The United Nations General Assembly has designated 2012 as the U.N. International Year of Cooperatives. The world body recognizes the contribution of cooperatives to socioeconomic development, particularly their roles in poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.

In the wake of the 2008 Lehman Brothers shock, economic imbalance and distortion caused by the market economy have become salient. It is our hope that cooperatives become more involved in efforts to secure stable food supplies, improve community medical services, ensure the well-being of the elderly, create employment opportunities, revive depopulated communities and protecting the environment from the greedy exploitation.

As of March 2011, some 250 organizations from 93 countries belonged to the International Co-operative Alliance. With nearly a billion members, it is important for these cooperative organizations to make efforts to raise public and government awareness of their contributions to social and economic development.

Cooperatives have long history in Japan, but in recent years they have become less popular. People now seem to be more interested in the activities of nonprofit organizations and in serving their communities as volunteers. The primary purpose of cooperatives is to promote mutual help and benefits among members who pay membership fees or who have invested in the cooperative. To help make the public more aware of their presence and contributions, cooperatives need to go beyond mutual help and support, and strive to appeal to wider interests.

The activities of cooperatives in communities hit by the 3/11 disasters have given Japanese society an opportunity to appreciate their fundamental goal of strengthening communal bonds. Some consumers’ cooperatives are utilizing trucks to serve as mobile stores to help residents in disaster-hit areas who find it difficult to buy daily necessities. Hospitals and medical clinics run by health and welfare cooperatives and the medical service wings of agricultural cooperatives are providing health services in communities that are suffering from a shortage of medical facilities. As such cases show, it is vital that cooperatives are able to adapt their activities to fit the changing needs of communities.

Some cooperatives have become too large and now resemble ordinary businesses. They should not forget that the founding and fundamental principle of cooperatives is mutual help.

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