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The Global History of Cooperative Business

4 July 2018 at 8:37 am
Wendy Williams
Cooperatives have had a long and remarkable history, according to the authors behind a new book exploring the history of the cooperative sector.

Wendy Williams | 4 July 2018 at 8:37 am


The Global History of Cooperative Business
4 July 2018 at 8:37 am

Cooperatives have had a long and remarkable history, according to the authors behind a new book exploring the history of the cooperative sector.

The Global History of Cooperative Business provides an international perspective on the development of cooperatives since the mid-nineteenth century, exploring the economic, political, and social factors that explain their varying fortunes and transformation into different forms.

The book was penned by Professor Greg Patmore and Dr Nikola Balnave.

According to Patmore the motivation behind the book can be summed up in one word: amnesia.

“People have already forgotten about the quite long history of cooperatives,” Patmore told Pro Bono News.

“I suppose the major message is despite their major fluctuations up and down, which they do over time, it still remains a business model that is a highly viable one.”

According to the authors, despite a legacy of both success and failure of various forms of cooperatives, the model and cooperative principles remain relevant to all sectors, and in all countries.

The book lays out the case for a business model that has been tried and tested for well over a century.

The book was launched by the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro MP, who offered praise and support for cooperatives from the NSW National Party.

“The role of cooperatives in NSW life, particularly rural and regional life cannot be overstated,” Barilaro said at the launch.

“Cooperatives developed in the 1800s but remain relevant in the vastly changed globalised economy today. The principle of one vote per member is a great example of democracy in action, ensuring that the voices of all members are heard.”

Cooperatives provide a different approach to organising business through their ideals of member ownership and democratic practice.

There are more than 2,000 Australian cooperative and mutual enterprises. In 2017, they contributed 8.3 per cent of the nation’s GDP.  

Patmore said the book provided an Australian perspective on the history of a significant movement that had “benefited billions of individuals and still helps people meet contemporary issues that traditional markets fail to meet”.

He said cooperatives provided people with a choice in business models.

“The thing that people sometimes don’t talk about with cooperatives is that they are a form of economic democracy,” he said.

“I think that’s very important because it reinforces political democracy as well.”

According to both authors, one of the challenges facing co-ops is a lack of education and knowledge.

“I think these days there is a lack of education and knowledge about co-ops and the importance of co-ops throughout history, in the developed world but also in the developing world as well,” Balnave said.

“They have been formed voluntarily from the members who have seen a need to work collectively towards something but they have also been seen by governments as a way of promoting development in various countries as well.”

According to statistics from BCCM, while eight in ten Australians are members of a co-op, only three in ten know they are.

Patmore said, if the first challenge was amnesia, the “frontline battle” for co-ops was education.

“We have to get these things talked about and these sorts of books and other things are very important in doing that. They create a framework that allow people to teach stuff about this and, get it into people’s consciousness at a young age,” he said.

Balnave agreed.

“We both work in business schools. And I feel like the model that we teach is the capitalist model without recognising that a lot of people are going to enter the workplace in something other than a capitalist firm, whether it be the public sector or not for profit or coops and mutuals as well,” she said.

Balnave pointed to the example of Singapore where a collection of children’s book on co-ops have been produced.

“Because the way they see it, as Greg said, it to start early, it’s the parents that read the books to the kids. They are lots of fun these books, and at the same time as educating the kids the parents are being educated as well on the importance and value of co-ops. So I really enjoy that model that they have adopted over there in terms of the kids book,” she said.

Patmore said their latest book “has something for everybody”.

Balnave said it showed the “co-operative difference”.

“It’s for co-ops themselves to demonstrate to the general public that co-ops are different. They are democratic organisations. They are the most democratic form of organisation that you can have and I think that that does come through in the book quite strongly,” she said.

Patmore said while co-ops had been attacked “by all sorts of strange people”, including by both fascist and communist regimes, for their belief in democracy, they also had the “endorsement of very admirable people in history including Franklin Delano Roosevelt”.

The pair agreed they were optimistic about the future for co-ops.

“I think people are looking at different organisational forms at the moment and I think there has been this rise recently of the gig economy of course. I think in terms of the future people are going to recognise that this gig economy, it doesn’t empower them if anything it disempowers them because the real source of empowerment is ownership and that’s exactly what cooperatives provides,” Balnave said.

“I have great optimism in people recognising that in the future and seeing more interest in the corporate form.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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