International Year of Cooperatives: Father of Cooperatives

The UN General Assembly declared 2012 International Year of Cooperatives, highlighting the contribution of cooperatives to socio-economic development. In adopting Resolution 64/136 on 18 December 2009, the General Assembly noted that cooperatives impact poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.
In 2011 the theme Youth, the Future of Cooperatives was chosen for International Day of Cooperatives, highlighting the enormous value of engaging the energy and drive of young people. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, stated “through their distinctive focus on values, cooperatives have proven themselves a resilient and viable business model that can prosper even during difficult times. This success has helped prevent many families and communities from sliding into poverty”.
In moving towards International Year of Cooperatives the Secretary-General invited young people to explore the benefits of pursuing cooperative enterprise and other forms of social entrepreneurship. At the same time he encouraged the cooperative movement to engage with youth, in a spirit of dialogue and mutual understanding, in recognising young women and men as valuable partners in strengthening the cooperative movement and in sustaining the role of cooperatives in social and economic development.
To commemorate the Year, regional conferences will raise the awareness of cooperatives and seek ways to leverage their contribution to socio-economic development and foster regulatory frameworks. A research agenda has been proposed and Member States are to form national committees that will serve as focal points for the Year’s worldwide activities.
Father of Cooperatives: A social pioneer
Robert Owen (1771-1858) was born in Montgomeryshire, son of a saddler and ironmonger from Newtown in Wales. His life, work and legacy as philanthropist and social pioneer are well documented.
He tried to put his philanthropic and visionary views into effect, first as manager, then as owner of the New Lanark Cotton Mills. He was outspoken and wrote extensively about the need to provide education and social progress for workers and their families. In an age of cruel mill managers and ‘dark, satanic mills’, he abolished child labour and corporal punishment, and provided decent homes, fair wages, free health care and a new education system for villagers, which included the first nursery school in the world.
In recognition of its unique history and importance with restoration as a living community, the award-winning Scottish New Lanark Village has been designated universal patrimony as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other communities on cooperative lines were founded in Hampshire, England and New Harmony Indiana, USA. Although unsuccessful they were influential in many respects.
Along with Frenchman Daniel Le Grand (1783-1850), these nineteenth century industrialists were motivated by humanitarian causes accompanied by political and social needs. They challenged the doctrine of laissez-faire, inaugurated socialism and the cooperative movement and foresaw the problems of industrial development.
On New Year’s Day, 1816, a quote from Robert Owen’s address to the inhabitants of New Lanark reads: “What ideas individuals may attach to the term “Millenium” I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold”.
When the International Labour Office was founded in Geneva, the gift of the people of Wales was appropriately a bust of Robert Owen by Sir William Goscombe John for the library. His track record and legacy of his influence and vision is being revisited … as someone of international renown whose philosophy has contemporary relevance to our society today. “He passionately believed in putting people before profit and that business could be conducted in such a way that the benefits were maximised for all”.
His place in history is associated with Royal Bank of Scotland as a pioneer of the worldwide cooperative movement. In approaching International Year of Cooperatives more than 2,000 people signed an on-line ‘Bank on Owen’ petition requesting that his image be printed on Scottish bank notes during 2012. Many notables pledged their support as did the British Association of Credit Unions. A Member of the Scottish Parliament passed a bill in support of the campaign.
Ita Marguet, January 2012
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used. It incorporates texts titled Father of Cooperatives: A Social Pioneer (October 2010) and United Nations: International Year of Cooperatives (January 2012).