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April 3, 2009


Erbin Crowell, Cooperative Business Journal - Italy is an amazing destination for those interested in history, architecture and food. But it is also holds important lessons for those interested in cooperatives. Italy has more co-ops per capita than any other country in the world. In Emilia Romagna, a region in the country's northeast with a population of 4.2 million people, you'll find an astonishing concentration of these enterprises: 7,500 co-ops in total, two-thirds of which are worker-owned. Cooperatives employ ten percent of the workforce, and the region has some of the lowest unemployment rates and highest standards of living in Europe.

Co-ops are such a common feature of daily life in Emilia Romagna that they are hard to miss. While there, we often ate lunch at CAMST, a worker co-op that provides catering and food services across the region, and which generates about $374 million in annual sales. A banner at a construction site we passed declared that the project was managed by CESI, another worker co-op. We visited Emilbanca, a rural credit cooperative with a proud agrarian history, which has evolved into a very modern financial institution with a deep sense of social responsibility. And the shelves in an outlet of COOP, a consumer co-op federation and Italy's largest retailer, were lined with products from producer-owned cooperatives.

We visited farmer co-ops, fishing co-ops and housing co-ops. We even stumbled upon a fair-trade shop and cafe, only to learn that it, too, was a co-op.

The prevalence of cooperation in northern Italy is truly amazing, but it is no accident. In Italy, they cooperate like they mean it.

The Italian cooperative movement has an impressive history that reaches back to the 1800s. . . [It] is, in fact, a movement. Even the Italian constitution recognizes "the social function of cooperation as a form of mutual aid devoid of all private speculative intent." Co-ops also seem to recognize that trade among co-ops of all sectors is not only a philosophical ideal, but is also a lever for economic development, strengthening the movement as a whole. In this sense, they recognize the true importance of cooperation among cooperatives. Co-op sectors are better integrated than they are in the U.S., collaborating through informal networks as well as more formal models such as federations, consortia and funding organizations. This, in turn, enables the movement to engage the government with greater strength, demonstrating that cooperatives are unique community assets, spanning generations, with strong values and local roots. . .

Prior to my visit, I had heard that Italian law requires all co-ops to contribute 3 percent of their annual surpluses to funds that provide lending, investment and technical assistance support. But it surprised me that the co-ops themselves had proposed this law.

The development of the "social cooperative" is a particularly impressive example of what I call "co-opreneurship." Beginning in the 1980s, in response to the decline in government-sponsored health care, educational services and employment services, people began to form co-ops to offer such services themselves. In 1991, the national government passed a law that formalized the model, which contributed to a dramatic expansion of these co-ops into areas such as job training, and care for the elderly and disabled. By 2001, Italy had about 6,000 social co-ops, which employed 160,000 people, 15,000 of whom were disadvantaged workers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Viva, Italia!

April 3, 2009 7:09 PM  

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