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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

How to Strengthen the Cooperative Community

An Interview with E.G. Nadeau

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GEO Original
June 24, 2021
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E.G. Nadeau graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He first became involved in co-op development as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in 1970. In 1985, he became the founding director of Cooperative Development Services, a pioneering co-op business planning organization in the United States. He spent more than 35 years engaged in international co-op research and development consulting. In addition to being the author or co-author of four previous books, he has written numerous articles on cooperatives and societal cooperation. E.G. also taught more than 25 courses with cooperative themes, including as a faculty member at the International Centre for Co-operative Management at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from 2004 to 2013. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Interview by George Cheney and Matt Noyes.

George Cheney: It's really a pleasure to have this conversation with you because I've enjoyed reading your books over the years, beginning in the 1990s when I was researching the Mondragón cooperatives. [Please see the list of E.G.’s books on co-ops at the end of this article.]

People who've read your work really appreciate the breadth of your perspective, the many experiences around the world, your insights from research and consulting. This new book, Strengthening the Cooperative Community, reviews many different cases and draws from those to distill your recommendations. It is a wonderful contribution to the literature.

Strengthening the Cooperative Community is both a retrospective on your career in co-op research and consulting and a set of recommendations for the cooperative movement writ large. Given that the book was published during the global pandemic and at a time when there is a greater appreciation for how the multiple crises that we face today are interrelated – the list includes, of course, public health with the pandemic, racial injustice, economic inequality, and environmental crisis – is there anything you would add at the start of our discussion to your message to the cooperative community and others?

E.G. Nadeau: Well, the first point I would make is that the Covid-19 crisis really underlines the importance of cooperative solutions to a lot of the problems that the world faces right now. Since the book came out, I haven't done that kind of separate analysis of the effects of Covid that I would add to the book if I were writing it now.

An underlying theme for me is that an economy based on greed – on investor-owned and privately-owned corporations that are designed to maximize the profit of the owners – is not the way to deal with those multiple interrelated crises. More than ever, I think the pandemic is telling us that we need a better way to organize the world economy right down to local community economies.

GC: One of the many impressive aspects of your discussion is how you place cooperativeness in conversation with other key concepts and initiatives such as social entrepreneurship and education. Your first recommendation, to create a network of hands-on cooperative business planning centers, is very timely, especially as there are more and more local and regional efforts to get co-ops into small business curricula. Are there any other existing initiatives along these lines that you've encountered that you would highlight?

EGN: Well, thinking of Mondragón – which I have been monitoring and visited back in the early to mid 2000s – one of the things that most impressed me, aside from its size and breadth and the diversity of businesses that are encompassed in it, is the systematic integration of various elements that go into a successful business and a successful set of businesses, especially worker co-ops. So the key message that I was trying to get across with that recommendation about business centers is that you don't develop a co-op just by having a good idea for providing health care or providing solar panels or whatever it is. You need to see the activity that you're doing in a broader context. You're thinking about what's financially feasible here. Are people really interested in this idea? What is the legal context in which we are going to be operating? And what do we have to know about in order to launch a business or set of businesses?

I think very often people who are trying to form a co-op – and in fact other kinds of businesses, as well – don't often take an integrated approach. As a result, they either fail or don't do as good a job as they could. And that, as I said before, is one of the things that impresses me about Mondragón: their holistic approach to co-op development. As you know, they've had bumps along the road. But overall, I think they've taken the most systematic approach to co-op development that I'm aware of. I would like to see others in the co-op community not offer a rubber-stamp version of what Mondragón has done but adapt some of the ideas and the integrated approach that Mondragón has taken in order to do other kinds of co-op development.

You might be aware that there is an umbrella organization in the United States called CooperationWorks!, named after a book that David Thompson and I wrote back in the ‘90s. There are about 40 cooperative development centers in the United States and a couple in Canada. I think there's a lot of potential for these co-op development centers that are part of CooperationWorks! to evolve into a more holistic type of co-op development entity than most of them are now. They could learn from Mondragón, and from other entities that have done comprehensive approaches to co-op development. That kind of thing could also occur in other countries, including in many countries in the developing world.

I like to think in terms of networks. In this case, networks of these business centers that we're talking about so that people can learn from one another, not a top-down structure, but more of a shared approach to learning from each other. I do think that organizations like the International Cooperative Alliance and other international bodies can play a role in helping to get that kind of networking going among a group of business centers, but to my knowledge, that is not happening. It is happening with CooperationWorks! and also with some of the internationally oriented cooperative development centers like CLUSA (Cooperative League of the United States), Canadian centers that do international work, and about ten or so European centers that focus on international co-op development. And there are the beginnings of some coordination among these organizations. But there's a long way to go before you'd have the kind of comprehensive approach to co-op business centers that I was recommending in the book.

GC: This discussion leads right into the next question, which is about networks. You mentioned the goal of forming a consortium for applied co-op research, which, of course, is something that's come up with various groups over the years and something I've been very supportive of. It requires ongoing administration. Even if it's not centered in one institution, as was once talked about, it requires attention to make it really vibrant and helpful. I was wondering if you had any other suggestions beyond the organizations that you mentioned in the book for how to organize such a consortium? Of course, one advantage is that we have much more advanced tech communication and information technologies to accomplish this than we did when various people were first talking about it.

EGN: I think that the first thing I would say is that, again, through the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), we do have the Committee on Cooperative Research (CCR), which is an international committee. Papers are presented at their meetings and some are published and circulated. I think that's a good starting point. We have an international group of cooperative researchers who communicate with one another. That's a good beginning. But I'd qualify that by saying that – and again, this can get touchy – there's more academically oriented research and then there's applied research. Often with academic research, you have to submit a paper to a group of referees to get it approved and put into an academically oriented journal which regular people in the world don't read. There is not, to my knowledge, a lot of active communication between people who do applied research and people who are applying research results to cooperative development – that whole area of learning from the experiences of cooperative development, writing about them, researching them, and then using what you learn to improve cooperative development. What I would call a beneficial cycle between research and development seems to me to be a really underdeveloped area within the co-op community. And I think it could be part of what the CCR addresses.

One thing I might add: I think there is good potential for doing that kind of applied research networking that I was talking about. In fact, there's an organization based in the United States called the US Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC), a group of ten U.S.-based international co-op development organizations that have come together to network and to lobby for more international economic development assistance. I was their first director of research starting back in 2014. Through this research arm, OCDC is now doing the kind of applied research that I was just talking about. Its members are working in different countries, doing research on projects and also on the interactions among researchers and developers. So that is one example.

GC: It's a great example. My impression is that more and more academic researchers who are engaging with co-ops and related organizations are moving in an applied direction. I hope that's not just wishful thinking on my part, but it’s definitely my impression.

EGN: Well, I hope you're right.

GC: Your sixth recommendation, about compiling and reviewing cooperative laws on an international level, is a very worthwhile goal and I don't think much has been written about it. Such a compendium, if it were dynamic and interactive, would be invaluable. Would you, based on your experience with various organizations, including CCR and so forth, foresee grant opportunities to support such an effort? And what current efforts on the legal front would you try to include in this broader global initiative?

EGN: This is an issue that I care a lot about. I don't have a legal background myself, but whenever you're trying to do business development of any kind, you've got this climate that's created via the national laws relating to business, and so it's a set of issues that affects every effort at co-op development. There is another committee within the International Cooperative Alliance. I don't remember its exact name, but there is a legal committee. And the head of the committee is Hagen Henry, a Finnish attorney who's written quite a bit about international cooperative law. He and I have talked about this topic, but I think you identified something very important.

A committee focused on legal matters can't just go out and do all of this legal research and development work. Money has to come from somewhere to support it. And as of now, there really isn't a comprehensive source of funding for the worldwide review and development of co-operative law, but that needs to happen. Among the people involved in that committee are people with the skills to do an excellent job of reviewing co-op laws, identifying where there needs to be improvement in those laws, and then working with people in the countries where there are deficient co-op laws, helping them to try to get movement toward a more supportive legal environment for cooperatives.

This brings us to a question that applies to most of the questions that you are asking me: where do you get the money to perform these activities? That applies to co-op business centers, legal issues, educational questions – all of that, and more. And one of my recommendations, in fact, in the book is that we need to have a cooperative development foundation that is internationally oriented. There could be more than one. In the United States, we do have something called the Cooperative Development Foundation, which is a kind of arm of the National Cooperative Business Association. It does some international development funding. But on an international scale, I almost see it as a sister entity to the International Cooperative Alliance.

You know, the International Cooperative Alliance is really a membership organization. It serves its members, which are country-level co-op entities and sub-country-level co-op entities. But as a member-service organization, I think it needs to be separated from what would be a co-op development foundation that is focused on improving the quality of co-ops in the world and adding new co-ops to the world.

Just a little anecdote on that. I was the first director of the Wisconsin Cooperative Development Council, which changed its name to Cooperative Development Services when it began to serve a number of different states. Our initial funding came from the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives. The reason they wanted to fund us is they didn't feel it was appropriate for them as a membership organization of cooperatives to spend their members’ money developing other co-ops. And in fact, there was some pushback from members of the Wisconsin Federation of Co-ops: “Hey, what are you using our money for? You're creating competition for us.” This was not really what was going on, but the director at that time of the Wisconsin Federation of Co-ops, Rod Mills, had the foresight to recognize that you need to separate the trade association function of co-ops from the cooperative development function of co-ops.

I would argue that a similar decision would need to happen at the international level. We need a new entity that could be supported by the International Cooperative Alliance and its members that can provide funding for legal issues, educational issues, and business development issues. Without that kind of funding, we aren't going to get the kind of action that we need in those different areas, I'm afraid.

GC: This really leads right into the question of international “development.” I put the term “development” in quotes as a way of recognizing the critiques of the whole development tradition since the 1960s. That said, the question of how to put other areas of the world on the radar for the kinds of institutions we're talking about, the kinds of co-op developers we're talking about – academics and practitioners – is really important. You suggest developing strategic plans. As a precursor to that, what kinds of data do you think we would need to gather from less industrialized parts of the world? You know, it's a little tricky, right? Because part of it is about reaching out to people you don't necessarily already know, reaching beyond the familiar crowd and familiar citation patterns and that sort of thing to uncover other cooperative efforts in the world that may not get that much attention or be written about in English, certainly. So how would you go about organizing this work? Is the initial step talking to people, gathering data, that sort of thing, to make sure that the whole process of planning is really well informed that way?

EGN: I'm not really thinking in terms of some massive, comprehensive co-op development strategy for the world. That, I think, is an unworkable idea, but I do think that you could go country-by- country, community-by-community, and say, “OK, what are the economic issues, social issues, and so on that are particularly important in this community, this region, this country? Could co-ops play a role in helping to ameliorate those problems that they're facing? And if so, how in this particular context?”

Let me skip to another point in your question. I'm very interested in renewable energy and climate- change issues. One issue in particular about which I've done some writing is the important role that community-based solar co-ops could play in addressing energy problems around the world. And, you know, that's something in which I would love to be involved. I haven't been too intimately involved in that issue, but the model that I picture is one in which you have a technology like solar panels that can be easily developed and applied in local communities around the world, excluding the Poles, if you had an organizing mechanism.

Let's just pick Kenya as an example. Kenya is a country that has committed to having universal electrification by 2030, which is part of the UN's goal for electrification. I think many developing countries will not achieve full electrification by 2030. However, some of them, like Kenya and others that are making a concerted effort to do that, will succeed.

What's one way that goal could be achieved in Kenya? By mobilizing villages in rural parts of Kenya where there is the greatest lack of electricity. A model could be created that could be adapted by different villages and clusters of villages around the country. The electrification process would be organized so that each village that wanted to be electrified would take ownership of the process based on the best way to get electrified. In most cases, it will be solar panels because stringing wires in remote rural areas of Africa is not going to do the trick in the vast majority of the continent. What I'm suggesting here is that this is a way to think about cooperative development – as an organizing activity that can be carried out community-by-community, but in such a way that you get economies of scale; you have an overall program that can be rolled out in different parts of a particular country.

One of the case studies in the book is about a community health system approach carried out in Kenya between 2000 and 2010. It was organized in a similar way to what I just described about solar energy. The project ended up with more than two million people involved in community-based health care in several thousand villages of Kenya. The program was discontinued, unfortunately. But that model is a way to fairly rapidly develop a wide variety of different kinds of cooperatives, anything from credit unions to insurance to health care to forest management to renewable energy.

The problem is that those of us in the co-op community don't usually think that way about co-op development. We think about our community and how we can get our food co-op functioning properly. But, you know, there's another way to think about co-op development, where you're looking at impact across millions of lives, not just those in your own local community.

As a friend of mine once said, you shouldn't develop co-ops as “onesies,” meaning one-off projects. You should think about what you can do in co-op development that can be applied and adapted across thousands of communities. And again, that's one of the reasons I like the Mondragón experience, not so much because of its geographical breadth but because of the diversity of the other kinds of co-ops that Mondragón has developed within the Basque region in Spain.

Matt Noyes: you mentioned the experience in Kenya of developing the community health system and then that the program was discontinued in 2010, which just immediately makes me think, how do we think about a program that can be discontinued by somebody pulling the plug? Is there an issue there about who has the initiative and the control and the decision-making in that country?

EGN: That's an excellent comment. In fact, let's write a book together about that, when you get done working on this one.

Again, one of the things that I really liked about that community-based health care model in Kenya was that asking people what they know and what they want was the very first thing the organizers did. By the way, the organizers were ninety-five percent Kenyan. It wasn't like CLUSA sent over a bunch of white guys from the States to tell the Kenyans how to run their villages. It was mostly Kenyans who staffed the project. The very first thing they would do was explain to a gathering of community residents what the community health initiative was about. Then they would say, “This is what we are interested in doing, but you need to decide whether or not you want to participate. And so we will go away for a while. And then you tell us whether we should come back and help with your community health project or not.” So, the very first organizing step was to say, “Do you want to play or not?” And if they didn't, or they weren't ready at that time to be a part of the program, that was OK.

GC: That's one reason why the participatory action research tradition in sociology and other disciplines has been so important. You don't hear the term as much these days, but I think the spirit is very much alive.

EGN: My background is as a sociologist, and I like that kind of language.

GC: This returns us to the question of the renewed emphasis on mutuality, on the Commons, on peer-to-peer engagement and consultation and collaboration. To Matt and me, the prevalence of those terms and concepts, fueled in part by the pandemic, is very heartening, because I think a lot of people are taking those things very seriously. It has also led to more conversation between things like mutual aid and the cooperative movement. We know that's happening a lot in Chicago, for example.

EGN: Just to continue with this theme a little bit, one of the recommendations that I made in the book has to do with cooperative development organizations, those 40 entities in the U.S. that I mentioned, along with some in Europe and Canada. I think cooperative development organizations should exist in every country and be based there. For example, in Mali, I did some applied research in collaboration with two different locally based cooperative development organizations. That was also a health-related project. I did the same kind of thing in Benin with three different co-op development organizations, and in Burkina Faso with two. All of these different development organizations were developed with the assistance of the Cooperative League of the U.S.A.

Papa Sene, the West African Director for CLUSA, was the main person responsible for developing all of these organizations. When the USAID funding ran out, he helped local CLUSA staff members develop their own organizations to continue co-op development, research, and other development work after the specific projects ended. This is moving away from neocolonialism. I'm big on having local entities within countries identifying cooperatives that they might network with and then obtaining assistance from other organizations. The main idea here is that they should be locally based and not dependent on the whim of some international aid organization.

MN: A question about cooperative development models has been coming up in GEO for some time. And as I understand it, in the past maybe 10 years in the U.S., there's been a shift toward a more institution-based approach to co-op development, primarily funded through foundation grants. Some practitioners who favor a peer-to-peer approach are critical of this approach to development and feel that it has displaced peer-to-peer networking approaches in which cooperative members in one project share their experience and learning with cooperative members in other projects. Have you seen this tension between a kind of professional co-op development model and a peer-to-peer model? How do you understand that relationship or that question?

EGN: Clearly, I like peer-to-peer approaches to development, but how do the peers get funded? How do they stay in business? Where does the financial and staffing support for them come from? I really don't like top-down approaches, yet I don't think that the distinction has to be “top-down” or “peer-to-peer” because I think you can have funding coming from foundations, government entities, or whatever, but in such a way that it supports peer-to-peer activities, rather than undercutting them.

I worry about the ability to have – “large scale” is not the word I want – but to have a large-impact approach to co-op development if you're just going to be relying on peer-to-peer activities. My concerns are that progress would be very slow and your peers would be dropping off the map fairly often because they've run out of money or they burned out for some other reason. So, I like to look at models that might create long-term funding, while at the same time being supportive of locally based peer-to-peer type activity and communication. Whether that is something that can exist, I don't know.

GC: I think back to a few cooperative conferences that I’ve attended where the whole question of professionalization came up. “Top-down vs bottom-up” was one way some of these tensions that we're talking about were framed and people were very much aware of what could potentially get lost in terms of more interactive, egalitarian, and informal relationships among co-ops. But there's a balance to be maintained or to be sought. I think that is one of your points.

EGN: Yes. I think we've got about five books now that we have to write based on our conversation so far.

I guess that for me, what it always comes down to in the end is that people make history, and we are not just the objects of actions by other people, or governments, or corporations. Since we can be active in making our own history and making changes in our local communities and in our society, this idea of people as change agents is extremely important for this kind of discussion we're having.

Take the professionalization point that you made. It's as though people want to co-opt what should be a more broadly held set of activities, to have them co-opted mainly by the professionals who “know how to do it right.” Yes, there are professionals who have good experience that we should lean on, but if you discount the importance of active community residents, then what's the point? Co-ops are supposed to be organizations democratically controlled by their members. For sure, it's tricky to achieve all these balances. My goal with the book was to raise a number of ideas and recommendations. I’m eager to see what people do with them.


Books on Cooperatives by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.

Strengthening the Cooperative Community by E.G. Nadeau, March 2021.

The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History, Second Edition, by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D., and Luc Nadeau, M.S., October 2018.

The Cooperative Society by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D., and Luc Nadeau, M.S., November 2016.

The Cooperative Solution: How the United States can tame recessions, reduce inequality, and protect the environment, by E.G. Nadeau, July 2012.

Cooperation Works! How people are using cooperative action to rebuild communities and revitalize the economy, by E.G. Nadeau and David J. Thompson, June 1997.



GEO Collective (2021).  How to Strengthen the Cooperative Community:  An Interview with E.G. Nadeau.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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