Rethinking the Role of Cooperatives in African Development
4. Insights into the Blemishes of African Cooperatives
The importance of cooperatives in African nations can hardly be dismissed but nonetheless, they also exhibit some shortcomings and deficiencies. For example, Emana (2009, p. 27) informs us that cooperatives in Ethiopia encounter immense obstacles. For though their role and responsibilities in the Ethiopian economy is rapidly increasing, their limited policy advocacy capacity impede their ability to assume new scope of engagements. In addition to this, Ethiopian cooperatives are struggling to design an effective internal governance mechanisms and a system of decision-making that will allow them to respond to external priorities, market opportunities and the changing Ethiopian socio-economic environment. Emana (2009, p. 27-28), furthermore, alludes to the need for human resource development to counteract the technical skills confinement (i.e. cooperative management skills) various Ethiopian cooperatives encounter.
Another challenge with African cooperatives is that they can easily be abused for political purposes. Develtere et al. 2009 teach us about the detriment of excessive government involvement in cooperative activities. During the period of state controlled cooperative development, which stretched from post-independence era to the liberalization years in 1980s, African cooperatives lost their autonomy and built a dependency on government. For example, membership in rural cooperatives became mandatory in Tanzania following the transition to socialism in 1967. In Burkina Faso, arable state land was only given to a person upon accepting the membership of a cooperative. As Develtere et al. (2009, p.6) explain cooperatives enjoyed a monopolistic status and received extensive support from the state, especially financial support.
As a result, formidable growth occurred in the cooperative sector including increased membership and numbers of registered cooperatives. However, because many members viewed cooperatives not to be their own establishment but rather an instrument of the government, their motivation to manage cooperatives dropped. Following the decline of member's morale in the management of their organization, the government saw it as their duty to assume this task for the purpose of preserving the functioning of cooperatives. Eventually, this gave way to the practice of nepotism, corruption, mismanagement and financial indiscipline.
Some cooperatives in Africa are not only vulnerable to politics from outside but they are equally susceptible to politics from within as the Senegalese groupements case (Senegalese term for association or collective group) shows. We come to know from Kah et al (2005, p.135-142) that between 1985 and 2005 over 50 groupements were formed in the town of Gossas. Women make up the majority of the membership. Essentially, these associations are seen as a way to reach greater economies of scale, augment one's political power, and realize greater opportunities and profits.
The growth and profitability of the groupement was accompanied with an increasing political voice for the women. Soon some problems emerged: It was observed that women, especially microcredit founders and leaders, had connected with the Senegalese government to built their social capital. These political affiliations were strategically formed to gain access to funding from NGOs, government financing, and grants. In approaching the government, the woman group leader would offer the votes of her groupement members in exchange for more funding.
Aside from the aforementioned internal flaws, cooperatives can experience tension between their value commitment and their aspiration to internationalize while maintaining economic viability. In their examination of cooperatives that are expanding their markets across the board, Carruthers et al (2009), discovered that global cooperatives apply strategies and organizational reforms that are in conflict with the ICA values and principles. Currently, the internationalization efforts of African cooperatives are low. However, in the future, this limitation of cooperatives is likely to be experienced by some African cooperatives at their attempt to build global networks and expand their market opportunities.
This paper has argued that in spite of their deficiencies, cooperatives continue to be relevant in Africa by reason of their accord with African traditional values, their capability to create employment, and their ability to offer social protection for various Africans living in rural communities. The potential vested in cooperatives have led many to magnify them as the solution to Africa's problem of "underdevelopment." More skeptical analysts contest the idea of cooperatives as a useful apparatus for development and portend to their malfunctions and their history of being engulfed by state politics (Develtere et al., 2008).
This analysis of African cooperatives has taught us that cooperatives should neither be treated as the solution to development nor should they be completely disregarded. Rather cooperatives must be viewed as one viable solution among many other possible solutions. Since development is a comprehensive and complex process encompassing cultural, environmental, political, economic and social ingredients, it demands for the involvement of various actors. As this paper has demonstrated, cooperatives have been functioning in their role as one of the agents of development as their remarkable inputs to many African national economies demonstrate (Schwettman, 1997). However, to ascribe cooperatives alone with the extensive role of procuring development is to essentially overburden them.
Due to the scarcity of reliable data on African cooperatives, assessing the exact socio-economic impact on African economies continues to be a knotted problem. Available statistics are usually based on estimations made by researchers (e.g., Emana, 2009; Develtere, 1993; and Pollet, 2003.). It is recommended that African governmental institutions aid in establishing mechanisms that will allow for the proper documentation and assessment of cooperatives.
Lamentably, the literature and research on African cooperatives is focused on rural cooperatives and development. Little is known about cooperative activities in the urban settings. Future research and cooperative awareness and promotion campaigns should, accordingly, be extended to urban areas in African countries.
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