The Francis Report: Life in a Global Context, is a monthly column dealing with globally significant, locally relevant topics by Millstone columnist Arnie Francis,
We recently returned from a trip to New York City. Like other pilgrims to the Big Apple, we love NYC for its enigmatic people, its architectural beauty, its cultural institutions and its complex spaces. NYC and its five boroughs have a population of about 9 million compared to the NY Metropolitan Area of 19 million.1 One skyscraper in NYC can easily hold all 12,000 people from Mississippi Mills if someone would just organize the trip! The very beat of the city speaks to competition and coexistence. Founded around 1624 as a trading post by colonists of the Dutch Republic, and named New Amsterdam at the time, NYC startles you with its contrasts and its symbols that epitomize the ragged ideological divergence of a social experiment somewhat adrift. You can see it clearly: the wealthiest 1% and the rest! Wall Street and Zuccotti Park converge. 2 Out on Lexington Avenue the Escalades and BMW F25s compete with the yellow cabs for pole position as the traffic signals turn green. And just inside the subway doors someone is asking for a “swipe” (the transit swipe pass) to find warmth inside and away from the biting January chill at street level. In NYC the streets exude the swagger of the well-to-do and manifest the American caste system in a perfect dance of “co” operation.
Meanwhile, if we didn’t feel diminished enough among the towering buildings, a tour of the United Nations’ complex on NYC’s east side leaves us humbled by the Planet’s perspective. Beyond the 193-seat General Assembly chamber with its imposing domed ceiling and the Security Council hall are the ever-present – some say ill-fated – eight Millennium Development Goals3 and the work of the UN’s Development Program. There are signs that the positive partnership the UN seeks to build has borne tactical innovations including locally farmed loofah from South America being used as cheap, native building material; and the red cup campaign (www.freerice.com) demonstrating how cooperative promotion, philanthropy and pragmatism intersect to deliver free rice to the world’s hungry. Everywhere – even in this maelstrom of free enterprise – there is evidence that the way to achieve real answers to a world in conflict is through partnering and cooperating. The United Nations has declared 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) defines a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise”.4 The ICA lists seven values ascribed to cooperatives:
- Voluntary and Open Membership
- Democratic Member Control
- Member Economic Participation
- Autonomy and Independence
- Education, Training and Information
- Co-operation among Co-operatives
- Concern for Community
“Over 18 million Canadians can count themselves as members of co‐operatives,” reads Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s message of January 12, 2012 at the Canadian launch of the International Year of Co-operatives. The Conservative Prime Minister’s statement ironically notes that “the existence of co‐operatives across all sectors of the economy speaks to the influence and relevance of the co‐operative movement… “5 The Prime Minister gives laud to the enduring legacy on the nation’s socio‐economic strength of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), born out of the dustbowl of the 1930’s in western Canada. The CCF unified the Farmer-Labour-Socialist movements and its successor is the New Democratic Party of Canada.
It is estimated that cooperatives account for between 800 million to one billion members in over 100 countries, affording a staggering propensity for global economic impact. The notion has not been lost on the US Congress. In re-vamping its foreign aid legislation, it has entertained the Global Partnerships Act of 2011, proposed by Ranking Member Howard L. Berman. 6 The proposition codifies how US participation in various global initiatives – namely foreign aid7 – can be equitably and effectively pursued in a cooperative manner8. The draft bill has seven purposes vaguely reflective of both the UN’s Millennium Goals and the ICA’s seven values for cooperatives:
- Reducing Global Poverty and Alleviating Human Suffering
- Advancing Peace and Mitigating Conflict
- Supporting Human Rights and Democracy
- Building and Reinforcing Strategic Partnerships
- Countering Transnational Threats
- Sustaining the Global Environment
- Expanding Prosperity Through Trade and Investment
Throughout Canada cooperatives are pervasive. In the financial sector alone, “Canadian co-operatives, credit unions and caisses populaire have $275 billion in assets.” 9 In Ontario, about 125,000 people live in more than 550 non-profit housing co‑operatives.10 Even on locally-scaled projects in Mississippi Mills, little gets done without the broadest engagement in informal community cooperation, including the diverse activities of the Hub, the Mills Community Development Corporation and the International Puppets Up Festival.
Cooperative enterprises and global partnerships both seek to provide mutual benefit to their members. In a world caught up in political strife, territorial conflicts, water and food shortages and sectarian violence, it is becoming more important for ethical people to “read the label” on their investments to balance the value of “share” capital against “shared” capital.
NYC is a symbolic reminder of the towering impact of wealth, power, cooperation and development. So our most enduring memory of this great city goes something like this….
On a cold snowy evening in early January, in a mall in the Bronx, the parking lot decorated in menorahs and santas, we met a deli-owner who unknowingly embodied Millennium Goals and global cooperative values. He loudly encouraged his new South Asian immigrant worker to finally learn the difference between pastrami and salami. He adjusted the ceiling-mounted TV for poor folks sitting in the booths not to eat, but to get warm and watch the lottery results to see if they would finally be among the one percent. He chuckled patiently at the two Canadians who simply couldn’t believe that the I-95 North would lead them east to the Bronx!
We the people of the United Nations determined.… 11