Guyana and the cooperative movement

Keith Scott

A cursory examination of global statistics pertaining to the international cooperative movement reveals an interesting picture regarding the popularity of cooperatives, the involvement of people therein and the impact of cooperatives on the global economy.

Facts and figures provided by 122-year old International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) indicate that “one in every six people are cooperators of any of the 3 million cooperatives on earth. The ICA further states that “co-operatives employ 10% of the employed   population and generate 2.1 trillion USD in turnover while providing the services and infrastructure society needs to thrive.” No less significant are the assortment of noble motives which the ICA ascribes to cooperatives including their role as “enterprises based on ethics, values and principles that put the needs and aspirations of their members above the simple goal of maximizing profit” as well as utilizing the tools of “self-help and empowerment……and concern for the well-being of people” to nurture “a long-term vision for sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental responsibility.” 

The ICA says, further, that “as member-owned, member-run and member-serving businesses, cooperatives empower people to collectively realize their economic aspirations, while strengthening their social and human capital and developing their communities.” There is more. “Cooperatives,” the ICA says, contribute to sustainable economic growth and stable, quality employment, employing 280 million people across the globe, in other words 10% of the world’s employed population. 

 According to the ICA’s statistics, “more than 1.2 billion cooperative members (amounting to around one in every six people on the planet) are part of any of the three million co-operatives in the world!” Nor are these, the ICA says, micro ‘hustles’ comprising handfuls of people simply pursuing subsistence-driven economic option. Apart from being “strong and healthy,” “the Top 300 cooperatives and mutuals report a total turnover of 2,1 trillion USD, according to the World Co-operative Monitor (2017).”The ICA itself is one of the largest non-governmental organizations in the world, directly representing, it says, 700 million individuals in 105 countries. 

All of this provides an impressive image-enhancing story for the global cooperative movement though information provided by the ICA itself underlines the adage that all that glitters is decidedly not gold. It is not without significance, for example, that the countries with the largest number of members represented by the Alliance – the United States, Japan, India, Iran, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Germany, and Canada – are, for the most part, countries with middle income or advanced economies. What this means, in effect, is that cooperatives are customarily linked to countries with advanced economies and are therefore more likely (than poor countries) to have access to the human resources and (increasingly, these days) the technological tools that can contribute to the creation and growth of successful cooperatives. 

It is, for example, hardly accidental that numbered highest on the list of the Top 300 co-operatives in the world in 2017 are the French banking group Crédit Agricole and Kaiser Permanente and State Farm, two  highly successful US- based insurance businesses. No less interesting is the fact that the world’s top 300 cooperatives operate in some of the world’s most lucrative business sectors (and sectors in which they possess a considerable competitive advantage) including insurance (41%), agriculture (30%), wholesale and retail (19%), and banking and finance (6%). Again, the point should be made that these sectors have all met with significant success in developed countries. 

Phenomenon

All of this is simply to make the point regarding the ‘two different worlds’ phenomenon that characterizes the global cooperative movement. On the one hand there is the cooperative movement characterized by highly developed enterprises managed along the lines of orthodox business models, concerned with the maximization of returns and located, mostly in developed, high-skill countries; on the other there are those cooperatives that have their origins in groups of poorer or lower middle class countries whose development have their origins in the needs of their mostly less than well-off members and who, in many instances, lack both the management and specific technical skills and organizational tools that are critical to the development of entrepreneurial ventures, whether those be conventional business enterprises or cooperatives. 

Here in Guyana not even the state-run oversight machinery can honestly deny that, for the most part, cooperatives have been synonymous with serious competence deficit, underperformance and mismanagement and in some instances corrupt practices. These weaknesses, one suspects,  are the reasons why the Ministry of Social Protection, the state agency responsible for overseeing the cooperative movement is decidedly disinclined to make public comprehensive progress reports  on the state of the cooperative movement in Guyana that includes a performance update on the sector, addressing such issues as the state of the individual cooperatives across the country. Nor, for that matter, has there been any subsequent progress report following last year’s disclosure by the Minister responsible for Cooperatives, Keith Scott regarding a $12 million government investment in four “model cooperative societies” in Buxton, Ithaca, BV-Triumph and Mocha-Arcadia and targeted to create 160 jobs. 

Some of the questions that arise here include whether a state-funded initiative can be considered a cooperative in the truest sense of the concept and whether such a ‘cooperative’ is not likely to be directly overseen/run by the state rather than the cooperators, whomsoever those might be.  The other question that arises has to do with whether the seeming state over-bureaucratization of the cooperative movement does not cause it to appear as though, rather than derive from ‘the will of the people,’ it is government that is pushing the movement.

While Scott is on record as saying that government has begun resuscitating cooperatives in Regions Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Ten, two questions remain unanswered. The first has to do with whether, government’s efforts notwithstanding, there has not developed, over the years, a loss of appetite for cooperative ventures among Guyanese as a whole, steeped as they have become in the more contemporary models of doing business.  The second, equally important issue has to do with the difficulty that arises in seeking to make a reliable qualitative evaluation of the performance of cooperatives in Guyana given the seeming determination on the part of the Ministry of Social Protection Services not to release reliable information on how cooperatives are faring across the country.

Corresponding action

As with so many other issues that have to do with development-related projects in Guyana, public undertakings are frequently not attended by corresponding action. It has been much the same, over the years, with the cooperative movement. Several months ago Scott was quoted as saying that “the Cooperative Movement is destined to be a beacon of hope for economic development of our nation,” and that it had the potential “of becoming the third pillar of our economic infrastructure,” a pronouncement which, even to the casual observer of the Guyana economy, appeared so out of touch with reality that it was hardly surprising that it did not even attract a notable critical public comment. 

It was the same with the pronouncement in the Minister’s year-end review to the effect that last year marked something of a resurgence for the cooperative movement. Again, little if any concrete evidence attended the assertion beyond the assertion that the Ministry was taking a fresh approach to the cooperative movement aimed at removing corruption and mismanagement and holding cooperatives to higher standards by encouraging transparency and accountability. “The intent of this fresh approach.” Scott was quoted as saying, “is the elimination of corruption, nepotism and other forms of unprofessional behavior, which are factors that do not reflect human development and the acquisition of a good life,” though no real details were provided regarding what this ‘fresh approach” would be.

For reasons that are far from clear the Ministry of Social Protection appears decidedly disinclined to release into the public domain the 2017 Report of the Ministerial Task Force titled Revitalization of the Cooperative Movement which, we are told, seeks to probe the problem of non-functioning cooperatives and to determine their feasibility for moving the country forward. What appears to have been an official decision to keep the report under wraps has, not surprisingly, been construed as an attempt to conceal the extent of the underperformance of the cooperative movement even though Scott is on record as saying that recommendations arising out of the report have already been implemented. 

Arguably, one indication of a likely decline in the local appetite for the cooperative as a vehicle for doing business reposes is the emergence in recent years of a surfeit of conventional business ventures in sectors such as agro – processing, food vending, small and medium-scale farming and transportation services, sectors once considered to be ideally suited to the cooperative model. The reality is – and the records, once they become available, will probably bear this out – the prevailing apprehension for the cooperative as a ‘business model’ derives not only from the disappointing outcomes that have manifested themselves in many instances but also from the failure of until now on the part of the cooperative movement as a whole to significantly correct its failings and move on.

 

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