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.