Celebrating cooperatives, reimagining economies
On the first Saturday in November, Bangladesh observes the National Cooperatives Day. In these times of domination by giant corporations, it may be hard to imagine the role of cooperatives. Yet, the Bangladesh government is supporting the development and growth of cooperatives, resulting in a growing number of cooperatives and their members, and their increased importance to the economy.
The dominance of giant corporations on the global economy is not something to celebrate. The fact that corporations are richer than many national governments gives the former far too much power. Back when I worked on tobacco control, I was shocked that governments around the world were reluctant to pass laws that might harm the business of tobacco companies. Wait—isn't it the government's duty to make laws to protect health and the environment? Isn't controlling corporations a major part of their duties? But even in countries which score low on the corruption index, corporate lobbying still influences policy.
Giant corporations have a well-deserved notoriety for lobbying against any number of regulations that would protect the environment and people's health but harm corporate profit. Examples of corporate malfeasance include lobbying that contributes to major oil spills, Facebook spreading misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines and contributing to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, and Amazon crushing unions. Giant corporations are also known for their effect on small businesses: when a Walmart comes to town, a tsunami of shop closures follows in its wake, as small businesses have no way to match Walmart's prices. With Amazon delivering ever more goods—and there are various smaller versions of Amazon fulfilling the same role here in Bangladesh—fewer people go to shops, which also helps put those shops out of business. But with those closures of local shops comes a devastating effect on the local economy, from which many small towns never recover. Fewer people have traditional jobs. More people work for the gig economy, where they have no worker protection, no health insurance, and no pension.
It might seem that the only direction in which we can move is towards ever greater consolidation of the economy into the hands of a few corporations, and thus ever more billionaires controlling most of the world's wealth—as well as its governments. But there is a brighter alternative.
Allow me a brief lapse into fantasy. You know how there are all those cheap Chinese goods for sale—toys and sandals and other junk that lasts perhaps a few weeks or months at most? But people buy them because they are "affordable." Well, obviously, mass-producing plastic products for consumption by the poor is not great for the environment, nor does it particularly contribute to human happiness. Imagine, instead, a world in which more of our goods were hand-produced by craftspeople, who have some interest and pride in their work. Rather than shop regularly, we would own a lot fewer things, but they would be of better quality. Rather than work for giant corporations where, too often, we are merely interchangeable parts easily discarded if, heaven forbid, we raise our voices for better working conditions, we would belong to a local cooperative of people interested in using their skills to earn their livelihood—but also in contributing to the community.
Another fantasy, based on a Bangla novel I read, is of local communal kitchens that buy food in bulk, hire local people to cook it, then sell it at low cost to those in the community. If you can't afford even that price, you can contribute labour to eat for free. Communal kitchens would save people money and time. Working together to cook and serve the food would also strengthen communities.
There are many organisations, like the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and Local Futures, that study and promote a more localised approach that emphasises cooperation over competition, the local over the global, and concern for all life over selfishness. There is no reason to allow giant corporations to continue to dominate our economies and our lives. We can support the local—both in terms of individual and small businesses and cooperatives. Truth be told, competition is overrated in economics; cooperation is an essential quality that enables people to live together and local economies to thrive.
If you agree, try to ensure that your shopping matches your convictions by supporting cooperatives and small local businesses, rather than giant corporations. We all can contribute to creating the society that we wish to live in.
Debra Efroymson is the executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."