Letters & Opinion

Why St Lucia Needs Strong Cooperative Societies

By Richard Edwin

COOPERATIVE societies play a vital role in ensuring a nation’s economic progress. Through pooling of experience, knowledge and by helping one another, cooperative societies help members find solutions to the many economic challenges they face. These are local organizations addressing local needs by using local talents.

Cooperative societies are particularly important to the development of rural communities. They can help to provide sustainable development to numerous sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, agri-manufacturing, art and craft.

For example, farming cooperatives help farmers to pool their small and fragmented land holdings. This facilitates improvements to their farms and paves the way for intensive cultivation using modern technology. Small and marginal farmers especially need support in the form of inputs, storage facilities, harvesting, distribution channels and market information systems.

By contrast, investor-owned businesses are created to enrich their shareholders.

The Cooperative management model often involves managing the affairs of affiliate members or businesses under one structure or network. It is a community-based economic option that is specifically tailored to address needs of Small Island States like St. Lucia.

The model offers a range of possibilities, but, also has its challenges. Locally, small farmer-cooperative societies are particularly challenged and exist under very trying circumstances. Local farmers understand the value of working cooperatively. That is why they are often eager to create or join such organizations.

However, available evidence shows that historically they have always had tremendous difficulty sustaining these cooperatives. Eventually this causes their interest to wane and they lose the motivation which had initially spurred them on to form the cooperative. The end result is that the farmers fail to attend meetings and their participation in the organization’s activities declines. Ultimately the cooperative becomes dormant and many of them exist only in name.

Notwithstanding these challenges, some members – generally few in number – continue to persevere in a bid to keep these organizations functioning and maintain member support. They do so against tremendous odds and, inevitably, this stymies the growth of the farmers-organizations and they end up failing. Several factors can lead to such failures. They include underdeveloped or low level foundation skills among personal and board members.

People with low-levels foundation skills are less likely to participate or get involved with matters of community building. Without a strong foundation, local farmers’ cooperative societies continue to be weak. They show no resiliency, nor do they have the capacity to develop supporting frameworks necessary for strengthening the organization and keeping their members engaged and committed.

In addition, they generally lack the capital and other resources needed to build effective plans or strategies, as well as develop effective orientation training tools to enable the cooperative to develop goals, objectives and business plans that are in line with their mission.

As with all organizations, principled leadership, sound management standards and effective governance are crucial to achieving success. Generally, however, these capacities are greatly lacking or non-existent in farmers’ cooperatives whose members are hampered by low-levels foundation skills, inadequate training and limited capabilities.

Available evidence shows strong correlation between high-level foundation skills and economic growth and social development. In short, foundation skills are indispensable to the successful development of cooperatives in St. Lucia. The benefits to be gained are tremendous. They include, positive life-changing possibilities, economic and social development prospects, and the development of self-empowering values in ways that make people feel free and positive about themselves. It gives voice to the voiceless, and members feel confident to share opinions and participate in community development initiatives.

Altogether, this demonstrates why it is absolutely critical that local farmers’ cooperatives be given the help and support they need to do a better job at developing the competencies of their board members, staff, volunteers and general membership. The sort of assistance that would help to enhance their knowledge about the concepts of having a mission and a clear vision, along with proper leadership, management and governance.

In the absence of this much-needed support, it is unreasonable to expect that board members who are elected to serve will be capable of performing with high level efficiencies. It is impossible for them to do so if they do not have basic knowledge and understanding of the relevant concepts. Besides, we do not have local educational institutions that offer such programs on an on-going basis.

Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC) had reportedly been offering cooperative training development in the past, but the program is no longer available. It would be worthwhile for representatives of the local cooperative movement to approach SALCC officials about revisiting that program.

The work of our local farmers’ cooperative societies is not only impeded by low-foundation skills, lack of leadership, poor management and ineffective governance. They are also hindered by inconsiderate economic policy-decisions that have failed to acknowledge the benefits of the cooperative business model to national economic development.

Currently, official policy-decisions on national economic development favours privatization of key sectors of the economy. Privatization is an economic development model that is driven by an ideology requiring that governments sell, contract out, or transfer ownership of publicly-owned enterprises and services, such as, business agencies, the production of goods, market promotion, etc. to private enterprises.

The rationale behind this concept hinges on the argument that governments are inherently inefficient. They should not be involved in making decisions pertaining to managing national economies. In their view, it is better to leave these matters to competition and free market forces. Proponents both for and against this argument agree that privatization is reflective of the old Darwinian Theory that only the strong survives. The benefits of privatization are for those who can afford it. However, it is increasingly becoming evident, both locally and internationally, that unbridled privatization has not had many positive life-changing impacts for the consumer.

In fact, the perceived benefits claimed by these proponents do not always percolate to the consumer. Most economists believe that the argument for privatization is another way of making a case for unchecked competition at the expense of a people-focused, balanced approach to national economic development.

Privatization is not the only path to national economic development. Hence the opportunities that are made available in instances where public-owned businesses are moved to private enterprises should in all fairness also be offered to socially oriented organizations such as, cooperatives.

As community-based economic development organizations, cooperatives should be invited to partner with governments in managing public-owned assets and services. By virtue of their proximity to the people, the role these organizations play in the lives of ordinary citizens in communities makes them the ideal economic model, and it is in that sense they should be fully embraced in governments’ economic development policy decisions, and provided with the support and encouragement they deserve.

Cooperatives, more than any other sector, have the potential to provide efficient management of public assets and delivery of effective services to advance the public good.

Therefore, we must be willing to invest in training the leadership-staff, board of directors and volunteers of these organizations so that they develop competencies, build capacities, become more competitive and better prepare them to meet these challenges.

As it stands right now, the local Cooperative Sector is being neglected. It is in the interest of all St. Lucians to put our heads together and call for a model of national economic development whereby the spirit of community is strengthened island-wide. Developing successful cooperatives is the ideal way to help us achieve this.

Would you join with us in supporting this cause?

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