The government of Nepal has embraced cooperatives as one of the three pillars of the economy, cognizant of their power and evolving prospects to contribute to poverty reduction, service delivery, gender equality and good governance.
Across the world today, cooperatives are increasingly seen as key players at the grassroots level, effectively organizing farmers and small businesses, providing much-needed financial support, and empowering the poor by creating jobs and income-generating activities. It is therefore not surprising that the government of Nepal has embraced cooperatives as one of the three main pillars of the economy, alongside the public and private sectors.
With over 34,500 cooperatives active across the country, managed by 6.3 million members, the sector has built an impressive network already. And it shows no signs of slowing down; every year, cooperatives are making inroads into newer areas such as education and health, agriculture, industry and banking. The fact that cooperatives have already reached around one-third of the Nepali population, and show seemingly boundless potential for expansion, means they will play a crucial role in helping the country to make progress on the SDGs.
“I don’t believe there is a single one out of the 17 SDGs that doesn’t apply to cooperatives, in some form or the other,” says Keshab Badal, chairperson of the National Cooperative Federation of Nepal (NCFN), an umbrella body of cooperatives in the country. Badal explains that the Federation has been campaigning to promote the SDGs since they first came into effect several years ago, including by conducting training and orientation programs at the district and local levels on the links between the Global Goals and the cooperative movement.
The most obvious of these links has to do with the impact of cooperatives on poverty reduction, or SDG 1, through the creation of livelihood opportunities, particularly for poor segments of society. Data from the Federation shows that cooperatives have generated over 64,000 full-time jobs, while indirectly benefitting around 1 million others. In fact, the sector contributes around 4 percent of the country’s total GDP, equal to that of the tourism industry.
The scope of their functions has also evolved over time. While cooperatives used to largely limit themselves to collecting deposits from members and providing loans, they are now opening up to a more diverse range of income-generating activities—thereby raising the earnings of the cooperatives themselves on the one hand and creating jobs on the other.
Similarly, given that an overwhelming number of co-ops in Nepal are involved in boosting productivity and production in agriculture and animal husbandry, there is also a clear link to SDG 2, which has to do with ending hunger and improving food security.
In other cases, cooperatives can be found running health centers and hospitals in more remote areas of the country, thereby enabling communities otherwise cut off from health services to access necessary medical treatment at affordable rates. In a context where the government still hasn’t been able to provide quality healthcare at the local level, thousands upon thousands are benefitting from the intervention of the cooperatives, which incidentally contributes to SDG 3 on the promotion of health and well-being.
It’s a similar situation when it comes to education, or SDG 4: in some places where government-run institutions are unable to ensure quality education, cooperatives have stepped in to fill the gap, running schools and colleges targeted at people from lower-income groups who cannot afford private school education.
And, in what is one of the sector’s biggest accomplishments, women comprise over 52 percent of the total members of cooperatives. This positively illustrates the importance of the cooperative model in terms of expanding women’s opportunities to participate in different social and economic activities, thereby contributing to their empowerment and financial independence, and gender equality overall—a clear nod to SDG 5.
Badal also reflects on how cooperatives can support effective governance, another important aspect of the SDGs, particularly in the new federal context of Nepal. “Co-ops, together with local governments, can help to better spread out state benefits to the local level,” he says. He adds that they also assist in maintaining peace in society through their mediation and advocacy functions. According to Badal, examples of this abounded in the period not too long ago when different communities were divided over the form and features of federalism in the country, where the involvement of cooperatives was vital in preventing tensions from spiraling out of control.
In this way, the work of cooperatives can be seen as exerting impact—direct as well as indirect—on a majority of the SDGs. “The part cooperatives have played in mobilizing local resources and communities while also delivering various essential services at the local level is highly encouraging,” says Pushpa Raj Kandel, vice-chair of the National Planning Commission, the government’s focal agency for the SDGs. As proof of the growing acceptance of their power and prospects, NPC has created an SDG Steering Committee led by the prime minister in which cooperatives are represented; similarly, a number of thematic committees associated with each of the 17 Goals have also included cooperatives among their key stakeholders.
In its report titled ‘Sustainable Development Goals—Status and Roadmap: 2016-2030’, the NPC estimated that achieving all the targets of the SDGs will cost the country a whopping Rs. 1.77 trillion annually, which is around 68 percent of the total GDP of the country. “It is evident that unless the private sector, NGOs and cooperatives bear some of the burden, the shortfall in funding can never be bridged, and the Global Goals will remain a distant dream,” Kandel says.