The role cooperatives play in food security was the focus of this year’s UN World Food Day celebrated every year on 16 October. The Food Security Center (FSC) at Hohenheim University (Stuttgart/Germany) conducted a World Food Day Colloquium where scientists and practitioners discussed how politics can return to promoting cooperatives in order to create better opportunities for the future, especially for small-scale farmers.
The cooperative movement is firmly mainstreamed in Germany and its neighbouring countries. Its roots go back to initiatives by Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch in the middle of the 19th century. When poverty was spreading in rural areas during the era of industrialisation, they promoted cooperation among small farms, initially by savings and credit unions, and later through production cooperatives. In this way, farmers were able to regain access to markets and production inputs and also became connected to the national economy. Former EU agricultural commissioner Franz Fischler recalled this success story in his keynote speech to an audience of some 300 participants attending the Food Security Center (FSC) Colloquium in Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany, on 16 October 2012.
Similar to the situation in Europe 250 years ago, today it is the small farmers in developing countries who have fallen behind, especially because of the commercialisation of agriculture, warned Fischler. Yet it is just these small farming units - Fischler put the figure at 500 million small farmers – that are helping secure food for the world’s population. The rapid increase in land grabbing, meaning the purchase of large areas of land mostly by foreign investors, is seriously threatening the existence of these small farmers, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Fischler named land registration and cadastre management as one way of securing the livelihoods of these small farms. Germany had a wealth of experience in these areas and the task now was to see that this experience flowed consistently into development cooperation with partner countries. The second way he put forward was to promote cooperatives. And this must begin by polishing up their image. Cooperatives could only function with a bottom-up approach, he said, and not in the way they were once operated in numerous communist countries when the government forced them on the population and also ruled over them.
Fischler recalled the seven guiding principles of cooperatives: Voluntary and open membership, democratic decision making, economic involvement of the members, autonomy and independence, education and training, precaution for the community, and went on to stress the potential of education and training, one of the guiding principles which traditionally form a major element in well-functioning cooperatives.
In the subsequent debate, Faustine Karrani Bee, Professor at the Moshi University in Tanzania, stressed cooperatives’ potential to make a major contribution to global food security by means of agricultural training for small farmers and facilitating access to agricultural inputs and credits. The other participants all confirmed this. Training and access to savings and credit are, according to Hans-H. Münkner, Professor at the University of Marburg/Germany, the major requirements for an efficient modern agriculture also and especially at small farmer level. He pointed out the success story of ROSCA rotating savings and credit associations in West Africa. Among other achievements, through training and credits ROSCA had succeeded in creating alternative income opportunities for rural youth and in that way has incited them to stay in the rural areas.
An important guiding principle for building up cooperatives is that „Cooperatives do not help the poor but the poor help themselves through cooperatives” stressed the cooperatives expert Münkner.
„Cooperatives“ is a focus also covered by Rural 21, Issue 2/2012. The articles can be accessed in our archives and under the heading „A closer look at...“