My Vision of a Co-operative Future

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         June 1995

               My Vision of a Co-operative Future

                    by Katarina Apelqvist* 

We are fast approaching a new century and the prospect is
daunting for the world at large and for the Co-operative
Movement unless we change things.

We live in a world dominated by large-scale, multinational
capitalism and neo-liberal ideology which has made profit and
the pursuit of profit a goal in itself. Governments no longer
regulate market forces, market forces regulate Governments.

We have lost sight of profit as a means to make human
development possible for everyone regardless of sex, race,
colour or creed. Efficiency has become an obsession and is now
solely defined in terms of quantity and profit at seemingly
unlimited human and environmental cost. Efficiency should also
be defined in terms of quality, human well-being and

It is deeply disturbing that the Co-operative Movement in
North, South, East and West  seems to increasingly equate
survival and success with ideals and behaviours based on
essentially neo-liberal ideology.

The present economic order has been engineered by men, for
men. Consequently it is based on male values, norms and
priorities. Economic growth and power have been primary goals
around which the labour market and society have been
hierarchically formed. In hierarchical structures fundamental
human needs regarding relationships, physical security and
health are subordinated. Women and children, in particular,
have suffered as a result.

Women's needs and ways of life have been ignored based on the
dual assumptions that only men's needs should be taken into
account and that this would automatically benefit women and

Women have been exploited both as unpaid carers in the home
and as paid workers in the workplace. They have been forced
into subordinate positions in both spheres and their work has
been grossly undervalued. In a segregated labour market they
have carried out the lowest paid, most monotonous, often risky
work at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The hierarchical structure as a vehicle for growth and power
has been destructive for men too. When the main focus is
growth, people are seen as tools, not as human beings. This
results in poor wages and work environments, which in turn
lead to physical and mental illness, lack of security and

It is evident today that where market forces have been given
more and more freedom a small minority reaps enormous benefits
whilst the majority is faced with deteriorating working
conditions, social insecurity and unemployment. In such a
society, excessive elevation of the few is at the cost of the
deprivation of the many.

This leads to a deep mistrust for leaders. Politicians and
Governments are seen as corrupt. The result is people's
contempt and indifference. Similar trends can also be seen in
the Co-operative Movement of today.

In a privatized, globalized and restructured economic world
order fewer and fewer are participating in the formation of
their futures. Exclusion and non- participation,  which have
previously always been the curse of women, are becoming more
and more gender-neutral. The gap between the powerful male
minority and the growing ranks of powerless women and men is
widening with alarming speed. In such a world, sophisticated 
as well as blatant criminality is increasingly accepted, and
ethnic conflicts, violence, rape and wars actively encouraged.

Given these prevailing conditions it is of great concern that
we seem to be moving away from co-operation which, in its
purest form, offers solutions to many of the problems
outlined. More than ever before, the co-operative concept is
needed to meet people's social and economic needs, providing
sustainable livelihoods. 

Through integrating women's values, skills and experiences in
the application of the co-operative concept, a democratic
microcosm of society can be developed, where mutual concern
and economic and social security thrive. This can be further
achieved on an international scale, thus fostering solidarity
between nations. Co-operatives should be an obvious
alternative to the current growth and profit-oriented economic
systems which make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

My vision is that from now on we will return to true
co-operative values and principles. Instead of values and
principles remaining as empty abstracts we must consistently
transform them into concrete actions. It's time for
co-operatives where social book-keeping is as important as
traditional book-keeping  and a surplus is aimed at, and
recognized, only as a means to make human well-being and
sustainable development possible.

This will be impossible without equality between women and

Women constitute half, or even more, of humankind. They are
active economic agents and contributors to co-operative,
national and global economy by paid productive work as well as
unpaid reproductive work. They are the basis of the
Co-operative Movement.Their subordination to men in the
Movement must be put to an end.They must finally be recognized
as equal partners.

The co-operative values and principles demand co-operative
actions to ensure women's human rights and to ensure the
utilisation of women's values and competence in all
co-operative activities at all levels. The concept of
democracy will only assume true and dynamic significance when
co-operative policies are decided upon jointly by women and
men, on terms based on both women's and men's needs and
It is remarkable that the similarities between co-operative
principles and women's typical ways of conceptualising and
working have gone unremarked until comparatively recently. In
women's cultures human needs and their fulfilment are central.
Women's cultures are characterised by self-help,
collaboration, mutual responsibility, equality and equity,
honesty, openness and social responsibility - Co-operative
values, in other words.

Women's reproductive role comprises not only responsibility
for giving birth to children. It also comprises responsibility
for the physical and emotional nurturing of all members of the
family. This provides the essential foundation for family
members to function within the labour market and in society as
a whole. 

This fundamental work for society within the family has
traditionally been unseen and is marginalised even today.
Furthermore, women's access to resources to fulfil these vital
tasks has been alarmingly reduced. Economic restructuring
programs all over the world  have made women of the South,
East, North, and West pay a terribly high price economically,
physically and socially. The strain on women is becoming
unendurable. This poses an immense threat to society.

Women  have been forced to learn how to manage their homes and
families with meagre resources. Millions of lives, which would
otherwise have been lost to starvation and disease, have been
saved by women's actions and thinking, which are guided by
responsible rationality. This rationality is in contrast to
growth rationality which typifies men's actions and thinking.
Both kinds of rationalities, in dynamic interaction, are
needed to solve the problems that humankind faces.

Women often extend their field of responsibility to neighbours
and to the community. In fact, women organize and constitute
the backbone of community services, in very many countries on
a voluntary, unpaid basis.

Research and everyday reality show women's capacity for coping
creatively with insecurity and high-risk situations.

Women's budgetary and management skills, achieved in the
family and community are equally needed in much wider economic

If women's skills are not utilised we will continue to
over-exploit natural, human and economic resources with
catastrophic results. The connection between reproduction and
production must be acknowledged and influence economic and
social structures. Women can provide the bridge between the
family, the labour market and society. However, to  make this
possible, women's intolerable conditions must be recognized,
women's systematic subordination combatted and power shared
between men and women.

Women's cultures are characterised by additional perspectives
and practices equally needed for the development of the
Co-operative Movement and societies typified by participation,
equality and true democracy.

Women have a non-hierarchical approach to organising work.
Discussion is preferred as a leadership behaviour rather than
the giving and receiving of orders. Allocation of tasks is
skill-related. Collaboration and flexibility are preferred to
male-oriented competition and climbing the hierarchical
ladder. Relationships are more important to women than
personal privileges. Women have a holistic view of problems
and their solutions while men have a linear view.

Decision-making by consensus is important to women. Decisions
made by consensus elicit stronger motivation and
accountability as well as a more reliable implementation.
Through consensus decision-making, team building, skills
development, evaluation, reassessment and results are
improved. Whilst consensus building can take a longer time,
implementation tends to be quicker.

Consensus-based approaches require an understanding of, and
respect for all participants, their needs, skills and
creativity. The participants themselves formulate their needs
and decide on ways to meet them. In short, the democratic
participation of individuals must be sought. If this
participation is realised both economic and human development
will be the result.

The easiest way to achieve this active participation is at
levels among groups of people in villages, or among neighbours
in the towns and cities. It is much more difficult to achieve
in hierarchical organisations. Hierarchical organisations
obstruct democratic participation.

If my vision of future co-operation in its pure form is to
become reality, priority must be given to encouraging people
at the grass roots level in rural and urban areas to form
small community groups/networks with the aim of initiating
pre-co-operatives and co-operatives.

The following model illustrates how this can be done:

1.   Disseminating knowledge about co-operation as a
     methodology for business activities, giving concrete
     examples of solutions to everyday problems.

2.   Training of local inspirers/advocates.

3.   Activating trained inspirers/advocates, preferably
     community members, within communities and neighbourhoods.

4.   Initiating single-gender and mixed-gender gatherings and

5.   Forming groups/networks.

6.   Group members identifying their resources, defining their
     goals and deciding  upon the deployment of resources and

7.   Supporting/mentoring from established co-operatives,
     including advisors/consultants.

8.   An advisor acting as a catalyst to facilitate the process
     without actually participating in the group ( the process
     includes judging the viability of the project, finding
     and raising credit, dealing with formalities in contacts
     with authorities).

9.   Providing access to credit.

10.  Assisting in forming co-operative societies.

11.  Assisting in management training.

It is central to this entire encouragement process that
established co-operation's role should not be to mould and run
these pre-co-operatives  and co-operatives but to support the
members' own choices for mutual work and to support mutually
agreed decisions.

With regard to input on how to run co-operatives, it should be
taken into account that women prefer to acquire knowledge
through discussion, reflection and linkage with everyday work.

The role of inspirers and advisors must include support for
women in their demands for equal rights in decision-making and
a way of working which is suitable to them. Mixed
co-operatives' goals must reflect this.

To secure women's right to influence decision and working
methods the only solution in some cases will be to form a
women's co-op and allow men to join only if mutually
acceptable goals and management can be agreed on. Cultural
differences should be observed by the development of
segregated co-operatives where appropriate. 

At the local level there is already a widely diverse range of
businesses initiated and run by women within the informal
sector. For women working in this area, knowledge about
co-operative business methodology can contribute towards
giving formal stability to work in which they are already
informally involved. The formal co-operative approach can open
routes to valuable financial and technical assistance and the
co-ordination of finances, production, training and marketing
with other co-operatives.

At this local level mostly women have taken the initiative to
work across ethnic and political borders - an initiative which
can be spread with the assistance of co-operation.

The established Co-operative Movement, locally and regionally,
should assess where and how women can be assisted and

Of particular interest to women  both in rural and urban areas
all over the world are childcare and elderly care
co-operatives. Such co-operatives  lighten women's burdens 
and make income-generating activities possible. A most
important factor is also that childcare and elderly care
co-operatives can, or should, involve fathers, and  possibly

Local work in pre-co-operatives and co-operatives give people
access to the following:

-    Collaboration and shared responsibility 
-    Empowerment
-    Change/Development
-    Influence/Power

As already stated, this is much more difficult to achieve in 
hierarchical organisations, as they do not allow women the
opportunities to develop and contribute to the organisation to
the best of their abilities. In fact, hierarchical structures
do not promote the full development of men either.

Unlike traditional hierachical organisations, forward-thinking
organisations are based on an assessment and respect for
individual skills and needs, how individuals can support and
develop each other, and how this can benefit the organisation.

Maximising opportunities for full human development requires
radical changes to co-operatives. Equality between women and
men is an essential prerequisite for maximising opportunities
for full human development. The social dimension to all
activities must be acknowledged. 

Women must have equal influence, on their own terms,
throughout this process of change.

Achievement of these radical changes at all levels within the
co-operative movement is the major challenge before we enter
the next century.

The first pre-condition of change is to surface hidden
structures. Without making visible what is really happening to
women and men in existing structures there will be no
motivation for change.

But surfacing hidden structures and their consequences is not
enough. There is also a need for competence development for
change. If the outcome is to be successful, those involved
must influence and decide the content of training and the
design of the change process from a gender perspective

When choosing appropriate content and methods we must fully
understand and be influenced by the fact that there are
distinctive female and male approaches to work. The impact of
these choices will also be different for women and men.
Therefore, if change is to be achieved, different approaches
will need to be adopted for women and men.

A mandate from top level management is imperative but
inadequate to ensure that the necessary analyses and efforts
are made. An individual or group should be given special
responsibilities as initiators, knowledge disseminators and
supervisors. And managers should be encouraged by incentives
and held accountable.

A skills development for change program should be
characterised by the holistic perception with which it is
hoped that future goals and methods of working will be

Such a program could include, for example:

-    Professional skills and ethics (economics, technology,
     marketing, leadership, administration,
     information/motivation, organisation, job evaluation)

-    Physical development (health aspects, body
     awareness/ideals, health profiles)

-    Psychological development (self-understanding,
     professional identity, family identity/role,
     self-confidence, attitude change)

-    Group development ( participation, responsibility,
     communications training, differences in language and
     communication styles, conflict management, group

Gender analysis and gender awareness should be integral
elements in all parts of the program .

Experience of today's male work structures has taught us that
the process of change is a complex and often slow-moving
process. However, if we consistently apply the co-operative
principles of participation and democracy for all from now on,
we should have great opportunities to enter the new century
with much better pre-conditions to solve the problems which
confront people, society and not least of all the co-operative

My vision is of truly beneficial and productive future
co-operative organisations, based on how the organisation can
benefit individual and mutual human development to achieve
social and economic progress for all regardless of sex, race,
colour or creed.

* Ms Apelqvist is Project Manager, Folksam Research, and
General Secretary, Folksam's Social Council, Folksam Insurance
Group, Stockholm, Sweden. She is also Chairwoman of ICA
Women's Committee.