A perspective on the condition of the cooperative

The decidedly low-key programme executed by the Government of Guyana to mark National Cooperatives Week did much, if indeed anything more needed to be done, to underscore the cataclysmic decline of the movement over the decades since the then People’s National Congress administration promulgated cooperatives as the third sector of a tri-sectoral Guyana economy.

That, as it turned out, was much more political objective a fait accompli. Up until now, the cooperative movement, its individual notable accomplishments, notwithstanding has simply not made anything remotely resembling an imposing footprint on the country’s economy. For a whole host of reasons it has proven to be insufficiently robust to be stacked up alongside the government and the private sector as pillars of the economy.

It seemed that the whole idea behind cooperatives was to generate a sense of entrepreneurial self-reliance in groups of people whose entrepreneurial ambitions were not matched by the requisite practical know-how. One of the accomplishments of the government of the day was the role it played in ‘pulling’ the various groups together (even though, in many instances, keeping them together and keeping them focused proved to be a much more challenging task) an initiative that served as a critical building block for what one might call the creation of a ‘cooperative culture.’

Since little serious research has been undertaken into the evolution of the cooperative movement, particularly through the period when cooperatives themselves were experiencing a season of cataclysmic decline, it is difficult to do much more than speculate on the specifics of the considerations that precipitated the decline. Some analysts appeared to be of the view that what, in some instances, was evidence of individual entrepreneurial talent comprising cooperatives, never really carried over into the successful collective. It was felt for example, that the failure of many cooperatives had to do with disparities in the levels of both discipline and acumen amongst the various members of cooperative societies and the consequential disparities in disposition towards contributing to the collective which, in some instances, became sources of destabilizing conflict. In other words, it was, in some instances, a matter of disproportionate effort amongst individuals comprising groups that were required to put in a roughly equal amount of effort if the collective was to succeed. In various respects, the pursuits of some individuals comprising some of those collectives were not only unhelpful to the common good but downright counterproductive.

Those whose recollections go back that far will recall the prevailing axiom of those days regarding the goal of the cooperative being ensuring that the ‘small man became a real man.’ Truth be told the jury is still out as to whether that catchphrase was a reflection of a legitimate expectation or whether it was just one of those catchy political slogans that sought to lend an uplifting if delusional impetus to the cause. Suffice it to say that there has been much evidence in the failure of some cooperatives to conclude that throwing together handfuls of ‘small men’ with genuinely uplifting goals and even the requisite commitment to go along with offers no guarantee of success in the pursuit of goals the objectives of which require not only a strong sense of individual and collective commitment to a common good but a measure of clear thinking, planning and competence to go along with it. In other words it is not the wish but the quality of the work put in that determines whether those small men would become real men.

A little more than a year ago, this newspaper happened on an incomplete report card on the status of cooperatives in Guyana that bore a conspicuous resemblance of a catastrophic train wreck. The document itemized a long list of cooperatives of one type or another the overwhelming majority of which had either simply expired, altogether, fallen into a comatose condition or slipped into unwholesome conditions that had become characterized by managerial incompetence or circumstances that pointed to a lack of accountability and even fraud. It was as if one was viewing the remains of an entity that had simply been allowed to decay in its own deficiencies.

The question has been asked previously as to why successive political administrations kept dragging the cooperative movement from one period into the next rather than simply leaving it behind. The answer, in truth, lies in the fact that for all its limitations, for all its failures, the cooperative movement had managed to do enough, to record sufficient modest but noteworthy successes to enable it to make a persuasive case for not being left behind. The problem is that government’s decision to retain the state infrastructure that had been designed to support the cooperative movement was not matched by the investment of a commensurate of institutional and material support for the movement. A cursory examination of what remains in terms of that institutional support proves that point.

There is, surely, a distressing dichotomy between the inspirational underpinning of this year Cooperatives Week theme: ‘A New Horizon, Unleashing our Potential’ and the reality of what, by official admission, is a cooperative movement in which out of a total of 1,268 registered cooperative societies, fewer than ten percent were functioning in a transparent and accountable manner. When the two are juxtaposed the case for historic failure becomes clear.

Oddly enough, a strong case for the revival of the cooperative movement persists in an economy in which employment in both the public and private sectors is likely to become increasingly compromised by technological proxies in the period ahead. The problem is that such decidedly weak official structures as are in place to ‘drive’ the cooperative movement must begin with the task of completely overhauling the veritable Augean Stables of the movement which, even by official admission, is strewn across the ten administrative regions of Guyana. What passes for a cooperative movement today are a handful of constitutional provisions and a ‘supporting’ public service that really supports little or nothing. What really ought to be the living, breathing cooperative movement – or at least most of it – lies strewn in a state of absence of transparency and accountability. Perhaps more to the point the underwhelming effort that passed for a celebration of National Cooperative Week last month points to just where the cooperative movement is positioned on government’s scale of priorities at this time.


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