Co-ops & Human Sustainable Development: The Americas

 This document has been made available in electronic format
      by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA


                    REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE
                        THE AMERICAS

1.   Background

The Americas region is made up of 48 countries and 600 million
people. Its combined internal net product is 7 trillion U.S.

The main feature of the region is its diversity.  It has two of
the richest countries in the world: Canada, which occupies the
first position in the world's human development register; and the
United States, which is eighth.  But there is also another
extreme: Haiti, occupying the 137th position, and Honduras in
number 115, with an extremely low level of development, and in
the middle a mixture of developing countries with very large

Unlike the growth and development which is reported in the two
industrialised countries, Canada and the United States, the
economic and social development of Latin America has been
affected during the last 30 years by a clear process of
deterioration, which was accentuated during the 1980s, known as
the "lost decade".

The energy crisis in the middle of the 1970s, the external debt
burden of the economies during the 80s, the programmes of
structural adjustment and stabilisation advocated by the
international financial agencies, the processes of commercial
opening and economic liberalisation resulting from new economic
concepts - all have characterised the economic situation in Latin

As is well known, there were also important advances during this
same period, with the help of international assistance, in social
indicators such as life expectancy, which increased by 16 years;
infant mortality, which dropped from 157 per 1,000 to 72; levels
of per capita nutrition, which rose by 20 percent; and the level
of literacy, which increased by 40 percent.  Nevertheless, in
general terms, today's social indicators show that more than a
quarter of the population does not have access to a minimum
revenue, to the means of satisfying basic needs, or to decent
social services.

That is why, in addition to diversity, a dominant characteristic
of the region is inequality.  Economic, political, and social
inequality are decreasing the opportunities and capacities of
present and future generations to take advantage of the benefits
of development.

In Brazil, for example, the wealthiest 20 percent of the
population earns 26 times more than the poorest 20 percent.  In
Peru the poorest 40 percent of the population receives barely 13
percent of the national income (compared with 21 percent in
Morocco, 20 percent in India, and 23 percent in Indonesia).  In
Chile, between 1970 and 1988, the real income of the poorest 20
percent dropped by 3 percent, while the richest 20 percent
increased their real income by 10 percent.

In Haiti, Peru and Bolivia, 65 to 85 percent of natural deaths
are linked to poverty.  In Guatemala and Honduras, 80 percent of
the population is in a state of poverty; in El Salvador 67
percent.  Costa Rica, with a system of social security, has a
poverty level of 25 percent.

In the United States unemployment reached 7.4 percent in 1992,
its highest level in many decades.  In this same year Canada's
unemployment rate reached 11.3 percent, its highest level in nine

These trends, which developed throughout the "lost decade" of the
1980s, came into abrupt contact with the drastic programmes of
structural adjustment, especially in the beginning of the 90s,
which produced interesting examples of economic growth within
many countries. Inflation and hyper-inflation were brought under
complete control; the opening of markets and search for
international opportunities and increased productivity dynamised
the export and financial sectors.  These first results encouraged
the concentration of resources in certain sectors of production,
with the hope of a sustained economic growth.

However, reality is showing that long-term economic growth is not
possible without a social dimension.  Sustainable development is
an integral concept which should be the goal of all societies in
order to benefit all its members.  Without social reform,
economic reform will inevitably be unstable.

2.   Sustainable Development and Co-operatives

This leads us to the concept of sustainable development,
advocated at the Rio Summit in June 1992, which is development
that is for and of the people.  This new concept regards economic
growth as a means and not as an end.  It protects the
opportunities of present as well as future generations, and
respects the natural systems upon which human beings depend.  

Co-operators could well say that they have been devoted to this
concept for more than 100 years.  The link between co-operation
and sustainable human development is evident when co-operatives
act as economic agents and as social agents, when they promote
women's participation, when they develop new technologies and
means of production, when they give consumers access to quality
products at reasonable prices.  When co-operatives promote levels
of productivity and efficiency, when they seek to increase the
potential of their members, and above all when they become an
effective mechanism to promote equality and reduce poverty,
giving opportunities for all, they become true agents of
sustainable human development.

Having dealt with the what and the why of the issue, we must now
deal with the question of how do co-operatives contribute to
bringing about sustainable human development.

In their daily activities, distributing benefits to and
increasing the resources of groups of people with low levels of
income, without discrimination of any kind, co-operatives promote
a growing equality in the 48 countries and territories of the
continent.  Hundreds of thousands of co-operatives have been
formed in the Americas in order to develop rural sectors, as in
the case of rural electrification co-operatives in the United
States, which in 1994 benefited 32 million people; co-operatives
of agrarian reform in El Salvador, Peru, and also Costa Rica,
which involve large sectors of people who would otherwise be
economically and socially excluded.

In many countries of the continent, including the U.S. and
Canada, co-operatives have played a fundamental role in providing
goods and services in both rural and urban sectors.  In the
fields of electricity, housing, consumer, and transport, and more
recently and with great success in health, co-operatives have
made great efforts to maintain levels of competitiveness that
allow them to continue serving their members.  

Co-operatives have been the means by which small farmers in
Brazil, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic,
Mexico, Canada, and the United States have been able to obtain
the land and water, as well as the credit and technology,
necessary for agricultural production.  

An important element in the search for sustainable development
in the Americas has been the capacity of co-operative
organisations to bring about social integration.  The
co-operative model is best known for its work at the local level,
but its regional, sub-regional, and continental activities are
becoming increasingly important.  Continental networks are now
active in the sectors of banking, insurance, and production, and
are beginning in the fields of agriculture, consumer, health, and

In this era of globalisation, co-operatives in all sectors and
all countries of the region are engaged in a quest for
competitive strength in order to maintain their markets and the
services they offer to their members.  The ICA's own programme
of 'reconversion' is designed to help co-operatives develop an
international capacity of high quality, based on the necessary
human, financial, and technological resources.

It is also important to emphasise the recognised ability of
co-operatives in the continent to increase the contribution of
women to political, economic, and social development.  It is now
well-demonstrated that everyone benefits when gender is
incorporated into planning, language, management, and even

As well, co-operatives throughout the continent are directly
involved in their respective sectors in the conservation of
natural resources in general, and especially with respect to food
resources, energy resources, and recreation.  In general
co-operatives function as support systems for the rational use
and rehabilitation of all these systems.  Every day there are
more and more co-operative projects based on clean technologies,
treatment of waste products, and reduction of all kinds of

Throughout the Americas region co-operatives are contributing to
the realisation of the concept of sustainable human development
by establishing schools for democratic participation. 
Co-operatives often enable their members to function as pressure
groups in order to obtain concessions designed to defend or
improve their interests.

Finally, one of their most important contributions is the sense
of value which co-operatives often give to their members.  In
addition to satisfying economic needs, co-operatives also give
millions of people the opportunity to develop a sense of social
belonging, of values, of social conditions which can be
transmitted to future generations.

3.   Future Challenges

Co-operatives in this continent, as they strive to contribute to
sustainable development, are facing an increasingly unstable
macro-economic environment.  Fiscal deficits, commercial
deficits, internal and external indebtedness, and price
instability all make it more difficult to obtain adequate levels
of competitiveness and productivity which are needed in order to
provide services to members.

Co-operatives also suffer from the attitudes of governments,
which are often unaware of the social and environmental costs of
production at a time when the survival of co-operatives as
businesses depends on their increased competitiveness.

These adverse situations make it even more important to increase
the co-operation among co-operatives at national, sectoral, and
continental levels.  Co-operatives in the banking, energy,
insurance, housing, and transport sectors are seeing the
importance of developing links with each other for the
development of their business activities and the defence of their
position as economic and social agents of development.

The growing importance which they are placing on strategic
alliances, productive reconversion, human resource development,
and business development all demonstrate that co-operatives in
the Americas are committed to the concept of sustainable human
development based on the provision of tangible benefits and
results to their members.  Such activities undeniably also
contribute to sustainable development at the global level.

                                                August 1995