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The Warsaw Voice » Other » April 16, 2008
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Co-ops: Keeping the Faith
April 16, 2008   
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Alfred Domagalski, president of the National Cooperative Council, talks to Urszula Imienińska.

Did Poland's entry into the European Union strengthen or weaken the cooperative movement?
Practically every social group and every industry can see the benefits of joining the EU. The same is true of cooperatives. Dairy cooperatives and cooperative banks have been the major beneficiaries. The mere prospect of Poland joining the EU forced these sectors to modernize and restructure. Many cooperatives availed themselves of various kinds of financial assistance from the EU in the run-up stage to accession. We now have efficient cooperative banks, dairies and retail stores all equipped with state-of-the-art equipment as a result. These were pre-accession benefits. The cooperative movement began to benefit from access to the common European market as soon as Poland joined the EU. This is especially true of dairy cooperatives. Exports have grown and the terms of trade have improved. Cooperatives have the same access to EU funding as other enterprises and make the most of them. This includes supply and sales, horticultural, labor and even housing cooperatives.

A casual observer could be excused for thinking the cooperative movement is on the wane in Poland.
Cooperatives are almost invisible in the media. Few people are aware that cooperatives employ hundreds of millions of people around the world, considerably more than multinational corporations. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) is a federation of cooperatives from 92 countries. The most telling example is Venezuela where 150,000 cooperatives have been set up over the past seven years during President Hugo Chávez's term in office. Poland has seen its values system shaken over recent years. A negative form of liberalism has been gaining strength here on the back of a wave of financial capital. This advocates individualism based on social egotism as the best way to increase wealth and satisfy unlimited material needs. Systems based on humanist values which endorse social inclusion and which allow for the coexistence of competition and cooperation have been forced onto the back foot.

But our very survival, let alone our development, depend on our working together. This idea is as old as humanity itself. The tougher the situation, the more imperative we face it together. This way of thinking has a long tradition in Poland, especially in Wielkopolska, [western Poland,] and what used to be known as Galicia [in southeastern Poland]. The cooperative movement flourished in those regions during the period Poland was partitioned [between Russia, Prussia and Austria from the second half of the 18th century to the end of World War II]. Economic societies were set up to handle supply and sale and farmer associations and cooperative banks began to spring up as well. Small farmers and craftsmen pooled their capital to help one another and develop. The movement remained viable and even consolidated its position during the interwar years. We can thank a lot of prominent citizens for this. Here we might mention Franciszek Stefczyk, who started cooperative banking, Father Stanisław Staszic who founded the Hrubieszów Agricultural Society for Mutual Rescue in Emergencies 190 years ago and considered the forerunner of modern cooperatives, and Stanisław Wojciechowski, president of Poland from 1922 to 1926, who was a great cooperative theoretician and practitioner. The cooperative movement was thriving all over Europe a hundred years ago and still survives in many countries. For example, Dutch farmers successfully prevented merchants dictating terms by organizing their own sales market.

The idea for group farms emerged in France between the two world wars but wasn't put into practice until the mid-1960s. The law on group farms came into effect in 1965. This allowed farms to be set up as group farms while maintaining their character as family farms.

What to produce, what to invest in and how income should be distributed are decided jointly by the farmers themselves on a group farm. This is a textbook example of democracy at work. Agricultural producers control more than 60 percent of sales in Western Europe. Farmers are involved in acquiring means of production in addition to processing and sales. For example, Danish farmers own shares in feed mills.

What about the situation in Poland? What effect has European integration had on the cooperative movement?
That's a tough one. We know that cooperatives are vital to Western economies, especially in agriculture, and food processing and trade. Cooperative organizations are strong and are considered important to the state. As such, they are entitled to tax breaks and other benefits. Poland does not fully understand what cooperatives are or how the cooperative system works. Cooperatives were considered part of the public sector economy until 1989. Today they are considered part of the commercial economy. This violates the fundamental concepts and principles underlying the cooperative movement.

We can't stop building the cooperative movement's image or raising public awareness. We have been achieving this gradually through a range of initiatives. The National Cooperative Council organizes academic conferences and symposiums, discussions and meetings on cooperative issues, and competitions and other events. We have established working relationships with several universities and we'll be holding the First European Cooperative Socioeconomic Forum in Warsaw in September. We are setting up a training center and have already appointed its consulting and advisory board. We attach great importance to educating cooperative members and we're counting on EU support. To conclude, I would just like to mention that July 1 is International Cooperatives Day. We'll be staging a huge celebration in Warsaw's Zamkowy Square to mark the occasion this year. There will be a Cooperative Fair showcasing the achievements of different cooperative sectors. There will also be a folk fashion show and performances by folk groups. Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz is honorary patron. I have every confidence that this event will be a runaway success and I would like to take this opportunity to extend a warm invitation to everyone from Warsaw, Mazovia and everywhere else in Poland.
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