Co-ops and public health

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CETS was delighted to play host to a one-day event held in Scottish Enterprise’s HQ in Haymarket, Edinburgh on the 8 May 2012. A small group of co-operators discussed emerging research linking co-operatives, in particular those that are employee-owned, with wider public benefits, especially in relation to health. The aim of the event, besides being a useful networking opportunity for individuals geographically distant, was to produce a consensus on the role co-ops can play in providing public benefit.

Firstly, employee ownership expert David Erdal discussed his pioneering research in the Emilia Romagna region of central Italy. Selecting three towns in the region – each with different levels of the population working in employee-owned businesses – David analysed a number of different social metrics, looking for an association between worker ownership and public benefit.

Next to present were two academics from Mondragón University, who are concluding a study based on David Erdal’s original research. Examining the link between worker ownership and public health benefits in the Basque region of Northern Spain, the researchers have found a positive correlation between worker ownership and public health.

Finally, Virginie Perotín from the University of Leeds presented the findings of her report into the size, benefits and sustainability of worker-owned businesses throughout the world. Virginie’s research provides the economic business base for worker ownership, giving it a robust platform in the public benefit discourse.

This summary does not do justice to the depth and breadth of each of the research findings presented at the event but the main point to highlight is enormous opportunity for co-ops to play a larger role in the achievement of public benefit, in particular the impact on public finances and health. The next stage of this initiative is to make policy-makers and politicians aware of the role of co-ops in delivering public benefit.

Some of the presentations from the event can be accessed at: http://s.coop/lknx

Co-operative capitalism; Cultural Nationalism and Scraggie Aggie’s Co-op Baggie!

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I decided to take the advice of my peers and get out a bit more.  In the past few weeks I have been to a variety of events, some co-op and some general public policy.  However, it was in my more natural repose, on the couch with the remote control and a glass, that the inspiration for this blog arrived.  I was surfing and came upon “Val and Roger just Got In”.  It transpired that Roger had just got in from winning his job back at an Industrial Tribunal and Val suggested a holiday to recuperate but “….. not to the Scottish Islands.  I want to go somewhere where they have restaurants and not just a co-op”.  I regarded this as a nice little piece of observational humour and a pat on the back for the Community Retailing Network CRN in supporting isolated communities.   (I have subsequently been informed that Dawn French (Val) is a supporter of things co-operative and the mention of an off screen character called Pauline Green did make me wonder).   Many of the community co-op members of CRN have been operating for over 30 years and one of them featured in the BBC Series “An Island Parish” (Eriskay, if memory serves) along with local character Scraggie Aggie who has featured with her green Co-op Food “Bag for Life” scavenging for crustaceans at low tide and delivering a hand knitted pullover to the parish priest.  I have previously blogged about coops being referenced in contemporary literature and film but it is heartening to see it continue in the UN International Year of the Co-operative.  There is even a film being made about the Rochdale Pioneers (talk about history repeating itself, not only did Fenwick beat them to title of first ever co-op but also produced their own short drama piece on DVD last year!).  It appears that co-ops are becoming part of the message.

So if we are making some headway in raising awareness of co-operation amongst the general populace can we expect to make the leap to “Co-operative Capitalism”   I can see the general concept gaining credence as a response to “Big Society” (or “co-operation for slow learners” as suggested by Dave Scott) but it implies that we are part of the existing system rather than an alternative, an acceptable face of how to compete ethically within markets.  In terms of the co-operative business model that is fine but, in my limited reading on the subject so far, it doesn’t really get to grips with co-operation as a social movement, with co-operation as a value system or a different way of organising society.  As a trained economist my main concern would be that it doesn’t really tackle the neo-classical model of rational economic man.  There is a growing school of behavioural economics and others who are making the point that co-operation is just as, if not more, natural than competition.  I am delighted to confirm that we have Dr Matt Bell – the Meerkat Man – speaking on this very topic at two IYOC events this year (Aberdeen in may and New Lanark in June).

Finally, I was at a discussion on the need for a constitution for Scotland (in the event that there was a vote for independence?).  I made the point that the Co-operative movement has more constitutions, more discussions on constitutions and more experience in this field than anybody else.  I also argued that when you need to fall back on written constitutions it generally means the culture has broken down.  At their most basic co-operatives only work when there is mutual self interest, a common objective which is not achievable individually but is collectively – the Co-operative Donkeys.  So I have to confess the design of a constitution for an independent Scotland when there is no visible support for the latter does seem an inefficient use of our scarce time.  However, it did set me thinking that independence/devo max wouldn’t really change much in terms of business models in the Global economy.  MacDonalds, Vodafone, Shell, HSBC et al would still sell their services in an independent Scotland.  Most of the profit would still be exported.  So the UK wide co-operatives, mutuals and employee owned businesses would still continue with some minor restructuring in recognition of different tax regimes.  Who knows, it might even end up be beneficial for the Co-op Group to re-locate from Manchester to Fenwick for favourable tax treatment!

Fairly hypothetical, especially if one debates the independence issue solely from an economics perspective.  If one considers the concept of cultural nationalism however the party loyalties and economics tend to get lost and that does take us into the unknown.  The economists might deride this as emotional and irrational.  Maybe but that takes us back to simply accepting that we only make decisions based on perceived economic  outcomes.  I suspect there is a huge middle ground as yet undecided on independence or devo max or whether to make that decision on social, cultural or economic grounds or some combination thereof

The First Minister is known as a betting man but at this stage I would be as likely to correctly guess the contents of Scraggie Aggie’s Co-op Baggie in any future series of “An Island Parish” as the outcome of a referendum.  And I don’t see the First Minister putting his shirt on a runner he isn’t convinced will win.

Co-operation without co-operatives: recent examples

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Author: Diarmuid

Recent events and initiatives in the media, governmental and educational spheres have highlighted a growing trend of co-operation without co-operatives i.e. people coming together to achieve something they couldn’t indivdually.

Groupon
Touted as one of the fastest growing companies in history, Groupon is a online discount merchant that secures deals with local businesses to enable consumers to bulk purchase goods and services. Groupon has revolutionised how local communities purchase goods and services on a daily basis.

Mydata
Ed Davey, the consumer minister, has recently announced the government’s intention to release data on consumers, companies and prices online to “encourage collective purchasing, and increase support for vulnerable customers.”

Moodle
Moodle is a learning managament system/virtual learning environment/course management system; whatever it’s called, it has a co-operative pedagogy at its core. Moodle is used to deliver courses online and is based on social constructionism theory. In essence, this theory believes that people learn best by working in groups and teaching each other in a social setting.

What do these examples highlight and what is their relevance to co-operatives?

Well it is clear from each initiative that co-operation is and will be a key feature in the success of each initiative. We can clearly see that the government is keen for people to have (as close to as possible) perfect information, a key concept in economics, to empower consumers to solve their own energy, telecoms and food issues. A quick look at the government’s ‘community partners‘, the people who will assist in the delivery of this initiative, one doesn’t find any mention of co-operatives. Consumers coming together to improve their lives through collective and bulk purchasing of goods and services: if it looks like a co-op, feels like a co-op….

We might be biased but surely the issue here is education.  Why do people use Groupon to secure bulk orders if they can just as easily and more profitably achieve the same outcome through a co-operative enterprise? Why would Moodle adopt a social constructionist pedagogy if the concept of co-operative learning already exists? And why would the government seek to empower vulnerable consumers to collectively purchase key services through any other form of enterpise but a co-operative, especially in light of their Big Society agenda?

Each of the three examples discussed here are successful, idealogically sound and important initiatives. However, one cannot help but feel that each initiative has reinvented the wheel so to speak. Rather than look at these examples as missed opportunities, the co-operative movement should realise the fountain of co-operation unfolding before our eyes and both support and nurture it to achieve so much more through the structure of a co-operative enterprise.