Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Aylin Çiğdem Köne, Professor of Development Economics, Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, Turkey

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Aylin Çiğdem Köne, a Professor of Development Economics at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University in Turkey.

Article | 06 August 2020

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I am a professor of economics who works at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University. I have a Ph.D. in development economics from Marmara University. My academic work covers the environmental and social impacts of economic activities and focuses on measurement and assessment of sustainability. Additionally, I have been closely involved with the social and solidarity economy (SSE) in recent years. I am the co-founder of Sosyal Ekonomi (Social Economy) blog and undertake its editorial work since its launch.

What has been the nature of your engagement with cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy?

I have always avoided identifying economics and development problems as technical issues. I find it unacceptable that the dominant economics paradigm is so removed from humanities and social and natural sciences. This critical thinking framework led me to research alternative economies. There is an intellectually stimulating body of knowledge and experience compiled in that field. Until recently, the SSE concept was not known widely. Yet, its practices have been around for a long time. Cooperatives, as incorporated in the concept, have a deep-rooted and remarkable history.

I consider SSE highly valuable as an alternative. Firstly, it defines the purpose of economic activity as individual, social, and ecological well-being – instead of profit maximization. Moreover, it emphasizes ethics in economics, embraces participatory democratic management, and argues that society should have a say in economic decisions. It centers social interactions around cooperation, mutuality, and solidarity, which have been trivialized by the competitive and profit-based market economy.

Beyond these, SSE accommodates an impressive diversity in its practices. It is known that large cooperative enterprises achieve notable economic results. However, the effective solutions for humanity’s common issues that have been developed by smaller components should not be underestimated. Social and community cooperatives provide great examples of inclusive development. They contribute to the building of sustainable and shared prosperity. What inspires me is that the experiences established by people who come together under cooperatives and other SSE practices, working as hard as they can and improving both their businesses and themselves.

Frankly, the curiosity and interest triggered by these grassroots movements all around the world was my main motivation while creating “Sosyal Ekonomi”. Of course, I should also add the opportunity to study group behaviors and decisions that are mostly ignored by economics. In short, SSE is an interesting and vast research field that I cannot turn a blind eye to as a social scientist.

Could you tell us about “Sosyal Ekonomi”, a communication platform in Turkish on the internet? Who is involved and what are its objectives?

Since the launch of “Sosyal Ekonomi” in February 2018, we have been posting at least two blog entries weekly. We post original articles, interviews, think pieces, and translations; as well as news, good practice examples, and cooperation and collective work stories. Sometimes, we have guest writers from the field.

While more and more research, projects, and publications related to the field are emerging around the world in different languages, sources in Turkish were quite limited. This was our starting point. As expected, SSE and, the most important organizational form that is part of it, cooperatives are the pivotal topics of the blog. However, our scope is wider than these. There is also content discussing sustainable life from the perspective of transforming economic and social systems. To address the Turkish speaking audiences, we primarily post in Turkish, yet some articles in English can also be found on our website.

We aspire to follow the theoretical, practical, and political dimensions of developments in the field to our best, share ideas and disseminate knowledge. We think in order to create awareness and give inspiration, it’s important to share global practices with the Turkish audiences via good examples. Accordingly, our ultimate aim is to contribute to establishing a platform for those interested.

In addition to myself, two of my colleagues from our university and six undergraduate and graduate students also contribute to the blog. We avoid defining strict divisions of labour as this is a voluntary initiative. Each of us takes responsibility in accordance with our schedules, skills, and knowledge.

Our work on the blog does not only consist of desk-based research and the production of blog posts. We also visit SSE organizations to conduct interviews with them. We accept invitations from various organizations and initiatives for meetings and invited speeches as much as we can. This way, we meet with different representatives of SSE actors from all around Turkey and learn from them through exchange of ideas. Last year, we took the lead in organizing a social cooperative training given by Youth Deal Cooperative for our university students. Additionally, with the help of my blog experience, I have recently prepared a new course titled “Social Economy and Cooperatives” that will be added to Economics Department’s curriculum as an elective open to students from all departments.

What do you think is the state of cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy in Turkey? And prospects for its future? (challenges, opportunities, strengths, weaknesses)

In Turkey, cooperatives, foundations, and associations constitute “institutional” SSE and have their own legislation and legal forms. As a new form, social enterprises have no legal status yet in the country. Institutional SSE has 16 million individual members. In other words, roughly one out of every five people is a member of an SSE institution.

The cooperative sector is the largest and strongest pillar of SSE in Turkey. Over 50,000 primary cooperatives have 7.4 million members. However, due to their low market share, cooperatives do not have the power to balance the markets. Only two cooperatives from Turkey were included in ICA’s “The World’s 300 Largest Cooperatives” ranking. The lack of access to finance and government support prevents cooperatives from reaching efficient scale. Turkey is the only European country without a cooperative bank owned by cooperatives. The government has no holistic approach to cooperatives. Regulatory institutions and even cooperatives themselves have no agreement about cooperatives’ problems and solutions. Also, problems such as low public awareness, insufficient participation of the youth, and the lack of education negatively affect the long-term progress of the sector.

Although these long-standing problems still exist, SSE is gaining popularity and momentum in Turkey. The expansion of cooperatives and wider SSE in the last twenty years can be interpreted as the projection of global course. In line with worldwide trends, new cooperatives that embracing cooperative values and principles, adopting to produce social and environmental benefits as primary objectives, staying away from the hierarchical organization, and running democratic participation mechanisms at every level have been emerging. These cooperatives define themselves as “new generation cooperatives” or “social cooperatives”. They enter culture and entertainment, education, research and, consulting markets which are new for cooperatives in Turkey. Also, some of them employ disadvantaged and vulnerable people or provide goods and services for them.

The main development axis of cooperatives and SSE in Turkey is food, in my opinion. Local governments adopting social municipality principles and applying autonomous, inclusive, and participatory policies, support cooperatives, and strive for empowering strength solidarity in their city at every level. As a successful example, the comprehensive model of the Izmir Metropolitan Municipality is being replicated in other cities. Consequently, the negative perception about cooperatives is starting to change and public trust in cooperatives is on the rise.
Other SSE practices are doing remarkable work too. Food communities, seed associations, ecological life associations, solidarity networks of small producers united under the notions of localization, agroecology, and food sovereignty are trying to create alternatives to industrial agriculture and food system. Some SSE experiences turn into cooperative structures in the following stages, which bring a new dynamism and diversity to the cooperative system.

While the need for and attention towards SSE increases, I am expecting local authorities to continue their decisive role. However, at this point, two unfavorable situations might emerge; reaching the limitations of the local or taking the path of municipality-dependent development. In the absence of overarching policies at a national scale, the question of what will happen to SSE after it reaches the local development limit is an important one. No doubt that the vertical and horizontal development of cooperatives will have a critical effect on the future of the sector. At the horizontal level, furthering collaboration, partnership, and solidarity between cooperatives and municipalities at different locals is important to survive in markets dominated by big corporations. Abandoning their patriarchal structure, function in a way that reflects their care for the well-being of their employees and communities, and produce with respect to nature would allow cooperatives to vertically develop. Of course, it should be noted that there is a risk of scaling cooperatives to converge into corporate models.

What do you think is the role of the ILO in the world of cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy?

Apart from being the responsible agency of the United Nations for the world of work, ILO has a mandate to work on cooperatives. It is highly important that ILO – which is a neutral and impartial organization – has emphasized the importance of SSE in various documents and presented it as a viable solution to current issues. The main role of the ILO and ILO’s Cooperatives Unit regarding SSE is to contribute to its advancement. This role requires being active in several areas such as research, projects, policy advocacy, consultancy, technical collaboration, education, also building and strengthening networks between stakeholders. As SSE and cooperatives become more widespread, we hope that the ILO will continue and increase its supportive efforts.

The world of work is changing rapidly with technological, demographic, and environmental changes, with the pandemic wreaking havoc across the world. What do you think is the role that cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy can play in this changing world of work?

Even if the changes you mention might lead to certain opportunities such as creating new jobs, they rather cause more concerns for the future. Because of these changes, living conditions can worsen for the masses and climate change can reach an irreversible tipping point. And unfortunately, these are not unlikely.

The economic, societal, and ecological fragilities caused by the exploitation of humans and nature are laid bare with the pandemic. This crisis has shown why we urgently need to transform our economy and society to ensure that people’s jobs, livelihoods, and health come before private profit. Things that seemed impossible before pandemic are now considered both possible and necessary. Instead of an unlimited pursuit of profit, our economy could focus on meeting our basic needs, cultivating social relationships, and even doing better for our planet. Therefore, we can approach the role of cooperatives and SSE in changing the business world in terms of a paradigm change: A transition towards a paradigm that is relied on cooperation and gives priority to the welfare of human beings and the planet, instead of a one that is built upon competition, profit, and endless growth.

Around the world, cooperative businesses produce goods and services and provide a livelihood for people, with cooperative principles and values without prioritizing profit. The research findings on cooperatives are varied. Since they operate in various countries under various circumstances and, a wide range of sectors, this is not surprising. Most importantly, however, evidence shows that the overall well-being of participants in cooperatives increases. Moreover, this well-being is not limited to participants but also spills over into the communities they live in.

The cooperative system that is often portrayed as a marginal, obsolete model that served its time by the current paradigm, is a resilient and sustainable business model in reality. According to the data from research that compares traditional businesses with cooperatives, the latter is less short-termist, more efficient, has higher levels of income equality, and demonstrates better performance in business cycles. Hence, cooperatives and SSE are not economic actors that are only to be remembered in periods of crisis. On the contrary, they have the potential to provide the needs of society and produce welfare for everyone while respecting nature across time.

The multiple crises we are facing today provide an unprecedented opportunity for cooperatives and SSE to make a difference. In order to realize their potential and adapt to changes, cooperatives need to embrace their traditions and reach out to the future. Deep-rooted and reformed cooperative principles and values should be an indispensable part of doing business. Adapting to the future requires cooperatives to renew themselves, enter new lines of business to respond to emerging needs, and establish bonds with SSE practices.