Cooperatives – more than a legal form, more than a mere cultural heritage

by Dr Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

The inscription of the idea of cooperatives on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on the annual meeting of the UNESCO in December 2016 in Addis Ababa has completed a process which began in the year 2013 (Current Concerns reported). At that time the Deutsche Hermann-Schulze-Delitzsch-Gesellschaft (located in Delitzsch, Saxony) together with the German Friedrich-Wilhelm-Raiffeisen-Gesellschaft (located in Hachenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia) submitted the idea of cooperatives for nomination. In her letter of December 2014 to the initiators, the Saxon State Minister for Science and the Arts, Dr Eva-Maria Stange, commends the chairmen of these two cooperative associations, Werner Böhnke and Dietmar Berger, inter alia with the following words: “Congratulations to you, who have, though situated in a Western and an Eastern German Federal State, yet successfully and jointly submitted this nomination, contributing to understanding between all states and nations and based on the fundamental values of solidarity, soundness and sustainability. As the Saxon State Minister for Culture I feel pleased and even proud that a proposal for nomination in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage is reported in which Saxonian initiators have a large share.” Already since 2014 the idea of cooperatives has been registered in the German inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage [see box]. In 2015, the German Commission for UNESCO then submitted its first international nomination titled: “Idea and practice of organising shared interests in cooperatives”.
By the international recognition of the cooperative idea as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the legacy of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch is honoured: They created the fundamental basis for the idea of cooperatives in the mid-19th century and founded the first modern style cooperative organisations in Germany. Protection and cultivation of the idea of cooperatives will be associated with this inscription.
Today the roughly 7,500 cooperatives in Germany have over 21 million members. Switzerland has over 12,000 cooperatives, France over 20,000, and Italy more than 70,000. Already in 2012 the UN proclaimed the “Year of Cooperatives” and thus shown appreciation for the cooperatives with their worldwide 800 million members in over 100 countries. Cooperatives act against poverty, create jobs and promote social integration, thus delivering an important contribution to social peace.

Switzerland applauds

The Swiss IG Cooperatives Organisation (IGG) applauds the inscription of cooperatives on the Representative List of
UNESCO. “Cooperatives are committed to the benefit of their members all over the world and in all kinds of areas”, says IGG president Werner Beyer. “Cooperatives have been firmly fixed in Switzerland – as similarly also in Germany – for centuries. Traditional forms are the alp or dairy cooperatives […]. The Swiss people trust the cooperative companies very highly, namely in comparison to listed stock corporations. Only family owned companies enjoy an even greater confidence.” (Media release IGG, 2.12.2016)
Also the “Wohnbaugenossenschaften Schweiz” – Housing Cooperatives Switzerland (umbrella organisation of non-profit housing developers) welcomed the
UNESCO recognition: “By the recognition of cooperatives as a cultural value, appreciation is shown not only to the importance of the cooperative as an economic model, but also to the social contribution of cooperatives”, says director Urs Hauser.

Also in Switzerland

Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch did not invent the cooperative idea. The cooperative principle was and is fundamental for the Swiss political culture (Swiss Confederation). The Swiss historian René Roca writes about this: “the real cooperative principle might probably be as old as the human race, but written sources are missing.” In an article in Current Concerns No. 10 of 5 March 2012 he describes the historical development of cooperatives since late antiquity and the early Middle Ages: “In the middle ages, the commons were an important element of the foundation of present-day Switzerland community work and with their rules they made for order and security in the geographical area of what is today the state of Switzerland. Up to the 18th century, it was usual for all agricultural villages to have a common. In addition to the commons, special cooperative forms were created, serving distinct purposes.” These included the alpine cooperatives as well as cooperatives on water engineering and irrigation.
Cooperatives were a key foundation for the development of the Swiss Federal State with its bottom-up structure. “The cooperatives were of great political importance for the later federal development in Switzerland. They developed a community-building force, without which Switzerland might not have grown into a nation created by its own will.” (René Roca, loc. cit.)

Cooperatives in Switzerland today

A study of the IGG on the perception of cooperatives in Switzerland in May 2016 comes to the conclusion that the paradigm of unfettered economic growth is now outdated. Today, the majority of respondents do not consider economic growth as a desirable target any longer. 58% of respondents are of the opinion that it is sufficient to maintain the present level.
More than 70% of the Swiss population are customers of cooperatives, and nearly half of them are members of at least one cooperative. Swiss people see the long-term reliability, social responsibility and regional rootedness of cooperatives as important characteristics and as an advantage. So it is clear that the most important reason to prefer cooperatives lies in their values and attitudes. […] Cooperatives enjoy a very high level of confidence in the population, a level that is on the average only a little lower than that of the family businesses, which are trusted the most.” (gfs. berne. Kurzbericht IG Genossenschaft 2016, p. 45 of the text in German)
A recent survey of the communications consultancy Brunswick with 2039 people has also shown that small, local banks are becoming ever more popular. Thus 55% of the people in Germany prefer small, local banks in comparison to mayor and foreign banks. In the US it is 65% of the people, in France and Great Britain 47%, and in all countries there is an upward trend. More than half of the respondents want banks that do not seek profit maximisation.     •

The cooperative idea

Extract from the German Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2014)

The idea of a cooperative is that of an open-ended, over-confessional model of self-help, self-administration and self-responsibility based on cooperation. The fathers of the cooperative idea, Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch and Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, founded the first modern cooperative organisations in Germany in the mid-19th century. Based on ethical values such as solidarity, honesty and responsibility, they designed the basic legal framework for the cooperative idea: an association with an open membership and a joint business  operation that strengthens individual commitment and self-confidence and enables social, cultural and economic participation. In the statutes of a cooperative the respective purpose is defined, which can serve social, cultural and economic interests. Members become co-owners by acquiring cooperative shares. Their voice, independent of the number of shares acquired, assures them co-determination and the possibility of active parti-cipation.
The cooperative idea was quickly taken up by other actors, and soon captured large social circles and found its application in various areas of life such as labour, finances, nutrition or housing. […]
Through the cultural form of the cooperatives, dedication of citizens in the social, economic and cultural areas is expressed beyond private and state economic forms. The cooperative idea proves to be very dynamic and influential, opening new opportunities for social participation to less privileged population groups. It draws on fundamental principles of the cultural self-understanding of human community and transfers them into economic practice. The cooperative idea helps to overcome societal challenges and is always adapted to modern conditions by creative changes.

Source: German Commission for UNESCO. German Nationwide Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, The Idea and practice of Cooperatives

(Translation Current Concerns)