The United Nations has designated 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, providing a great opportunity to raise the profile of an important organizational tool for spreading human rights and equality worldwide. Membership in co-operative businesses has grown to 1 billion people across 96 countries, according to new research published by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online publication.
Co-operatives, or co-ops, are a type of business characterized by democratic ownership and governance. They offer an alternative to the shareholder model of business ownership. Co-ops are governed by their members, who typically invest in the co-operative and have an ownership stake in it, as well as a voice in how the firm is run. Decisions are often made on a one-member, one-vote basis, so in many societies, co-ops provide a much-needed example of democratic governance amid otherwise inequitable conditions.
Unlike more conventional businesses, many co-ops do not struggle financially, because of their emphasis on democratic governance. In 2008, the world’s 300 largest co-ops generated revenues of more than US$1.6 trillion. “Co-operatives are low-profile but powerful economic actors,” said report author Gary Gardner, a Worldwatch Senior Fellow. “If these businesses were a national economy, they would rank ninth in the world—ahead of the economy of Spain.”