This year Nicaragua hosted the 2013 Human Development and Capability Association’s annual conference. The three day event was held in the University of Central America and the participants represented a diversity of organizations and universities from 44 different countries. The final speaker of the conference was Joshua Cohen, an American philosopher and professor at Stamford University. His talk focussed on his experiences bringing together students from CA and Nairobi to design mobile technology innovations that address health and human development. His examples included several pilots that failed – point being, it’s important to fail and learn from your failures so you can apply that to your next pilot. As long as your keep trying, you will have success.
In the Q&A, Social Business Network’s representative at the conference asked Cohen why it is acceptable for individual startups or pilots to repeatedly fail, while other models of business development such as cooperatives are written off when they fail. While unfortunately Cohen agreed but couldn’t offer any further insight, it is worth considering when analyzing supply chains. Many critics of Fair Trade, for example, will cite a failed cooperative business as proof that the model doesn’t work. But how often do you read that private corporations are an inadequate model for development because one goes bankrupt? We are quick to forgive or blame individuals for embezzlement, tax evasion, or bad management, but when the same problems occur within a cooperative or social business setting the structure is often scrutinized rather than the individual.
Founding director of Social Business Network, Nick Hoskyns, talks about the importance for there to be a reason for a cooperative. Because of the inherent egalitarian structure, cooperatives are often seen as an appealing method for social development. But problems occur when the formation of the cooperative is seen as the end rather than the means to the end – with the goal being creating a successful business. Cooperatives that are formed for the sole reason of bringing people together to raise themselves up out of poverty rarely succeed. Cooperatives are successful for the same reasons that private businesses are – they produce a quality product for a growing market. And they fail for the same reasons that private companies fail – market shifts that make the same product cheaper from another source, bad management, or poor leadership. successful cooperatively owned brands such as Ocean Spray, Cabot Creamery, and the Co-operative in England are not exceptions to a rule, they are examples of good business ethics and skills applied to a model that builds leadership and democracy, and encourages equal wealth distribution.