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The role of co-operatives in peace-building processes

One of the most significant outputs of the activities conducted during the Third Co-operative Summit of the Americas was the announcement of an agreement between the co-operatives and the government of Colombia, aimed toward promoting the adoption of the cooperative model as a key instrument to advance in formalizing employment and businesses, one of the core issues of the post conflict process initiated in that country.

The announcement was made by the Minister of Labor of Colombia, Luis Eduardo Garzón, in his address during the opening ceremony of the event. "We will work together toward this pact", stated the Minister, who subsequently explicitly requested the support of the co -operative movement, and pointed out that this is not a minor request. "Consolidating a peace process in Colombia is a replication of the sector for the world", stated the Minister.

This pact aims at bringing together efforts so co-operatives in Colombia strengthen the creation of decent jobs and guarantee economic sustainability, as they has been doing in the past.

In his address, Garzón congratulated co-operatives for their convening power, and conveyed a "a special greeting to those who join us from the rest of the world, on an occasion that is complex, but full of opportunities", referring to the historical moment that the country is initiating. "This is no ordinary scenario, no ordinary situation, no ordinary moment", he stressed.

According to the announcement made by the government of Colombia, it is expected that cooperatives would develop a Plan to encourage the dissemination of the experience, create new cooperatives and, at the same time, prevent the model from being misused. In order to put this plan into practice, sectoral workshops will be organized jointly by cooperatives and the government as part of the Development Plan associated to the current planning process. The aim is to define a "cooperative mission" in order to create a comprehensive strategy for the strengthening of the cooperative sector.

Juan Camilo Restrepo, lawyer and economist of Colombia who will take office as Minister of Housing, Economy and Agriculture of his country, and who made an address at the opening conference of the Third Co-operative Summit of the Americas, published an editorial in the newspaper La Nación, describing his vision on the present and future of the solidarity sector. In his article he sustained that "whether the new economic associative models are to take hold, and whether we effectively want a more inclusive and participatory structure for Colombia, this should be done around the arrangements of the solidarity economy". He further noted that "the supports of the State in every front in order to generate social mobility, the efficient allocation of subsidies to the strata that really need them, are materially impossible to design around individuals or individual isolated workers: hence the importance of solidarity as the backdrop for public policy-making". In his article Restrepo concluded that "the present, which is much more important than what is often realized; and its future, which is much more definitive than is often perceived, definitely make the solidarity sector a main actor today, and above all, for the future of Colombia".

The significance of the potential contribution of co-operatives to the national peace-building process in Colombia had already been addressed in previous meetings and exchanges. In a letter sent a few months ago to the Confederation of Co-operatives of Colombia (Confecoop), the President of the Republic, Juan Manuel Santos, noted "the Government considers that solidarity, the co-operative and associative model, is the model for the generation of decent employment and the development of entrepreneurship. And we now that this model, more than any other, can help us consolidate peace in the territories, once we have made an agreement to put an end to half a century of armed conflict". He then recalled "the first item of the peace-building negotiations in relation to integral rural development included the development and strengthening of the solidarity and co-operative sector". "This is just another signal of our unconditional and unwavering support to the sector, in the promotion, above all, of its best practices", concluded the letter of the President.

There is also a direct reference to this issue in the text of the final Declaration of the Third Summit. It notes "the co-operatives of America support the participation of the Colombian co-operative movement in the process of consolidation of a stable and lasting peace, by fostering social inclusion and citizen participation through the promotion of a solidarity economy and co-operative spirit. Comprehensive rural development, financial and political inclusion, the distribution of wealth for social equity, the liberating and educational revolution are reached through co-operative life and solidarity, as a conscious option of an associative enterprise formalized through co-operatives". The text also notes that "co-operatives are emerging in Colombia as a social actor that will provide dynamism to the process of development and wellbeing, in the setting of the long-awaited post conflict era, and hence the importance of advancing in this significant agreement announced by the Ministry of Labor, recognizing the sector as multiplier of the effects of public policies, and an enterprise model that can also generate and distribute wealth, create public assets in zones often not reached by the Government and the market".


In her opening address at the Summit, Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, conveyed to Minister Garzón the support of the international co-operative movement, recalling that "in many parts of the world the co-operative movement has contributed to the reconstruction of communities, created jobs and developed educational and health services in conflict and post-conflict areas". The President of the Alliance illustrated this assertion with a personal experience: "today, the time has come for all the people of Northern Ireland to reconstruct the country, with their sweat instead of continuing to stain it with their blood. I hope the same happens in Colombia", she said.

Many examples can be found in history all over the world where co -operatives have proved to be true reservoirs of positive social capital, a key and essential ingredient in peace-building and reconstruction processes in the aftermath of violent and long-lasting social conflict. In these circumstances cooperatives have emerged as one of the most effective tools for retrieving and fostering a strong sense of community, participation, empowerment, and inclusion, thus contributing to restoring interpersonal relationships and peace.

The resilience demonstrated by cooperatives during the recent financial crisis that still affects the economies and societies of many countries of the world has elicited  a general recognition - internally and from outside the movement of the role of co-operatives as a valid and effective collective response to the crisis. It seems unnecessary to elaborate further on this issue that has been widely highlighted and described in various recent publications. Nonetheless, a deeper examination of this phenomenon from a long-term historical standpoint, reveals it is not new. The same happened in the economic hardship times in the 1840's in the UK (when the first co-operatives were created), during the agricultural depression in the 1860's in Germany, the great depression of 1929 and 1930 in the United States or, more recently, in the unemployment crisis that affected Europe in the 1970's. These examples do not mean, however, that co-operatives only succeed in times of crisis. But it is then, when there is an urgency to restore stronger economic and financial systems that co-operatives emerge more clearly as relevant solutions that are durable, and timely.

As stated in the report on Cooperatives and the Sustainable Development Goals prepared by the ILO and the International Cooperative Alliance in 2014 , in post -conflict settings, co-operatives can "have transformative potential in revitalizing struggling sectors, recovery of crisis-stricken local economies, increasing returns to producers and service providers across value chains, formalizing informal employment, and generating employment for women and youth in rural and urban areas".

On the other hand, the versatility of the co-operative model allows for the creation of innovative initiatives capable of addressing new needs and requirements in case of natural disasters, or caused by long -lasting national or regional conflict. This is the case, for example, of some social care co-operatives that are being formed in responding to the care needs of ageing populations, or co-operatives formed by widowed women who must support their families or care co-operatives formed to take care of orphans after earthquakes or wars. The potential of the cooperative model to generate and provide sustainability to social and economic enterprises capable of addressing the new needs of modern societies is huge, and not only expressed in theory, but mainly, through plenty of concrete, practical examples.

The report of the ILO and the Alliance describes some experiences in which women co-operatives have been active as brokers of peace and development in settings of hard conflict and recovery. In Nepal, for example, women cooperatives emerging from a tenyear insurgency in 2006, "helped women to survive, manage their livelihood options and look after their families through the provision of credit, counseling and skills development. In the postconflict period, women´s cooperatives raised consciousness and political participation and emerged as voices of justice and peace".

Another remarkable case happened during communal riots in 2002 in Gujarat, northwest India, which resulted in massive loss of life, destruction of property, loss of livelihoods and particularly grievous perpetration of sexual violence against women. During this conflict the Self-Employed Women´s Association (SEWA) Federation ran relief camps for victims and provided women in the camps with employment, access to basic health care, childcare and counseling.

One emblematic example of the contribution of co-operatives to rebuilding societies after conflict is that of a small women´s cooperative in Dayr Qanoun Ras al Ayn, a Southern Lebanese village that was devastated by heavy shelling in 2006. In the midst of destruction, the co-operative worked hard identifying and recovering local and traditional products that faced extinction after the conflict, and conducted an invaluable task rescuing and helping rebuild the collective memory of the village.

The message of the Alliance on the International Day of Co-operatives of the year 2006, "Peace-building through Co-operatives", mentions other historical examples: the Palestine and Israeli co-operative movements working together in a range of agricultural marketing projects designed to assist Palestine co-operators improve their livelihoods; housing co-operative movements assisting in projects in Bosnia and Serbia to help rebuild communities through the creation of co-operative housing and, with it, dialogue among peoples; longterm tsunami reconstruction efforts in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, including in some areas of ongoing conflict.

Also in Latin America it is possible to find numerous examples where co-operatives had a significant active role in peacemaking processes, including some where the co-operative movement itself was directly affected by armed conflict, not only in economic terms but also through the murder or incarceration of some of its leaders.

In places such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, cooperative integration organizations became important actors in the dialogue, negotiation and reconstruction processes, providing the sector viewpoint and contributing concrete solutions to employment issues, the reconstruction of the productive systems and the social reinsertion of demobilized individuals. On this subject, Rodolfo Orozco, Executive Director of the Confederation of Co-operatives of Guatemala recalled that the most visible contribution of cooperatives during the post-conflict period in his country was in the areas of "recognition of the identity and rights of the indigenous peoples, the determination of the role of civil society in the democracy and the economic reinsertion of victims, especially in the agricultural sector". Moreover, he noted that the co-operative sector was one of the six sectors that composed the High Level Committee entrusted with compliance monitoring of peace agreements, along with government officials, demobilized forces, businesses, indigenous people representatives, and the academia.

In a 2012 publication of the Center of Studies on the Sociology of Work of the University of Buenos Aires compiled by Mirta Vuotto ("Construyendo relaciones sociales para la paz: el caso de las cooperativas en América Latina"), there are descriptions of several concrete experiences in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico and Paraguay, where cooperatives contributed, in various forms and settings, to the consolidation of spaces that revalue life and peace.

In the face of so much empirical evidence, it should be worth asking why co-operatives are capable of making significant contributions to reconstructing societies and communities emerging from complex situations of deep deconstruction and fragmentation. This is surely explained by the commitment and vocation of women and men co-operators that seek to disseminate the advantages of the model they support (and firmly believe in) to the whole of their societies. But it is also undeniable that the very essence of the cooperative model makes it a markedly effective tool in these types of situations.

The fact that co-operatives are, in essence, highly committed to the communities where they promote the eradication of inequity, the effectiveness of democratic values, building and developing human capital, and the fundamental values of solidarity and mutual assistance as fundamental values, is surely inextricably linked to the achievements described above. Considering this capacity to make positive contributions in these processes provides a new, much wider meaning, to the logo "co-operative enterprises build a better world".

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