The People’s Economic Forum 2021, a virtual all-day conference organized by SANASA International, was successfully held on the 29th of September 2021, laying the foundation for a comprehensive discourse on the strengths of the cooperative sector and its potential to help achieve national development goals.

 The forum, sponsored by the EFFECS (SANASA Entrepreneur Financial Expertise Centre) and implemented by the Development International Desjardins (DID) under the funding arrangements of the Global Affairs of CANADA, brought together key actors who have been involved in developing, sponsoring and regulating cooperative enterprises at national and international levels. Cooperative leaders, policymakers, service providers, researchers and relevant national authorities deliberated on the best practices, innovative approaches and policy issues to develop the cooperative sector.

 The former Governor of the Central Bank, Prof. W.D. Lakshman, who was the Chief Guest, pointed out that the cooperative sector plays an important role even in developed economies and emphasized the importance of cooperatives moving to promote the enterprise element and enhance efficiencies in the production process.

 “Over the last 75 years, Sri Lanka has used almost every development model, tools and strategies, within many different frameworks. Due to some social democratic strategies the country has advanced on social indicators, but we have not been able to develop the economy to reap benefits from these social achievements,” he observed.

 He further said that “an accelerated economic path cannot be obtained without large, private sector and state sector enterprises creating wealth,” but pointed out that if there is to be a more egalitarian economy there has to be an effective distribution mechanism. The cooperative sector, which represents 25% of the population, can play a big role in this, he said.

 The EFECS Project Director Pierre Markowski welcomed the initiative and reaffirmed DID’s commitment to building awareness about the cooperative enterprise model. He also explained the role of DID in building the SME sector through Entrepreneur financial centers in the developing countries and stated that SEFEC, the centre which was developed with SANASA International, will continue building cooperative enterprises and support the growth of local value chains.

Trevor Ludowyke, Senior Development Officer, High Commission of Canada in Sri Lanka, highlighted that the People’s Economic Forum was a much-needed initiative and emphasized that the establishment of the SANASA Entrepreneur Financial Expertise Centre (EFECS) is an innovative approach that aims to facilitate sustainable growth and development of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) through a value chain approach.

Mr. Upali Herath, the former Regional Advisor on HRD and Consumer Cooperation at the ICA Regional Office for Asia & the Pacific, who held many senior positions in the cooperative sector in Sri Lanka, spoke on the ways in which member-controlled enterprises such as cooperatives differ from other enterprises and explained why cooperatives are relevant today. He pointed out that cooperatives have better outreach to communities, they serve the growing demand for elderly care and childcare, they can protect smallholder farmers, and local food production and food distribution systems, and shorten supply chains by establishing direct purchasing lines between producer and consumer cooperatives, reducing the risk of inflated food prices. All this can help transform economies in the medium and long term towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns aligned with Sustainable Development Goals 12

Speaking on “COOP Enterprises in Sri Lanka – Potentials and Prospects”, Dr. R.M.K. Ratnayake, the former Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Cooperatives, said “as the world, today faces unstable financial systems, increased food supply insecurity, growing inequality worldwide, rapid climate change, and increased environmental degradation, it is increasingly compelling to consider the model of economic enterprise that cooperatives offer.’ He offered that the cooperative sector, especially in developing countries, also presents itself as an essential element that can contribute to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).”

 These points were further highlighted by the five case studies presented along with panel discussions with the cooperative leaders. The case studies covered the Morawakkorale Tea Producers’ Cooperative Society, Palm Development Cooperative Society in Nedunkeny, Galle Cooperative Hospital, National Youth Service Cooperative Society and Beralapanathara Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society.

Participating in the afternoon session, the Commissioner of Cooperatives Mr Suvinda Singappuli and Mr. Sarath Weerasiri, the Chairman of the National Cooperative Council elaborated on the governance issues of the cooperatives. The Commissioner identified the weakened administration of the cooperative organizations and arbitrary and sometimes political decisions from policymakers constitute barriers to the growth and development of the sector. He invited the cooperatives to have a more collaborative engagement with the regulators. Mr. Weerasiri thanked SANASA for organizing this kind of forum, which he said would strengthen cross-learning and cooperation among cooperators.

 Dr.P.A Kiriwandeniya, the founding leader of the SANASA Movement, in his closing remarks invited the next generation of cooperators to reaffirm the unique identity of the cooperatives. Dr. Kiriwandeniya stated that the participatory development space has eroded over the years as the space for citizen action also was politically encroached

 “The chief guest and all other resource people provided much insight to the principles, values, and the cooperative practices, which is very important for today’s citizenship education. How do we popularize cooperative among children, the youth and the elders? How do we incorporate it into our lives and build a cooperative-based society?“

He invited participants to study global best practices and encouraged cooperators to work more closely to strengthen each other and grow as a sector.

 Overall, the forum improved the awareness of the cooperative enterprise model and illustrated the richness of the sector with real stories from Sri Lanka and abroad. It raised awareness of the scale, scope, role, and influence of the cooperative sector in achieving the sustainable development goals of the nation. It highlighted the potential of engaging youth in development through cooperatives. The forum examined the governance and regulatory frameworks to facilitate an enabling environment for the growth of cooperative enterprises and explore opportunities for transboundary cooperation needed to position the cooperative sector as a means to support a more people-centered economy.

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