Today is the United Nations International Day of Cooperatives and the world body in a statement says at a time when income inequality is rising around the world, it is good to be reminded that solutions to inequality do exist. The cooperative model is foremost among these solutions, since it contains aspects of sustainable development at its core and is based on ethical values and principles.
Since 1995 the UN and the International Cooperative Alliance have been setting the theme for the celebration of Coops Day through the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC), a multi-stakeholder partnership of global, public and private institutions. This movement champions and supports people-centred and self-sustaining cooperative enterprises as leaders in sustainable development.
The UN says the event underscores the contributions of the cooperative movement to resolving the major problems and to strengthening and extending the partnerships between the international cooperative movement and other actors. The 2019 theme is ‘Coops 4 Decent Work’. Regarding today’s high unemployment levels, particularly among the youth, increased job insecurity and widening inequalities, the 2019 Coops Day theme will be linked to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 8 -- ‘Inclusive development and decent work’.
Cooperatives, as people-centred enterprises and key development actors, have a strong role to play in creating decent jobs and empowering economically and socially backward local communities.
According to the UN, the principle No.2 is democratic member-control which enables communities to own and control cooperatives in a common and democratic fashion constituting the path to inclusive and sustainable growth, leaving no one behind.
According to a recent estimate, around the world cooperatives employ or are the main source of income for more than 279 million people. Beyond these numbers, different studies have confirmed that, by comparison with employment in other sectors, cooperative jobs tend to be more sustainable over time, show a smaller gap in earnings between higher and lower-paid positions, and are more evenly distributed between rural and urban areas.
It was with such high values and principles in mind that the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike government revived the cooperative movement in Sri Lanka soon after it came to office in 1956. The cooperative movement had been in existence for decades but it was the Bandaranaike government that provided significant benefits especially to low income or poor people. For more than two decades thousands of cooperative stores were setup in all parts of the country coordinated by the Cooperative Wholesale Establishments (CWE). For instance, if the price of rice in the open market was 50 cents a measure, the cooperative stores sold rice at 25 cents a measure and each family had a rice ration book which contained coupons for each member of the family to get two measures of rice a week at the subsidised rate.
Wheat flour and other items such as dhal, dried fish and condiments were available at cooperative stores at half the price charged by nearby grocery stores.
In 1966, United National Party Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s national unity government said it was economically difficult to provide two measures of rice at a heavily subsidised rate. Instead he introduced a scheme to provide one measure of rice free of charge for each member of a family every week. But the then Sri Lanka Freedom Party opposition leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike carried out a vigorous campaign against the reduction of the rice ration. It became a major issue at the 1970 elections with Ms. Bandaranaike taking rice to the skies by making the infamous promise to even get rice from the moon. On these and other issues Ms. Bandaranaike swept to a landslide victory at the 1970 elections and formed a United Front government with the LSSP and the CP.
But queues and quotas, scarcities, scandals and major policy issues led to a split in the government and in 1977 UNP leader J.R. Jayewardene won an historic 5/6th majority in Parliament. The new government also swallowed wholesale the globalised, capitalist market economic system which virtually swallowed up the cooperative stores and movement though the CWE is still functioning.
With economic problems contributing to the instability of the current government, the cooperative movement’s revival with the setting up of thousands of cooperative stores could be an important way to reduce income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor and be a major step towards building a just and fair society.