Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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The role of co-operatives for development in Africa

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Developments magazine, 2005

Not before time, the development needs of the African continent are beginning to engage the attention of the West. The Commission for Africa, chaired by the Prime Minister, has been set up, in its own words, to “generate ideas and actions for a strong and prosperous Africa” partly with the G8 summit in Britain later this year in mind. The Commission for Africa builds on other recent developments, including the creation by African states of the African Union (AU) and of the New Partnership for Africa 's Development, NEPAD.

Though both the destructive legacy of colonialism and common humanity should suggest that the West has ample reason to offer its practical solidarity, there is unfortunately no guarantee that the needs of the poor in Africa will win out at the rarefied level of international politics. At the grass roots, however, Africans are taking action for themselves, and co-operatives are playing a very important role in this process.

Take Kenya, for example. As a whole, the co-operative sector in the country has a membership of about 5.9 million people in a total population of thirty million. But the membership figure is misleading, since the influence of co-ops is much broader. From the large Co-operative Bank of Kenya and the Co-operative Insurance Company of Kenya to the agricultural co-ops and the many small Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisations (or SACCOs), Kenyan co-ops directly affect the living standards of about 63% of the population.

Mrs Esther Gicheru, the Principal of the Co-operative College of Kenya, is well-placed to understand the important role co-ops can play. Her own College occupies a campus to the south-west of Nairobi city centre where it puts on a range of residential courses (including high-level diploma courses) for managers of agricultural co-ops and SACCOs. The College, originally a government institution which has now achieved much practical autonomy, works closely with similar co-op colleges in several other southern African states.

Esther Gicheru, who has played an important role in the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) for many years (including most recently as a member of the ICA 's world Board) is clear about the potential of co-ops. “For the poor in Africa , co-operatives can provide a much needed opportunity for self-determination and empowerment,” she says. There's a need, she says, for co-op members to be able to enter a genuine partnership with the state.

This is important, not least because originally co-ops were established, in Kenya and elsewhere, in a top-down fashion which left them burdened with a range of duties unrelated to members' own needs. “Members considered co-operatives as extensions of government services that did not represent their interests. All important management decisions were taken by civil servants,” she explains.

Recent policies emanating from the World Bank and IMF in Washington have overseen the dismantling of previously State-run public services and a new stress on the private sector, a process which has led in many developing countries to unemployment and economic distress but ironically has also offered a new opportunity to develop more accountable models of co-operation. This is the case, for example, in the growing informal economy, where many work for their living unprotected by employment safeguards and controls. Esther Gicheru points to the example of the group of women in Rwanda who, following the death of their husbands in the Rwandan genocide, have had to survive by collecting and recycling rubbish from household bins and rubbish tips. They have created their own self-help organisation AMIZERO, which is receiving support (from an International Labour Organization funded project) through joint action between co-op bodies and trade unions. “Dealing with waste is hazardous, so the project is working on effective training and the use of protective gear,” Esther Gicheru says. It's a concrete example of the how collective self-help can offer real benefits to people who, individually, are economically vulnerable.

Women tend to be over-represented in the informal economy and, as Esther Gicheru points out, co-ops have a particularly valuable role to play in working for the empowerment of women. “Reality has demonstrated the value of women managers and the key role women members play in the activities of co-operatives. It is time to do more to promote women to leadership positions in co-operatives. Gender equality is key to strengthening co-operatives,” she says.

Gender equality and the promotion of co-ops in the informal economy are two strands of a new co-op strategic plan for Africa developed by African members of the ICA and launched at a regional assembly held last November in Cape Verde . This plan also emphases the role of co-ops in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the promotion of good governance within co-ops and the development of inter-co-operative exchange. The main targets are village groups, small agricultural producers, women, young people, craftsmen, savers and consumers – all likely to be people on modest incomes. One task in each country is to ensure that the place of co-ops is adequately recognised in the ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers' (PRSPs) which developing countries are currently being encouraged to develop.

Esther Gicheru knows from her work in the ICA the breadth of the co-op movement internationally and she echoes Juan Somavia, director-general of the International Labour Organization, who has called for co-ops in the West to enter into partnerships and twinning relationships with co-ops in developing countries. Co-operation between co-operatives is in any case one of the seven key co-op principles established by the ICA, as Esther Gicheru points out, and effective coop-to-coop links could create an enormously powerful global business network. Practical partnerships of this kind could do a lot, she believes, to help meet the UN Millennium Development Goals of tackling extreme poverty.

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