Monday, 8 July 2013

Malaysian 'barefoot co-operator' spellbinds audience

Race Mathews (l) with Paul Sinappan (r)

Some 35 people of different political and religious persuasions gathered yesterday at the Trades Hall Council in Melbourne on Saturday 6 July for a meeting organised by Cardijn Community Australia on community credit co-operatives in Asia and Australia

The event marked United Nations Day of the Co-operative.

The group listened spellbound to a powerful presentation by Paul Sinnappan Savriamuthu, Malaysia’s ‘barefoot co-operator’, as he told how a Young Christian Student group, children of impoverished Indian plantation workers, began a credit co-operative which loaned money for items such as a pencil or rubber. That initiative has now grown into a network of community-based credit co-operatives benefitting the homes, health, education and savings of over 64,000 families. Its volunteer leaders go beyond the financial issues to conduct Cardijn-styled ‘See Judge Act’ personal and social ‘inquiries’ within the co-operatives. Financial literacy, ‘family enrichment’, gender, children, youth, social sustainability (in contrast to welfare), local environmental issues, and local government (including ‘Peoples Parliaments’) are some of the issues that have emerged and are being very successfully addressed.

Malaysia’s Catholic Bishops later supported the development of this model among Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and indigenous communities. Paul has also been engaged by NGOs to teach this model around South-East, East and Central Asia and the Subcontinent, as well as into North America. In China they adapted a popular microfinancing program already underway to ensure that its (women) members accumulate savings and equity in addition to the access to credit provided by the Grameen Bank model. Scores of community banks are now in existence as a result.

It is a model of civil society, whose objectives of ‘Planet People Profit’ defend the poor against both exploiting big capitalism and controlling communism. Paul is documenting his method in the Tamil language, which we plan to translate into English and make available.

Perspectives from the local scene included Cate O’Dwyer’s story of the Fitzroy & Carlton Community Credit Co-operative, begun by the Brotherhood of St Laurence in 1977, which developed a very successful sustainable (in contrast to welfare) model for pensioners, but which folded a few weeks ago. It was one of the last small credit co-operatives in Victoria (most started in Catholic parishes by the YCW) to have collapsed under the crushing pressure of increased government regulation in the wake of the 1990 Pyramid Building Society collapse (the 1996 Wallis Inquiry). Many have been absorbed into Bankmecu.

As a result of the increasingly complex task of beginning local credit co-operatives, some no-interest loan schemes have emerged to fill the need for credit. Kevin Vaughan told of one hugely successful no-interest loan scheme established in the working class Catholic parish of St Albans to help Middle Eastern and then Sudanese refugees. It was funded initially by a $15,000 donation by the St Vincent de Paul Society, a few local benefactors, and the monthly contributions of 120 parishioners.

Jacques Boulet told of a renaissance in co-operative training occurring in post-GFC Britain, centred on the Manchester’s ‘Co-op College’, and development of accredited co-operative training underway at the Borderlands Co-operative in Melbourne. Sarah Taylor told of her involvement with a Women’s Paper Making Co-operative in a Nepalese village, and the educational initiatives it made possible in the community.

Dr Race Mathews noted that in addition to legislative and political pressures, a problem had been the explosive historical expansion in community credit co-operatives had been associated with a decline in members with co-operative skills. Eventually many co-op were abandoned to finance industry professionals (some of whom had been hire purchase managers); the co-operative culture was lost.

Broader issues raised by Dr Mathews and others included Australia’s recent loss of co-operative ‘institutional memory’ and international disconnect, and the related crisis in education and training. The importance of worker and client ownership, and building links between different types of co-operatives were raised. Scrutiny of an apparently promising but as yet unsighted Federal template for co-operatives, and seeing to an appropriate mutualist peak body are two of a number of tasks awaiting co-operative advocates.

Possibilities for advocacy and development of niche credit co-operatives will be followed up, initially by further on-line communication between participants, and future meetings. If you would like to join us, contact David Moloney on dmo74189@bigpond.net.au

View a Flickr photo gallery of the event below.



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