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LEFT OF CENTRE: Co-ops not about maximum profits

Anthony Pilgrim

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There is no gainsaying the fact that we in Barbados, at all levels, need to place greater emphasis on cooperatives since it is globally recognized that they can play a pivotal role in the social and economic development of a country.
Indeed, it is for this very reason that the United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2012 as the International Year Of Cooperatives.
This designation by the world body is in recognition of the fact that cooperatives, in their various forms, promote the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people, including women, minorities and those at the lower end of the social ladder.
Further, they are becoming a major factor of social development by contributing, in a substantial way, to global efforts for the eradication of poverty through the provision of micro finance services.
Here are some impressive statistics that concretely demonstrate the substantial and largely unreported contribution which cooperatives are making around the globe.
• Globally, over one billion people are members of cooperatives.
• In Canada, four out of every ten people are members of at least one cooperative. In Quebec, the francophone part of Canada, this statistic is even more impressive, with 70 per cent of Canadians being members of cooperatives.
• In Brazil, cooperatives were responsible for 37 per cent of the agricultural gross domestic product in 2009.
• Locally, cooperatives boast of a membership in excess of 150 000, but participation is limited in the main to financial cooperatives (credit unions).
We in the cooperative movement assert that the cooperative business model is very adaptable and deserves to be elevated as an alternative to the mainstream business models that are highly vaunted.
As demonstrated above, the cooperative model has been used successfully for business ventures such as financial services, agricultural production, delivery of health care services, energy generation and distribution. This list is not exhaustive.
It is widely known that greed and self-interest have largely been responsible for many of the corporate debacles in the 1990s and, more recently, the financial crisis which has enveloped the global economy has also been attributed to these vices.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that profit maximization is the raison d’être of business enterprises that faithfully follow the capitalist model of business organization.    
While this approach has its benefits, it can at times lead to excessive risk-taking that can precipitate the collapse of enterprises.
When this excessive risk-taking is done by public interest entities the consequences can sometimes be disastrous, as has been the case in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
We have witnessed the socialization of massive losses by financial institutions through government bailouts and other forms of state support at the expense of the taxpayer. In the Caribbean, we are still searching for solutions to our own crises.
Cooperatives, on the other hand, have a rich philosophical heritage. Their raison d’être is service to members rather than profit maximization.
They demonstrate exemplary concern for community since they have a highly developed collective social conscience. Moreover, they promote social inclusion and economic enfranchisement.
In this International Year Of Cooperatives, no effort should be spared to promote this alternative business model and the significant contribution it can make to the further economic and social development of Barbados.