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UN Declares 2012 International Year of Cooperatives

Expanding democratic ownership

Co-ops achieve global milestone

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, highlighting the contribution of cooperatives to economic development, in particular recognizing their impact on poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration. The United Nations uses the “International Year” designation to draw attention to major issues and encourage action.  To commemorate the Year, regional conferences will be held to raise awareness of cooperatives and seek ways to leverage their contribution to economic development.  A research agenda will be proposed and nations are encouraged to form national committees to organize support activities.

The designation of an international year to highlight the international economic role of cooperatives marks only the second time in United Nations’ history that a form of economic organization has been so honored. The first such designation was done for the year 2005, which the United Nations designated as the International Year of Microcredit, a decision that did much to heighten the international visibility of micro-finance. The United Nations estimates that worldwide cooperatives have about 800 million members in over 100 countries — and employ more than 100 million people. 

The UN declaration also emphasizes a few key areas of cooperative strength, one of which is the credit union and banking sector.  Under the umbrella of the World Council of Credit Unions some 53,000-plus credit unions serve over 185 million members in 97 countries. According to World Council statistics, total assets of credit unions worldwide in 2008 climbed to close to $1.2 trillion. In Europe, the European Association of Cooperative Banks has 4,200 member banks which collectively hold a 20 percent market share of the banking market and serve 160 million customers.

The UN designation also takes note of the role of co-ops in agriculture and rural electric production. In the United States, the UN points out, agricultural cooperatives account for more than 80 percent of total milk production, while 900 rural electric cooperatives serve 37 million people and own almost half of the electric distribution lines in the country.

Outside the United States, the UN declaration notes that co-ops also are responsible for over 80 percent of total milk production in Norway and New Zealand; 71 per cent of fishery production in South Korea; and 40 per cent of overall agriculture production in Brazil.  In Bangladesh, rural electric cooperatives serve 28 million people. The International Cooperative Alliance has also created a Global 300 list that ranks the 300 largest co-ops worldwide, as well as a second Developing 300 list that ranks the 300 largest co-ops in developing countries.

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Illustration courtesy of United Nations

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