Cooperatives and Capabilities: International Perspectives

Last month, with Manufacturing Renaissance, we were so pleased to host a delegation from the Basque Country on building a sustainable and inclusive society. The Basque Country is the home of Mondragon – a world leader in the development of worker cooperatives.

The Basque County is a semi-autonomous region in northern Spain that represents a model of development that is inspiration and provides an excellent example of the power of advanced manufacturing as a foundation for building a society that is productive, secure, and inclusive.  Their programs and approaches are useful models that we can learn from in developing a close and effective partnership between manufacturing companies, government and civil society.

Included in this delegation was Jorge Arevalo, Deputy Minister for Vocational Training and Nicolas Sagarazu, Director of Planning and Organization of the Department of Education. They and other visitors spoke about their unique approach to vocational training, providing a number of useful insights about how to establish conditions for a creative learning environment.  Click here to view their presentations.

Worker cooperatives have a long history in many societies throughout the world and even in Chicago.  As national and local networks have formed to assist the formation of worker cooperatives, GCI produced a report last year on Policy Recommendations for Amendments to the State of Illinois Worker Cooperative Statute.

In keeping with GCI’s continued effort to elevate worker cooperatives as an important community development strategy, we are pleased to feature a report back from Lucas McGranahan, Senior Research Specialist, Great Cities Institute, on human development and worker cooperatives.

Cooperatives and Capabilities: A Report from London

Lucas McGranahan, Senior Research Specialist, Great Cities Institute

In September I had the opportunity to present at the annual conference of the Human Development and Capabilities Association, hosted this year by University College London. I put together a panel for HDCA because I believe in the organization’s holistic vision of development: the point isn’t just to increase nebulous economic indicators such as GDP but to enhance people’s effective freedoms—their capabilities—across a range of dimensions including health, education, work, and more.

The point of economic development isn’t economic development: it’s human development.

The panel I chaired, “Cooperatives and Capabilities,” considered a topic that many of us at the Great Cities Institute are deeply interested in: the advantages of the cooperative business form in enabling people to live stable, autonomous, and dignified lives. My own presentation argued that it’s not enough for development scholars and practitioners to focus on decreasing unemployment. They need to focus on improving the quality of work, which in turn depends on the structure of work—who owns capital and who makes decisions at all levels of the enterprise.

My co-presenters backed up my theoretical paper with concrete studies: Kenneth Stikkers From SIU Carbondale outlined how capabilities are fostered by the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque Region of Spain, a successful network of enterprises that explicitly treat capital as instrumental to labor; and Pasquale de Muro of Roma Tre University discussed how producer cooperatives in developing countries help individual farmers achieve collective agency, affording them access to markets and credit that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

The audience of the three-day conference was highly international and interdisciplinary, with a mix of academics and practitioners arriving from scores of countries. This eclectic assortment made for interesting conversations at every session, every coffee break, and every informal pub meetup. What everyone had in common was an idea that is worth preserving: poverty is multidimensional, not just a lack of money or resources. The dimensions of poverty include a lack of autonomy, democracy, and healthy interdependence in people’s economic lives. It is here that cooperatives show a way forward.

Next year, the annual conference of the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA) will be in Aukland, New Zealand from June 30- July 2, 2020.