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What is Co-operative Development?

Co-operative development is a practice of problem-solving in a community based on the seven international co-operative principles. The principles identify problems, highlight potential solutions and indicate measurable outcomes as follows:

Principle: Problems: Solutions: Outcomes:
1. Open membership Powerlessness and social exclusion Inclusivity and diversity Growing, diverse membership
2. One member, one vote Manipulation and domination Active listening and accountability Rate of member participation
3. Common wealth Poverty and inequality Realistic business planning Asset value, interest cover and reserves
4. Autonomy Centralised control, alienation Subsidiarity and local empowerment Number of local co-ops and secondary co-ops
5. Education Deskilling and privileged knowledge Investment in capabilities Hours in training and qualifications
6. Mutual aid Isolation and marginalisation Intertrading, support and federalisation Number and scale of links within the movement
7. Sustainable development Ecological collapse Permaculture and networking Resource intensity, cultural output and biodiversity

Co-operative development is carried out by individual professionals, co-operative development bodies (CDBs) and volunteers (‘barefoot’ co-op development). It is new (emerging in the 1970s) though with much older roots. Being poorly defined, it draws on other, better established disciplines, but with key distinctions:

  • It differs from business consultancy, in that the client is a community (a ‘client system’ – see below).
  • It differs from regeneration and development in its focus on ownership and control.
  • It differs from public service delivery in assuming a position of solidarity and fellowship with the service users.
  • It differs from the voluntary sector in that it is centred on trade and commerce, goods and services.
  • It differs from ‘classical’ community organising in that it seeks to empower teams rather then mobilise mass protests (this group work is sometimes known as ‘mezzo community practice’).
  • It differs from accountancy in that it is about future potential more than economic history.
  • It differs from project management in that it is open to environmental influence and feedback.

Identifying a community is crucial for co-op development. Firstly, in accordance with co-op principles, the practice should be accountable to, and directed by, that community. For some CDBs, that implies a membership open to persons from that community willing to take up the responsibility of supporting co-operatives; for others it implies a membership of service users – in other words the co-operatives themselves forming a ‘secondary co-operative’. These can be combined, in a ‘multistakeholder’ governance structure.

Secondly, community matters because ‘development’ will mean new transactions, new members and new forms of participation, and so the beneficiaries of the process are not (all) present at the outset. Rather than measuring existing economic demand, or responding to the needs of a fully constituted client, the development worker must work with agents in a community that have unmet needs, complex problems or unrealised goals, and as-yet unconnected resources in the community that might contribute to unlocking solutions. So:

  1. first the community (which might be geographical, or might be based on values, an area of work or on shared interests) needs to be identified,
  2. its capabilities, resources and opportunities understood (which may include one or more ‘co-op entrepreneurs’ ready to initiate a project)
  3. then the needs and wider interests of that community have to be diagnosed (for example, as failures of co-op principles – the problems listed above)
  4. out of this understanding emerges a ‘client system’ which has at its heart a co-op development opportunity.

Co-op development favours ‘cybernetic’ analysis, in which processes and participants are understood to form circuits that are capable of feedback, self-stabilisation and autonomous growth. Systems diagrams can be used to analyse at least three types of connection – resource flows, amplification, and flows of information and influence. A client system is best analysed using the latter method, meaning that the nodes in the community represent different functions, stakeholders or agencies, and the linkages show how they serve and influence each other. Where a circuit is identifiable, it indicates capacity for self-organisation and collective action.

So the task of the CDW is to make links and connections between these people, agencies, resources and techniques to establish a new body: a co-operative that adds value to the community. The CD practice is sustained by taking a share of that value for further work.

Arguably, there are four basic techniques in co-operative development:

  • modelling: forecasts and simulations showing how better outcomes could result from co-operation.
  • analysis: comparing sets of data to extract useful information on which to base actions. r
  • relationships: establishing positive experiences of trust (competence trust, trust in aligned values, and integrity trust), reciprocity, a shared discourse and framing, conviviality and common purpose.
  • argument: building robust claims about cause and effect, feedback and change, based on verifiable evidence and valid reasoning.

We combine these in different ways to help the co-op progress. So, a business plan might combine models and arguments to map out a way forward and reassure investors; a facilitated meeting will build relationships between participants; a presentation to a local authority might rely on an analysis of local problems backed up by the relationship the elected members have with a local community activist.

But they are all really the same thing: therapy. Co-operation for the benefit of the community is natural in human beings and doesn’t have to be taught or imposed. However, a compassionate view shows that trauma, insecurity, power structures and self-justifying ideologies have disrupted natural solidarity and triggered equally natural defence mechanisms that – in a modern context – are dysfunctional. Co-op development workers are healers, restoring the bottom-up, collective power that is our birthright.

We use distinct approaches to each in order to maximize the value added to the community: analysis uses creative commons to circulate knowledge to where it can be utilised, models rely on sustainable development rather than just need or demand; relationships are transparent and trust-based; and arguments are based on critical realism which derives knowledge from cases and experiences as well as statistics, in order to avoid the pitfalls of reductionist materialism and holistic equilibrium.

So the measurement of co-op development is: have we added value? This can be found on balance sheets and in forecast profits, but also in social capital, natural capital, and organisational capital. It is significant that the value exists specifically within the co-op movement, because there are deeper questions: who owns this value? How will it be further enhanced and re-invested in future? Does it benefit those that are presently most vulnerable or in need? Can it contribute to a process of social change, rather than merely stabilising an unjustifiable power structure?

When the functional units of human society (politics, economy, regulation, technology, culture) are characterised by the values and practices of top-down power, each instance of domination in one unit will favour and reinforce domination in the others. A persistent pattern emerges that becomes so ubiquitous in daily life that it is hard to imagine other ways of doing things – even ways that are natural and instinctive. This hegemony of unsustainable and inequitable growth is now not just a burden on humanity, but in the worst-case scenario a threat to our continued survival.

However, it is equally the case that similar self-reinforcing systems operating across all five of those social functions can be established on the basis of bottom-up, mutualistic power: a co-operative commonwealth. It is the creation of these change resources, and a movement that can make connections between them to form a self sustaining system, that is arguably the ultimate goal of co-operative development.