Cooperatives in the Stimulus Plan, Part II

In light of the massive economic revitalization project being planned by the still coalescing Obama administration, meant to dump hundreds of billions of dollars into employing Americans and modernizing the country’s infrastructure, one of the most promising trends is the rising popularity of the public – private partnership. A model of private sector business that could maximize the impact of this project is the cooperative one. Teaming up with the cooperative business model offers the government an unprecedented opportunity to not only jump start the economy but to empower citizens.

Cooperatives are, indeed, a business model, operating in a free market, out to maximize benefits to their owners. Unlike other models, however, coops are owned by their customers, or members, and are therefore controlled by the same people that use them. This is one of the reasons why cooperatives are such a viable option to make the most of the economic stimulus plan – a characteristic of a well-executed coop is that it will supply whatever good, service, or infrastructure that is needed or demanded, in the most suitable manner for the context. By creating the incentives for Americans to join credit unions, build housing cooperatives, buy into alternative energy cooperatives, etc, the new administration will see America’s valuable money mainlined directly to “main street,” resulting in innovation, the strengthening of an equitable middle class, a reinvigorated infrastructure that makes the most of local conditions, and, perhaps most importantly, a more active and empowered civil society.

Coops provide a key component to the answer in nearly every sector, including health, infrastructure and construction, education, banking, housing, energy, and many more.

For example, a recent experience of mine illustrates how coops appear when there is demand for something that is not being provided. In a North West Washington DC neighborhood, there is no publicly orchestrated child care, and the private sector does not offer any viable options for this group of Latino families. Realizing their common need, they decided to act and Do It For Themselves. Through a contact at the Latino Economic Development Corporation, the group contacted me at the National Cooperative Business Association seeking guidance on starting their child care coop. The coop could not only provide an unfulfilled and needed service but do it in a way that is affordable for its member, all the while empowering these citizens to take control of their own communities and economic fates. Imagine the possibilities if this kind of entrepreneurial spirit was recognized by the government; engaging coops in public – private partnerships unlocks a world of possibilities.

Indeed, one of the most exciting revelations that have become obvious through my work in international cooperative development, often in developing countries where people are forced to provide services for themselves, is the coop’s ability to efficiently reflect the needs and conditions of a given locale or population.

Cooperatives in the New New Deal

As the new administration rolls out its massive stimulus plan, it is an opportunity to consider alternatives that could multiply the effectiveness of the project. Whether the seemingly flawless free market philosophy that has reigned in America’s economy has lost credibility during the current crisis or not, it is obvious that people are open now, in an unprecedented way, perhaps, to models of doing business that are humanizing and empowering as well as economically fruitful.

Cooperatives have proven themselves as not only a viable business model but also one that enhances the ownership, control and benefits to those who patronize it. Implementing the massive public works programs that Obama and his teams have been speaking about using cooperatives could ensure that more people benefit more directly from the stimulus package. The benefits of that package would also reduce inequalities as cooperatives naturally nurture just and profitable economic outcomes.

Furthermore, implementing the stimulus through cooperatives would also give the American people a greater stake, more ownership, and therefore a higher level of commitment to the national effort to not only save America from the economic crisis but to see it emmerge as an even stroner nation.

Indonesia, a Hub of Asia and Islam

Initial thoughts on the new administration’s policy towards Indonesia, Asia, and Islam.

Fault lines are becoming visible the world over, places – geographic, political and cultural places – through which tides of global power have to flow and fulcrums on which balances will tilt. While the US has focused so much of its attention on the Middle East, certainly a consequential fault line, the country of Indonesia now sits at the crux of at least two axes, one linking the Islamic world to the United States as the country exists in the cultures of both, and one linking a hungry China to a key position in its bid for ever increasing global influence. On both axes, Indonesia could indeed be the tipping point at which the international balances of power will be defined for the next era.

The redundancy of the statement by today’s pundits does not make it pablum – the new Obama administration is presented with unprecedented opportunities as well as risks.

Indonesia is critical not because it is a source for America’s natural resources or because of high tech manufacturing – it is precisely the yet undefined yet massive potential of its huge demographic that makes it absolutely crucial for the US to refocus its priorities and retune its strategy. It is a vibrancy and somewhat unstable country partly because it resides in so many worlds, yet is owned by none of them. It the largest Islamic country in the world, yet its people relish free speech and contraversy, modern music and modern democracy. It is part of the Asian world, yet many parts of its national personality reside solidly in the world of the West, notably its form of democratic pluralism and its international engagement.

Indonesia is, for the United States, a portal to both the Islamic world and the rest of Asia. Seeing one another as competitors in a game where the balance could tip in any direction, they all know that the fourth largest population in the most islanded nation on earth can give them a crucial edge over the rest. Perhaps most critical in light of the “war on terror” is the very real danger of radical Islam’s influence in Indonesia. Awash in poverty and inequality, the country is ripe for an a strong force to take control of the national narrative, in many ways precluding a mutually beneficial relationship with America.

Helping Indoenesia develop and improve upon the strength of its democratic institutions, as well as lessen the impact of economic and social inequalities, may be the most effective strategy for building a relationship and capitalizing on the countries position as a global turning point.