Co-ops united

Last updated: 01/11/2012



Co-ops are United


The Co-op movement has just staged its own international jamboree. Simon Birch reports.

A world class tour de force!” “Fantastic!” And “Inspirational!” These were just a few of the overwhelmingly positive comments from visitors to the recent Co-operatives United event that was held in early November in Manchester.

A mash-up of conferences, exhibitions and fringe festival, Co-ops United was one of the biggest ever international gatherings of global co-operative organisations and was held to mark the close of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives.

Over the course of the five day event 88 countries from every corner of the world were represented with 171 individual co-ops exhibiting their businesses which included everything from Malaysian tour guides and Canadian bankers to Ghanaian cocoa growers and Brazilian wine producers.

Almost 12,000 visitors braved Manchester’s legendary leaden skies to hear how the global co-op economy offers the opportunity to build a more ethical and resilient global economy. Those who attended the event were left in no doubt that the co-operative movement now has its sights set firmly on being a major global player.

“We want to see co-operatives rise to the top of global business as the fastest growing business model by 2020,” said Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance, the trade body representing co-ops from around the world.

“Our strategy is for the co-operative model to become the acknowledged leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability and therefore the model preferred by people. And as a result of this to become the fastest growing form of enterprise.”


Global importance of co-ops

Research published during the event confirmed the rise of the global importance of co-ops. With the top 300 co-operative and mutual enterprises having a turnover of just under $2 trillion, the global co-operative sector now comprises 1.4 million business across the world and has one billion members.

Despite this, Dame Pauline expressed frustration that the importance of the co-op economy has yet to be recognised by the leaders of the global economy, a point which was brought home by the absence of any Government minister at the event’s opening ceremony.

Walking around the cavernous exhibition hall that housed the event, what was clearly heard though was the importance of co-ops to many people around the world.

“Without co-ops our rural economy would be really struggling,” said Nimrod Wambette, chair of the Ugandan Co-operative Alliance which represents two million small-scale farmers. What was also remarkable about the event was that here in the UK it’s often all  too easy to think of the co-op movement as merely being a small-time player in the national economy.


Growing force

However chatting to exhibitors you really did get the sense that just as Dame Pauline outlined, co-ops are now a growing global economic force. This was brought home by the fact that two of the biggest exhibition stands were those from the emerging economic super-powers of Brazil and China, with Chinese co-ops alone now having over eight million members. The other eye-opening aspect of Co-ops United was appreciating just how global the co-op movement now is.

Occupying a stand next to Welsh Co-operatives and opposite that of the Central Co-operative of Bulgaria was one of the more unexpected exhibitors. “The co-operative sector in Iran is now worth $18 billion,” said Abolhassan Khalili Managing Director of Farda, the Iran Oilseeds & Vegetable Oil Processing Co-op.

Whilst labelled by hawkish western governments as one of the world’s most notorious pariah states, Iran is also home to a vast co-operative sector and currently has 180,000 registered co-ops with a combined membership of over 25 million members.

Closing a thoroughly inspirational event, Klaus Niederländer, Director of Co-operatives Europe, said that co-ops are a badly needed alternative to the austerity policies that are currently crippling the crisis-hit economies of Greece and southern Europe.

“Co-ops aren’t going to solve all the problems in the Greek economy of course,” said Niederländer, “but there is a great deal of evidence that points towards the co-operative enterprise business model as being of great benefit to the long-term recovery of the Greek economy.


At the event we also awarded our essay prize on co-operative alternatives to capitalism.