staff, local businesses and other organisations is now generally accepted as critical to the success of a school. At the same time, the internet has made it much easier for this community, who all wish to see the children succeed, to communicate effectively with each other and understand the role they can play in contributing to their common goal. The co-operative model provides a proven framework for such collaboration, allowing local people collectively not only to ‘do it themselves’, but also to own and democratically control the enterprise. The local children’s success is the sole objective here. Compare this with either control by a cash strapped, politically influenced Local Education Authority or by a profit driven private company.
What has all this to do with fair trade? Again it is all about communities. The media today ensures we are aware of the plight of others around the world. Young people travel to developing countries in a way that was unthinkable fifty years ago and meet those who, purely as a result of an accident of birth, have no job, no home, and often no food. They can and do communicate globally with their networks via Facebook and other channels that didn’t exist even a few years ago. The result is that more and more well educated , relatively prosperous, young people, who will be tomorrow’s business and political leaders, are identifying themselves not just as Londoners, English, or European, but also members of a global community.
Increasing numbers of these young people are investing their money, time, and expertise, supporting new trading ventures, often co-operatives, that seek to unite these communities to meet what they rightly see as their common needs and aspirations. They recognise that ‘top down’ capitalism and the international political system have failed miserably to tackle the underlying causes of climate change, poverty, and global migration which represent huge challenges to mankind during this century.
A co-operative empowers a community of people to ‘do it themselves’, and thus make a difference in however small a way. Such communities can be physical or virtual, but it is the latter that could lead to a new era of growth in global co-operation.
The Fair Traders Co-operative is one small, but growing example of a global community of individuals, other co-operatives, schools, developing country communities and other organisations who are getting stuck in and doing something. By contributing money, expertise, ideas, or just purchasing products, the now 450 plus members are rewarded by knowing that, together, they are making a positive difference. The membership is expanding both nationally and internationally. They are also gradually developing close and enduring links with supplier communities; which can both inspire, and enrich the lives of, their respective members.
These may be small beginnings but the principles of co-operation designed by 28 weavers of Rochdale in 1844, combined with a clear need, led to nearly 1000 new co-operatives forming within ten years in Britain. This pace of growth is now again being matched; and there are 12.9 million co-operative members in the UK. Let us all hope we are now entering a new age of co-operation-if ever it was needed it is now.