Co-operatives in developed countries

By Satish Marathe

In the now-developed countries, in the last two centuries, the Co Operatives have developed without much Government interference. In early days, “friendly” or mutual health society emerged that insured people against sickness and provided basic health care. In countries with a mixed system of State and Private funding, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, becoming a member of one of the health mutuals is even today common for people to gain access to health care.

In the USA, some of the largest health providers are Consumer Co Operatives. In the Pacific Northwest, one Co Operative provides health care to 570,000 members while in the Mid-West another has as many as 630,000 members. In Japan, 120 Consumer Co Operatives provide health care to around three million members, who meet in small “han” groups to discuss preventive health issues.

Consumer Co Operatives which originated in Britain are today the market leaders in Italy, Switzerland, Singapore and Japan.  They are equally active in the Scandinavian countries and Atlantic Canada. In the UK, which has seen the fiercest competition amongst the consumer chains, Consumer Co Operatives are fifth in market share and are pre-eminent in the small supermarket sector. Consumer Co Operatives have a strong record of providing decent work culture to their employees while adhering to fair trade practices.

Housing Co Operatives have played an important role in developed economies. Much of the housing built in Norway and Sweden, in the second half of the last century, has been Co Operative. Housing Co Operatives in the USA have been popular among higher income dwellers and retired people. They have been more effective wherever private or public renting has failed. In New York 27,000 homes abandoned by private landlords have been taken over and renovated by Housing Co Operatives for low income groups. In Britain, Co Operatives have taken over unpopular ‘Council’ estates even as tenant-owned Co Operatives are challenging conventional landlords.

Another important area of Co Operative involvement is in utilities. In the USA, over 1000 Electricity Co Operatives supply power to around 12per cent of households, mainly in rural areas.  In Wales, when privatization of water to investor-owned businesses proved unpopular, the same has been taken over by a semi-Co Operative whose members are stakeholders.

Some of the world’s biggest insurers are Co Operatives. The International Co Operative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF) represent 184 Insurance Co Operatives in 70 countries, with substantial accrual of premium. Behind the success of these insurance companies is the underpinning principle of pooling risks of large numbers of people without having to pay outside investors, thereby providing insurance at nominal costs. However, recently to prevent governance failures, the UK Government has advocated a new code of conduct for life insurance mutuals.

There are also emerging Co Operatives in personal services such as social care for older people and people with disabilities. Worker Co Operatives have also proven successful in preserving jobs by taking over failed businesses, particularly, in Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are primary producer Co Operatives, which supply inputs and do processing and marketing of products of farmers, fishermen and forestry workers. They include some of the world’s biggest businesses, including conglomeration of farmers, ranchers and primary Co Operatives whose success has enabled it to be listed in Fortune 500.

At a time when small farmers are struggling to survive in a tough market conditions – falling prices paid by supermarket chains and farm subsidies being cut – there have emerged a Co Operative that operates 400 markets on behalf of 65 Co Operatives through which over 12,000 producers directly sell their products to the consumers.

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