Perhaps as never before in our lifetimes, we look forward to this New Year. As we embark on the 21st year of the 21st century, we must be clear-eyed about what we learned in 2020 and then ask what role cooperatives can and should play in the future. In many ways, the decisions of 2021 will have longer-term impact on the future of our country and globe than the deeply consequential year of 2020. This is the year that people and policymakers will have an opportunity to chart a new path.
First, we do need to consider what 2020 wrought. As of the writing of this column, over 1.84 million people in the world—more than 350,000 of them alone in the U.S.—have lost their lives due to COVID-19. The pandemic’s disparate impact on communities of color is stark. Black, Hispanic and Native American communities experienced higher death rates. Data are still incoming, but one recent study cited by the CDC suggests that Black Americans’ share of total COVID-19 deaths hovers around 34 percent, despite making up only 12 percent of the entire U.S. population. Provisional data suggest similar, though likely somewhat lower, disparities among Americans of Hispanic origin and Native Americans.,
Entire sectors of our economy were upended, with retail and service sector employees—who tend to be women, BIPOC and lower wage earners—taking the brunt. Hispanic Americans lost the most ground percentage-wise and economically. Further, at every income level, Black people continue to face higher unemployment levels than white people. During the pandemic, employment gaps have widened, with the white-Black gap having widened most consistently from approximately 2 points in November 2019 to near 5 points in November 2020.
Meanwhile, those on the upper end of the income and wealth spectrum did very well. White collar workers in the top 25 percent or so of the income distribution saw job rebounds and even growth by last fall, while those in the bottom quintile were still missing more than 20 percent of their pre-pandemic employment. Meanwhile, the stock market is booming.
These numbers make clear that the country and the globe need concrete solutions to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive economy. As cooperators, we know that the cooperative business model has stood the test of time, helping countless millions of people take ownership of their businesses and communities. For recent proof, one just needs to look at how cooperatives responded to the pandemic in 2020.
COVID-19 spurred co-ops to focus as never before on serving their members, protecting their employees and innovating new ways to deliver goods and services. Credit unions quickly created financial tools for those whose household incomes took a temporary hit, while rural electric co-ops offered flexible payment policies to minimize the economic harm caused by job losses. Meanwhile cooperatives up and down the agriculture and food supply chain pivoted to ensure their customers and employees were safe, all the while adjusting their systems and distribution channels so that their members had the continued ability to market and access products.
Internationally, we witnessed cooperatives pivot in similar ways. In Peru, NCBA CLUSA held virtual workshops, piloted an e-commerce platform with Direct Global and doubled down on our work to modernize the country’s cooperative law—work the pandemic made more urgent than ever. In Mozambique, farmers turned to radio and text messages from NCBA CLUSA for critical information on marketing decisions and price negotiations.
Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and its inequitable economic fallout, 2020 also shed light on the pandemic of systemic racism with the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more. The energy and focus on this issue caused individuals, businesses and communities to reexamine their role in creating—or hampering—more equitable economies. We saw co-ops speak out against police brutality, join protests, protect their communities and lift up each other’s voices.
Meanwhile, the vaccine has arrived and there is light at the end of the tunnel. But myriad questions remain: How quickly will people be able to access the vaccine? How many people will choose not to take it? Will the vaccine be distributed in an equitable way? How quickly will people be able to resume pre-pandemic economic activities—and will they even want to?
At NCBA CLUSA, we see our role—as always—to increase the impact and influence of cooperatives so they can be used to build a more inclusive economy. In 2020, that meant getting creative. We worked across sectors to ensure as many cooperatives as possible were eligible for federal COVID-19 economic assistance. We learned to express our cooperative identity in a virtual world and redefined what meaningful engagement and connection can look like. Events like our annual Cooperative IMPACT Conference shifted fully online, presenting new challenges, but also new opportunities: without the constraints of travel and significant financial commitments, we reached more than 900 cooperators and heard from an unprecedented 125 speakers across five days of programming.
For 2021, as we seek to advance our vision of a more diverse, equitable and inclusive economy, we look to our four lines of work as we serve our members and stakeholders across the globe.
With a new Administration and Congress, we will continue to work aggressively to ensure policymakers support people’s efforts to use cooperatives to solve problems. This means more support for technical assistance, financing, and education and training. We will continue to work with the cooperative community so that co-ops are treated appropriately and fairly in the tax and regulatory environment. It means lifting up opportunities such as limited equity cooperative housing, worker co-ops in the care sector, empowering gig workers through cooperatives, and empowering farmers and others to use co-ops to address climate change. It means helping small businesses convert to cooperatives and using the cooperative business model to bring broadband to those on the margins. And in the international sphere, it means investing in cooperative and community-led development to bring more people into the economy, increase financial security, and promote democratic institutions. And we will do this through partnership and coalition with our Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus and Interagency Cooperative Development Working Group. As the recent report authored by the Urban Institute makes clear, policymakers have a concrete set of strategies they can use to support people who use cooperatives to build more inclusive economies.
We will continue to use all our communication channels to amplify the co-op difference. This means educating the public via social media, using our platforms to connect with new audiences and sharing the good work done by cooperatives across all sectors of the economy. We are increasing our virtual offerings to provide more opportunities for learning and thought leadership. As economies around the world begin to recover from the devasting effects of 2020, more and more people are looking to the cooperative business model as a means to achieve a more resilient future. We will use that opportunity to elevate our shared co-op identity and provide a deeper, unified understanding of cooperative businesses worldwide. Through our flagship publication, the Cooperative Business Journal, we will highlight economic and societal research that provides in-depth understanding of cooperative enterprise. We will further that learning through increased virtual events for members, policy makers, donors and partners. We will ensure that the Cooperative IMPACT Conference continues to be accessible to everyone and continues to provide the relevant, enriching content that is synonymous with its name. As the year progresses, we will remain nimble and seek every opportunity to engage with journalists, media outlets, trade publications and thought leaders to better inform the public on the positive impact cooperative business have communities around the world.
We will continue to work with experts and thought leaders to make clear how cooperatives impact the economy and society. In alignment with the International Cooperative Alliance, we will focus this year on the importance of our cooperative identity, which includes the shared values and principles of cooperatives. We will work to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are more express in the co-op identity, and we will also explore how the cooperative identity makes clear that cooperatives are the natural leaders for creating positive social impact in their communities. We will work with our Council of Cooperative Economists and others to bring the very best research to the forefront as policymakers and others look to rebuild and remake the economy in the wake of COVID-19. We will also explore how to exercise the sixth cooperative principle in communities across the country so that as cooperatives cooperate, they can deepen their community impact and increase membership and revenue.
NCBA CLUSA’s work to make our economy more inclusive extends worldwide as we seek to build resilient communities, create economic opportunities, and strengthen cooperatives in producer groups. In 2020, we directly reached more than 730,000 people—close to 270,000 of them women and 230,000 young people. Almost 158,000 people participated in food security programs, and we reached more than 18,000 children under the age of two with community-based nutrition interventions. We celebrated 25 years of continuous development work in Mozambique and marked a decade of impact with Feed the Future. Moving into 2021, our work will continue to focus on ensuring that people have the knowledge, resources and authority to build prosperity and well-being for themselves and future generations. Here in the U.S., we will continue to partner with the Cooperative Development Foundation to help educate and cultivate cooperative development with work that will include delving into how cooperatives can be used to increase food sovereignty and security in Indian Country and how cooperatives can best accelerate a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Charting a new path
This New Year will ask a lot of the cooperative community. For much of the year until the benefits of widespread vaccination are felt, households and communities will continue to be tragically impacted by COVID-19. We will need to remain vigilant and dig even deeper for necessary resilience during this period. At the same time, we must keep our eyes on a brighter future and ensure that people and policymakers understand the power of the cooperative business model to transform lives and help solve the problems made so clear by this pandemic. We look forward to working with and supporting the cooperative community in this year of extraordinary challenges and opportunities.
—Doug O’Brien is president and CEO of NCBA CLUSA, where he works with the cooperative community to deepen its impact on the economy.