Dimensions of the International Co-operative Movement


(note: This document was prepared by the International Co-operative
Alliance for the 1995 World Summit on Social Development held in
Copenhagen, Denmark in March, 1995.)

A total of 740 million women and men are currently members of
co-operative business enterprises associated through national
federations and unions which are members of the International
Co-operative Alliance (ICA).  It is estimated that the total number
of co-operators is 800 million persons world-wide, with a further
100 million persons employed by co-operatives. Moreover, because the
co-operative enterprise has economic significance not only for
members and employees, but also for their immediate families, the
total of persons whose livelihoods are to a significant extent made
secure by co-operative enterprise approaches three billion people,
half of the world's population.

In many countries membership in all co-operatives is equivalent to a
high proportion of the adult population.  In 1994, if members of the
International Co-operative Alliance alone are included, this ratio
was between 70 and 79 per cent in Austria, Canada, Cyprus, Finland,
Israel and Uruguay.  It was 61 per cent in France, between 50 and 59
per cent in Belgium and Norway, and between 40 and 49 per cent in
Denmark, India, Japan, Malaysia, Portugal, Sri Lanka and the United
States of America.

Economically, the co-operative movement is also significant.  For
example, in 1993 co-operatives in Sweden had an aggregate annual
turnover of 20 billion ECU or 8 per cent of GNP.  In other developed
market economies co-operative shares of GNP are likely to be higher.
In the Basque region of Spain in 1989, co-operatives accounted for
15 per cent of the regional GNP.  In many developing countries which
are exporting agricultural commodities, the co-operative share of GNP
falls within 10 to 20 per cent: in Cote d'Ivoire, for example, it is
estimated at 15 per cent. 

Co-operative business enterprises operate in almost every area of
economic activity and in almost all countries are of major
significance in at least some area.  For example, in 1993 in the
European Union, Austria, Finland and Sweden 14 million agricultural
enterprises were member-owners of co-operatives which supplied 55
per cent of their inputs and marketed 60 per cent of outputs.  In
Japan marketing co-operatives handled 95 per cent of rice and 90 per
cent of fisheries output.  In India, the Anand co-operative movement
of 57,000 dairy co-operatives with its 6 million members was the
largest national dairy supplier.  Forty-three per cent of
agricultural credit in India was provided by savings and credit
co-operatives and co-operative banks, and 65 per cent of processed
sugar was of co-operative origin.  In Brazil one third of doctors are
members of the largest health co-operative in Latin America.  In 1991
retail co-operatives accounted for over half of retail food sales in
Switzerland and 34 per cent in Denmark; in 1992, co-operative banks
accounted for 17 per cent of the savings market; in 1993,
co-operative insurance enterprises accounted for 20 per cent of the
market.  At the end of 1992, members of savings and credit
co-operatives ("credit unions") made up between 35 and 45 per cent of
the adult population in Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United


Since 1950 the General Assembly of the United Nations, the highest
intergovernmental policy-making mechanism, has adopted 12 resolutions
recognising the relevance of co-operatives to achievement of the
goals of the UN, supporting their development, and calling for
partnership with the international co-operative movement.  Between
1951 and 1992 the Economic and Social Council adopted a further 13
resolutions and took 4 decisions with the same purpose.  

The Secretary-General of the UN also transmitted a series of reports
to the Assembly and Council monitoring the contribution of
co-operatives to the goals of the United Nations.  In his latest
report, transmitted to the Assembly at its forty-ninth session
(document A/49/213 of 1 July 1994) he concluded that: "co-operative
enterprises provide the organisational means whereby a significant
proportion of humanity is able to take into its own hands the tasks
of creating productive employment, overcoming poverty and achieving
social integration".  The Assembly acknowledged the timeliness of
this conclusion, and in its latest resolution, number 49/155 of 23
December 1994, recognised the "important contribution and potential
of all forms of co-operatives to the preparations and follow-up of
the World Summit" and invited it "in formulating ... strategies and
actions, to give due consideration to the role and contribution of

The Preparatory Committee for the World Summit responded to this
invitation in its final drafts of the Declaration and Programme of
Action.  In its Declaration, the Summit commits itself "to increase
significantly and/or utilise more efficiently the resources
allocated to social development".  It proposes to "utilise and
develop fully the potential and contribution of co-operatives for the
attainment of social development goals, in particular the eradication
of poverty, the generation of full and productive employment and the
enhancement of social integration".  The Programme of Action includes
5 specific proposals on the role of co-operatives and 4 proposals on
their participation in the implementation and follow-up of the


In addition to specific references to co-operatives in the draft
Declaration and Programme of Action, there are numerous references
to values and principles which correspond precisely to those long
adopted by the international co-operative movement.  It is this -
combined with the very broad dimensions of the co-operative movement
- which suggests strongly that it must continue as an essential
partner of the United Nations and other major actors in the follow-up
to the World Summit.  The draft Declaration emphasises a
"people-centred sustainable development": this already exists in the
co-operative movement, an entirely people-centred segment of the
market economy.  It comprises millions of business enterprises -
autonomous mutual-help associations of persons united voluntarily to
meet common economic and social needs - that are jointly owned and
democratically controlled by their members, who make up either their
labour-force or their users, clients or customers. 

Member-control of business enterprise, a fundamental characteristic
of co-operatives, constitutes economic empowerment - itself the
basis for political and social empowerment.  Both draft Declaration
and Programme of Action emphasise empowerment as a means to maximise
capacities, resources and opportunities so that all may become
genuine partners in sustainable development.  Empowerment achieved
through co-operative enterprise is not exploitative of others: this
characteristic results from the values held in common by all
co-operators: self-help, mutual responsibility, equality, equity,
honesty, openness and social responsibility.  The draft Programme of
Action stresses precisely the same set of values, stating that they
promote an environment in which human beings are at the centre of
concerns for sustainable development.  The regular practice of such
values by an international movement with a membership of 800 million
persons, empowered by a substantial economic base, is a matter of
the greatest relevance to the World Summit and its follow-up.

While focusing on member needs, co-operative enterprises are
concerned about the communities having the sense of responsibility to
the community in which they operate and strive for their sustainable
development.  Hence, they are vehicles for achievement of
subsidiarity and sustainability at the community level. This is so
because members, living in the community where their co-operative
operates, are mindful that its broad impact upon that community must
be positive in both the short- and longer-term, and must not negate
the advantages they expect to gain individually.  Furthermore,
because they own their co-operative, and can decide its business
policies and monitor its practices, they can ensure that the positive
impact they desire is actually achieved.  This characteristic, not
shared by other types of enterprise with which an individual can be
associated as worker, supplier or customer, is highly relevant to the
follow-up to the World Summit. 

Thus co-operatives are both economic and social in character: they
are business enterprises with a deep sense of social and
environmental responsibility.  They are testimony of the truth of
the deep conviction expressed in the draft Declaration that social
and economic development are mutually reinforcing.


The term " co-operative"  has been applied in the past to
enterprises imposed by the state upon groups of citizens, and
controlled as an integral part of the public sector.  Often their
impact upon "members" and their communities has been injurious. They
were in no way autonomous associations of persons united voluntarily
through jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises. 
Because they had no stake in their success, "members" were not
motivated to efficient participation.  Such "co-operative" systems
had nothing in common with the true purpose and character of the
international co-operative movement.  In most countries where they
existed they have been dismantled and replaced in part by genuine
co-operatives. However, they have caused some misunderstanding of
the nature and achievements of co-operative enterprise, and their
experience should be discounted in considering the relevance of the
co-operative movement to the issues before the World Summit.

This Note has been prepared for the information of participants at
the World Summit jointly by the International Co-operative Alliance
and the United Nations Department for Policy Co-ordination and
Sustainable Development. For further information contact the ICA at
15, Route des Morillons, 1218 Grand Saconnex, Geneva, Switzerland.
Tel: 41 22 798 4121 or 929 8888, Fax: 798 4122, E-mail: