Co-operating for an Alternative Future

‘Mutual Aid is in the co-ops DNA’ was the theme of this year Co-operative Fortnight 2020.  How true is this for local co-operatives? On the 2nd July, some co-operatives and co-operative supporters from all over Northern Ireland gathered online for a discussion around three questions:

  1. 1 How have co-ops been impacted by the Covid-19 emergency? How did they contribute to helping others during the lockdown?
  2. 2 What type of support has been available to co-ops to run and sustain their activity through the crisis?
  3. 3 To ‘build back better together’, what type of changes would we like to see in the near future? Long term?

Conversation around those three questions highlighted the role co-operatives played in the current crisis, being at the forefront of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Whether newly registered or long established, co-operatives have responded by demonstrating what solidarity in action meant. For instance, only a few months old, the Belfast Food Co-op raised money to include healthy, nutritious and organic products in community food parcels. Northern Ireland Community Energy (NICE) provided a moratorium to the community centres powered by its renewable energy. The Co-op Group, faced with increasing demand and emerging needs (for example offering delivery services) has demonstrated its ability as an ethical shop directly engaged in supporting community and charitable activities for the benefit of those most affected by the crisis. These are only a few examples of co-operatives’ responses to the current emergency.

It was clear during our discussion that the recent coronavirus crisis had only highlights the already existing “cracks in the system” and that there is a need to harness the recent outburst of solidarity and mutual aid and foster a vision for a people-centred economy. In so doing, demonstrating the value of co-operation, not only to policy-makers who might dismiss co-operatives as small in spite of being “perfectly formed” (as mentioned by Karen from NICE) and scalable, but also to consumers and harder to reach communities, seems crucial.

It becomes apparent that co-operatives hold in a unique position in our economy and it may be the right time to unleash their transformative power. In order to do so, we need to reflect on their unique characteristics and come to terms with their potential so as to sustain, maintain and nurture them.


Co-operatives can create wealth in the community.

Members of the co-operative co-own the assets and this means that collectively and individually we increase our wealth. Answering the question on ownership is crucial today. The Community Wealth Building movement brings wealth at the centre of our thinking. Community wealth does not merely depend on an increase in income that we may experience when we are working in a co-op, but it is about the valuable assets that we co-own , such as a business, a park, a piece of land for farming or a sport facility. This is what increases our collective wealth! Creation of jobs, houses, shared spaces through co-ownership gives us back a voice and an opportunity to make collective decisions on how we manage and run them.

Co-operatives thrive on self-help and self-responsibility.

This means that co-operatives act and transform the world around them by mobilising people. Co-ops allow groups to establish a common interest and purpose usually to address an identified need. Co-ops cannot be other than bottom-up initiatives with groups of individuals taking responsibility and mutually help each other to fight what it is no longer acceptable in their community: lack of decent jobs, no healthy food, no affordable housing, no sport facilities etc. Co-ops cannot be other than democratic since all members are involved on equal terms and willing to collaborate to make the world better – the critique of the bigger picture is as essential as the building on local resources. This is a route taken uniquely by co-operatives! Other social and community organisations may address the need of our communities, but their modus operandi is different. We wish a world where we could have less unmet needs and a plurality of voices when it comes to deal with them.

Co-operatives promote mutual aid and solidarity.

Why this is so important? Because it brings people at the core of co-operatives and open the door to forms of solidarity within and outside the co-operative movement that defeat that sense of competitiveness that still permeates every aspect of our lives. Among the seven co-operative principles which guide co-operation worldwide – forming a co-operative “bill of rights” –  the most relevant to the discussion were – Principle 6  about ‘co-operation among co-operatives’ and Principle 5, ‘concerns for the community’. Principle 6  means that co-operatives are most impactful when they work together and strengthen the co-operative movement and Principle 5 makes co-operators lift our head from our busy routine and reach out to others to sustain communities we belong to.  A co-operative shop is no longer just a shop; a co-operative workplace, not longer simply a workplace: they become places where a democratic and people-centred economy is enacted in our day to day life.


You can watch the full discussion on


The event was chaired by Tiziana O’Hara from Co-operative Alternatives and Ellie Perrin, PhD student at the University of Liverpool.