Social needs, co-operative responses


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Social needs, co-operative responses

The universal declaration of human rights decrees that every person has the right to health care, education, social services and housing. These are the basic needs of individuals which demand specific responses from society. Over recent decades, however, there have been far-reaching changes in societies worldwide.

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Family structures have been radically altered, women have progressively joined the workforce, and people are frequently forced to travel far from their place of origin in order to work. This society in constant flux must still, though, continue to offer a response to the fundamental needs of people, including certain new necessities such as those connected with the environment.

Co-operatives, as an expression of the needs and aspirations of citizens, have traditionally been a natural and appropriate solution to the fulfilment of social needs. Co-operatives are in general managed by people who have some form of interest in the objective of the co-operative itself. This serves to establish beneficial synergies between the different actors involved: public authorities, users and service providers. This in turn guarantees participation in decision-making by all stakeholders, so that the responses offered are the most appropriate possible in the general interest.

The showcasing of this and other benefits offered by co-operative enterprises in general interest service provision was the priority aim of the session held on 3 November in Cape Town, within the context of the Global Conference of the International Co-operative Alliance, or ICA.

The structure was based on the 5 strategic areas of the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade: participation, sustainability, identity, legal framework and capital. A series of roundtables were held, at which co-operative experts and leaders addressed the achievements and future challenges of different examples in which co-operatives have become the channel providing citizens with access to general interest services.

The seminar, which was organised by the International Health Co-operatives Organisation (IHCO) and by the International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Co-operatives (CICOPA), began with an overall presentation of those sectors in which co-operatives are involved in the provision of general interest services. The figures which were announced were striking in their magnitude. For example, 300 million people worldwide have their health care needs met by co-operatives, while there are more than 2100 co-operative schools, and 10% of European citizens live in accommodation of co-operative origin. Such data confirm the major impact generated by co-operatives in society.


The first roundtable, moderated by journalist Peter Eneström and involving Sarah Alldred, Director of International Programmes at the Cooperative College; Teresa Basurte, President of the Espriu Foundation and Patrick Lenancker, President of the Confederation of Production Co-operatives of France, addressed the issue of participation. Co-operatives are enterprises to which their members belong, playing an active role in defining corporate strategy, management and oversight of corporate performance. It is increasingly common for the co-operatives which provide society with services to include among their members the service providers, the service users, public authorities and representatives of civil society, all of whom play an active role in the enterprise, with decision-making powers through their votes.

One shining example would be Barcelona Hospital, owned by the SCIAS co-operative and featured in the presentation given at the session by its President, Teresa Basuarte. The Barcelona-based health centre provides a successful case study thanks to the active participation in daily management by consumer members and worker members of the SCIAS co-operative, engaged shoulder to shoulder with the doctor members of the co-operative Autogestió Sanitària.
Mr Lenancker explained the energy management model implemented by the French co-operative Enercoop, which was set up as a result of the deregulation of the energy market in France. It is characterised by the involvement in the project of different actors with potentially opposing interests (producers, consumers, associations, authorities and employees), and is governed by a democratic model based on the “one person, one vote” principle.

Intercooperation, environment and sustainability

The President of Unimed Brasil, Eudes Aquino, who shared the table with the CEO of the Espriu Foundation, José Carlos Guisado, and with the President of the Italian Mestieri Consortium, Mauro Ponzi, declared the importance of networking and the shaping of horizontal strategies for collaboration among medical co-operatives in allowing the development of the Unimed group, which is today the most popular non-public health option in Brazil on the part of both doctors and patients, and is considered the largest co-operative health care group in the world.

José Carlos Guisado emphasised how the Espriu Foundation has developed from the original vision of its founder, a network of health care co-operatives extending across Spain, adapting to different regional nuances and consolidating its position as a leading player in the sector after more than 50 years in operation.

Mauro Ponzi recounted the example of Consorzio SIS, founded in Milan in 1995 and today grouping together 30 co-operatives delivering social services providing third-age and disabled care, child care, the integration of vulnerable individuals within the labour market, and administration of social housing.

One of the innovative aspects incorporated by co-operatives and supporting their sustainability is a commitment to the social and environmental development of the local region. Co-operatives do not relocate, but are rooted in the local community and are managed by local agents who are in the best position to respond to local needs. Rebecca Campbell, President of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives, presented the example of the Evergreen co-operative, founded in 2007 in Cleveland, Ohio, by the city council, the university and a number of local organisations. This American co-operative has created an innovative model for the creation of employment, wealth and sustainability based on ecological activities. The enterprise, which is owned by its workers, provides a decent salary to residents in depressed areas of the city, supporting social inclusion in the development of the local economy.

Financial instruments and public policy

Another of the key aspects affecting the functioning of co-operatives providing general interest services is financial management and the implications of the legal framework within which they perform their operations. In this regard Pedro Razquin, financial adviser of ASISA, a co-operatively owned enterprise providing health services, explained how, through the reinvestment of surpluses and efficient resource management, over recent years the organisation has consolidated its asset position and increased its worth by a percentage three times greater than the results obtained, placing it in a position which will allow it to embark in the near future on new investments in infrastructure, technology and patient care.

Adriano Soares recounted why Brazil’s Unimed co-operatives need short- and long-term financial availability in order to guarantee the health services delivered to users. He explained that they employed for this purpose financial resources offering immediate short-term liquidity, along with long-term capital reserves which deduct between 3% and 4% from annual results.

Co-operative identity, a tool for social integration

One key element of co-operatives involved in delivering services to society is their sense of identity, above all in the case of co-operatives involved in the reintegration of vulnerable people into the labour market. By becoming involved in a co-operative, members are able to reassert their own social identity. That is vital in order for marginalised individuals to resume a full role in society. As demonstrated by the examples presented by Jose Orbaiceta of the Federation of Worker Co-operatives in Argentina. The Elefante Negro and Kbrones co-operatives have been set up by prison inmates, performing their work while they serve their sentences. Elefante Negro is a textile co-operative in the province of Corrientes with 25 inmate workers and 10 worker members, 2 of whom are subject to court orders restricting their civil liberties. The inmates see the co-operative as their own, and feel socially respected while also acquiring economic independence and the job skills which will allow them to face the future without the risk of slipping back into a life of crime.

Toshinori Ozeki, Vice-President of the Japanese Federation of Health and Welfare Co-operatives, spoke of how co-operatives create health amenities and organise campaigns to promote health risk prevention and publicise healthy lifestyles. Mr Ozeki likewise emphasised the cohesive element of co-operatives, which above all comes to the fore in the event of such natural disasters and catastrophes as seen following the earthquake which affected north-eastern Japan in March 2011.
The seminar involve more than 200 people, including economist Paul Singer, the Secretary of State for the Social Economy in Brazil, and Roberto Rodrigues, the former Brazilian minister and former President of the International Co-operative Alliance. Mr Singer emphasised that “co-operatives serve not only to resolve society’s problems, but also to increase social participation”.

The President of the IHCO, José Carlos Guisado, and the President of the CICOPA, Manuel Mariscal, brought the session to a close, both of them conveying the message that co-operatives bring together different types of member: doctors and patients, teachers and students, social workers and beneficiaries, forming a vital element in the solution of social needs.

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