The world's first co-operative was established by a group of British weavers to address their own problem of unaffordability of the daily needs. Later, such organizations became an important tool to improve the access to finance among the poor people in several parts of the world. Over the period, the principles of such organizations were affected by the messages of several political and social movements. In addition, the utopian socialist philosophy and the traditional practices of cooperation in different times and continents also influenced those principles. The present model of cooperative business is the outcome of the cross-fertilization of all those practices, movements and philosophies.
Currently, cooperative business follows intenationally agreed upon seven principles. Those principles basically suggest to ensure the democratic values within the organization, conduct the member centered business, practice the cooperation among each other, and maintain community welfare.All those characters have made a cooperative business a social business which could be one of the means for creating sustainable employment opportunity, equity and peace in the society.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the global goals proposed by the United Nations for the period between 2016-2030. It advocates for the common policy objectives for all the countries and territories aiming at creating the 'prosperity' of the 'people' ensuring the 'planet' safe for generationsacross the world. Itsseventeen goals and 169 targets are focused to achieve the economic, social and environmental goals. Global cooperative movement claims that such objectives were already part of the cooperative business;International Cooperative Alliance (ICA)claims that cooperatives have "sustainability in their DNA”. To illustrate, when the global community was discussing about Post Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Agenda, ICA had already endorsed its decade long global strategy which states that the cooperatives are the "builders of sustainability”.
Cooperative principles are closely linked with SDGs. Application of third principle (members’ economic participation) helps the members—irrespective of their gender, race and religion—access to finance and other production inputs andfind the markets for members' produce that eventually contributes to the goal one (Poverty reduction), goal two (food security), goal five (gender), goal eight (inclusive growth, employment and decent job) and goal ten (reducing inequality). Similarly, second (democratic member control) and fourth (autonomy and independence) principles could helpin achieving goal four (education and training), goal five (gender empowerment), goal ten (inequality) and goal sixteen (peace, inclusion and justice)as they institutionalize the democratic values and principles, and empower women and marginalized communities economically and socially in the society.
On other side of the flip, governments and development partners across the world are gradually acknowledging the role of the cooperative business in achieving SDGs. To illustrate, the outcome document of 17th session of UN General Assembly—that adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—states that private business activity, investment and innovation are major drivers of productivity, inclusive economic growth and job creation. And,the document acknowledges the diversity of the private sector, ranging from micro-enterprises to cooperatives to multinationals. Acouple of UN agencies—such as ILO, FAO—have made memorandum of understanding/agreements with ICA regarding how they can make the partnership to sensitize the cooperatives on SDG issues and translate them into cooperatives’ programmes/actions. Hence, both policy makers (governments/development partners) and policy beneficiary (cooperative sector) are close to each other to mobilize cooperatives in achieving the global goals to a certain extent.
Activities of Nepal's Cooperatives: friendly to the SDGs
Cooperation is a traditional institution in a couple of ethnicities in Nepal. Intra-community economic cooperation is still observed in such institutions to a certain extent. Further, saving credit services are the part of formal cooperatives since the beginning. To illustrate, cooperativeswere conceived to provide the saving and credit services to the members in 1957. In the later phase, government mobilized such organizations to implement access to credit- and supply of chemical fertilizer-related programmes. Currently, according to a report published by Department of Cooperatives in 2017, there are nearly 18 thousand saving-credit and multipurpose cooperatives which provide saving and credit services among 4.7 million members.About 11 thousand agriculture cooperatives—most of them are small farmer cooperatives which have their own history in agriculture development—have been providing credit services to their member farmers.
In addition to credit services, several agriculture cooperatives assist their members in marketing their produce. Dairy and cash crop-related cooperatives offervalue chain development in members' produce. Moreover, cooperatives are found instrumental in leadership development, women empowerment, awareness in the rural parts of the country. Cooperatives are able to accommodate 56 percent women members which is 26 percent of the total women population of the country. Some of the agricultural cooperatives have promoted biogas plant in the rural parts. The organization of free health camps, blood donation programme, tree plantation are the regular activities in their annual days. These services are supposed to help their members getting credit, creating sustainable self-employment, sensitizing about environment and empowering on gender and marginalization issues. All those contributions are important for achieving SDGs to a certain extent.
While providing the framework of the state, the new constitution has placed cooperative as a pillar of the economy. Its intention is to have sustainable growth and equitable distribution, which are the part of SDGs,by mobilizing all the potential economic actors, including cooperatives, and make the economy socialism oriented. Following the spirit of the constitution, the new Cooperative Act 2017 ensures the rights of the citizen to form a cooperative and right of the cooperatives to conduct any kind of business autonomously and independently unless and otherwise specified thatwere already provided by the Cooperative Act 1992.Hence, the rights of a cooperative to engage on economic activities and prosper are guaranteed by the constitution.
The government believes that the new act helps create economic opportunities at local level. A cooperative can now autonomously operate the business, devise benefit sharing method, develop own brand and mobilize the resources on its own.Such organizations are not obliged to register the business, can partner with other cooperatives, and are allowed to create “Specialized Cooperative Union” if large investment is required. Similarly, district level unions and central level unions can work for value chain development and marketing. All these mechanisms aim to promote the cooperative in production, process and marketing activities so as to help the members finding sustainable source of income and employment maintaining equity among the members.
In order to internalize SDGs, the government has taken several initiatives within its policies and programmes. It has also attempted to stimulate the SDG alignments within cooperatives. For example,“Sustainable Development Goals: Status and Roadmap: 2016-30” published by National Planning Commission (NPC) guidesstate and non-state actors regarding how SDGs are aligned in their programmes. There are few indicators in the document which are made exclusively for cooperative sector. “Need Assessment, Costing and Financial Strategy for SDGs” published in 2018 strongly urges the governments at all levels to partner with the cooperatives at various fronts—such as implementation of targeted intervention, mobilization of resources, enhancement of access to financial services, creation of inclusive economic growth, improvement of public service delivery, among others.
How cooperatives can move ahead
Primary role of a cooperative is to offer the economic services to their members. However, it is a social business defined by internationally agreed values and principles. Hence, the movement has made, due to its social nature, several commitments at national and international levels. SDGs are one of them. In this context,Nepal's cooperative movement has to think how the cooperatives could be instrumental to fulfill the economic, social and environmentalneeds of the members.
The constitutionassumes that cooperative sector serves as a tool for creatingsustainable employment and bringing equitable benefit distribution. Hence,every cooperative should individually think of developing value chain of the primary produce made by the member farmers. The value chain development not only does help the industrialization of the economy but alsoofferssustainable and equitable income to the members. Moreover, the cooperatives should implement the mechanism that benefits the members as service seeker rather than the members as shareholder.
As per the spirit of the constitution, national policies and programmes have offeredseveral opportunities to the cooperatives. In return, they have expected a tangible contribution from the sector. The ongoing fifteenth five-year plan assumes that the sector would make about 5.4 percent of the total investment planned by the fifteenth five-year plan and produce 85 thousand jobs every year. Hence every cooperative is expected tomake investment plan and involve in production and marketing related activitiesaiming at creating the self/employmentas much as possible.
While making the SDG strategies, the government has expected the contribution of cooperatives as well.Need Assessment, Costing and Financial Strategy for SDGs-2018 assumesthat the cooperative sector will make 4.3 percent of total investment required by the end of 2030.The documentenvisages that the sector will complement private sector in creating the sustainable jobs, maintaining the food security, empowering women and children and promoting the sustainable consumption and production. Hence, the cooperatives need to focus on production of output and creation of employment; they need to review their marketing strategies and human resource strategies, adapt new technology, and improve the entrepreneurship so as to tap the changing market dynamism.
National Cooperative Federation has published 'Guidance on Sustainable Development Goals for Cooperative Movement in Nepal'. The document guides both primary cooperatives as well as district and central level unions regarding how they could contribute in SDG implementation. In particular, the document suggests regarding how their work could be aligned with SDG needs and priorities. For example, it suggests the agriculture cooperatives at local level to supply the inputs and negotiate with market for prices of the output of the farmers. District unions and central unions can work for value chain integration, marketing and branding activities. Moreover, saving credit cooperatives and their unions are advised to invest on green technology. Whereas, every cooperative can lead in the respective society for adapting green technology, reducing plastic use, advocating for resource conservation, educating the gender empowerment, promoting democratization of the society, among others.
(Ghimire is a Policy Specialist at Cooperative Market Development Programme, Views expressed in this article are personal)