Co-operatives and Peace

 

Co-operatives were not intended as a tool to promote peace or reduce conflict, but in a world where international development is often taking place against a backdrop of conflict, or in post-conflict environments, co-operatives have proven to be a remarkably effective tool in promoting peace. In thinking about this, a couple of simple truths emerge. First – poverty and conflict are inextricably linked. Conflict often starts because of poverty, and conflict inevitably causes poverty. Co-operative development is all about finding long term solutions to poverty and that process, intentionally or unintentionally, reduces the frictions that cause conflict.

The second truth is that where people find a new common purpose, where they work together for the benefit of all, the tensions that linger long after a conflict ends are reduced. Conflict comes in many forms and under many guises – war between nations, war within nations, sectoral or religious strife within societies, and the insidious conflict that gender and other inequalities create within communities and families. In the words of Historian Ian MacPherson, “Human Beings have always been buffeted by conflict, the all-too-frequent extension of unrestrained competition.”

In his view this leads to “inequality, discrimination, oppression, and the dark consequences of these behaviours – poverty, deprivation, underemployment and unemployment, despair and death.” Conversely, the values that define and drive co-operatives and co-operation work in direct opposition to those “dark consequences” through a focus on the fair and equitable utilization and distribution of resources, a focused realization of human potential through collective action and mutual support.

For many co-operative leaders around the world, the idea that co-operatives and co-operation can be specifically used as tools in building and maintaining peace is still a relatively new idea. Most co-operatives are created for the practical purpose of generating income and improving livelihoods for their members. Yet there are many examples where co-operatives, through accident or design, have proven to be highly effective at all stages of conflict amelioration – from prevention, through to reduction of outright conflict, to the peace making and maintenance phase. Not surprisingly, this success has resulted in an increase in co-operatives as tools for peace. There are many examples to choose from.

In the Israel-Palestinian conflict – perhaps the most intractable on the planet-- co-operatives offer a glimmer of hope. For many years, Israeli co-operators have supported the Palestinian movement through training and market access. A recent example is a joint marketing venture called Co-operative Produce for Peace. Yhuda Paz, the Chairman of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, has promoted co-operatives as a tool for peace in the region for decades.

In Aceh, following 30 years of civil war, co-operatives were one of the first, and most successful, tools used to bring fractured communities together. It wasn’t a fast process. First, a co-operative community radio station was created with support from the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) to open dialogue within the communities. At the same time, small agriculture or production groups were formed, eventually emerging as true co-operatives supported by a second-tier marking co-operative.

In northern Ghana, where a simmering land dispute would sporadically erupt into violence, the creation of a mutual agricultural co-operative finally brought peace bringing people together to work toward a new set of common, economic objectives.

In El Salvador, following that civil war, the thorny issue of agrarian reform was managed by redistributing land through co-operatives. And in Colombia, a country buffeted by political and narcotics related violence, co-operatives are helping farmers move away from conflict-prone coca production to other legal crops.

It would be misleading to suggest that co-operatives offer a solution to every conflict, but where groups in conflict share a common goal that can be best reached together, the co-operative model offers a set of guideposts that help to change the focus from the wrongs of the past to the possibilities of a peaceful future.

 

By: John Julian (revised from his Huffington Post article, 2012).

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