Rural organizations in focus for the International Year of Cooperatives

Written by Sarah Hessel

In 2012 the United Nations celebrates the International Year of Cooperatives. As important partners for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), cooperatives are helping to improve the lives of millions of smallholder farmers and their families. On the occasion of the International Year, Tom Anyonge and Monica Romano , who are leading IFAD’s work with cooperatives, offer a background brief on the organizations of rural people:

What opportunities do cooperatives offer to poor rural people?
IFAD has been supporting formal and informal rural organizations, which include cooperatives, for many years. And still, as the Rural Poverty Report 2011 highlights, there is a continued need to strengthen the collective capabilities of rural people for several reasons. They give people confidence, security and power – all valuable attributes in overcoming poverty. Worldwide cooperatives provide 100 million jobs. They enable small-scale producers to access market opportunities and information, and services such as technologies, credit and training. Cooperatives facilitate small producers’ participation in decision making at all levels. Cooperatives support secure land-use rights and help negotiate better terms for engagement in contract farming as well as better prices for agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and equipment. They also represent a powerful means of supporting marginalized groups, such as youth and women. The Smallholder and Community Services Development Project in Kenya or the tea cooperative in Rwanda are good examples of how members are empowered economically and socially, creating sustainable rural employment through business models that are more resilient to economic and environmental shocks.

Why are cooperatives important for IFAD’s work and what opportunities does the thematic year offer IFAD?
One of IFAD’s objectives is to facilitate poor rural people’s access to services and build their capacity to influence the policies and institutions that affect their lives. Cooperatives are an important vehicle to reach these objectives. This is why we place a lot of emphasis on rural agricultural cooperatives and will continue to enhance our work with them.

The International Year of Cooperatives is a good opportunity to promote engagement with cooperatives and strengthen smallholder farmers on a larger scale. Together with the Rome-based United Nations agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), IFAD will act as a driving force during the year to raise awareness of the potential role of agricultural cooperatives in increasing benefit streams to rural women and men. In addition, we will support the strengthening of existing networks and assist policy makers to create enabling environments that allow agricultural cooperatives to evolve.

How do you think the International Year of Cooperatives will change the way United Nations agencies and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) see cooperatives in planning their programmes?
The International Year of Cooperatives raises awareness about the central role that rural organizations, and cooperatives in particular, play in reducing poverty and increasing food security, hence putting this topic on the top of the planning agenda of both policy makers and development practitioners. In partnership with our sister organizations in Rome, we work to reinforce the commitment of United Nations agencies, development organizations and INGOs to put farmers and peoples’ cooperatives in the centre of their planning processes and programmes.

Cooperatives are owned and controlled by their members. Is this bottom-up structure a challenge to effective decision making?
In our work with rural cooperatives we have experienced that they actually represent the views and interests of poor rural people far more effectively than any outside party. However, it is also true that effective, transparent and accountable decision-making processes can be a challenge for them. These processes require full ownership by the members – the poor rural people themselves – including pragmatic leadership and sound management. We work to build the capacity of cooperatives so that they become effective and sustainable and represent the needs of poor rural people.

Suggested reading:
Agricultural Cooperatives: Paving the way for food security and rural development