【Opinion】Independence essential for agricultural cooperatives (May 2, 2017)

[By Masaru Yamada, The Japan Agricultural News Special Senior Writer]

Last week, Tokyo-based Asian Productivity Organization held a five-day workshop in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to discuss development of Asian rural villages and the role of farmers’ cooperatives. More than 20 people from 12 countries, including bureaucrats, executives of agricultural organizations, officials of nonprofit organizations and university faculty members, participated in the workshop.

It was surprising to see that although the goal of the workshop was to reaffirm the role of cooperatives in increasing the value of agriculture, many of the attendants voiced criticism over the current farm coops.

Some pointed out that agricultural coops are government-led organizations, with their leaders focusing only on politics and having no interest at all in agriculture. Others said there are many farm coop executives who disappear after obtaining subsidies from the government.

After one participant brought up the subject, others began saying one after another that similar things are happening in their countries as well. An official of the Bangladeshi government, one of the organizers, hastily tried to settle the issue by stressing the importance of the role of governments and farm coops, but such criticisms remained throughout the discussion.

Speaking with participants during coffee breaks, I began to think that their criticisms are perfectly understandable. In most Asian nations, agricultural cooperatives are initiated by the government. The coops’ leaders are virtually assigned by the government, and their policies keep changing all the time depending on the government or big-name politicians. Many argued that farm coops’ leadership is always concentrating on gauging the government’s intentions and never think about helping farmers in need. Some even said the coops’ executives are putting subsidies and bribes into their pockets through threatening or conciliating.

In some Asian developing countries, there apparently is a situation which largely differs from cooperatives’ principles of joining hands with an aim to boost income.

There are cases where farmers are cutting ties with agricultural cooperatives and organizing a kind of a regional mutual support group by themselves with the help of nonprofit organizations. They seem to have come to a conclusion that rather than depending on agricultural coops that are strictly restricted by the government, it is better to set up an autonomous organization to carry through with cooperative principles.

In many of the industrialized nations including Japan, there is a history of cooperatives being created by the leadership of members independent from government control. But listening to the participants’ criticisms, I felt there are lessons to learn from them. Cooperatives should not do as the government says. Their management should be transparent so as not to make their members skeptical. Threatening should not be used by any means within the organizations.

All these are a matter of fact. However, immersed in Dhaka’s bustling sounds of car horns and Quran speakers from morning till night, I felt these lessons are something Japanese farm coops should again be aware of, as their relationship with the government is coming into question.

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