It might be thought that the question of how to define a co-operative has been settled once and for all by the co-operative principles and the co-operative identity statement proclaimed by the International Co-operative Alliance at a General Assembly in 1995 (ICA 1996). The identity statement defines a co-operative as: An autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. The principles include: democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; co-operation among co-operatives; and concern for community (MacPherson 1996). These were endorsed by United Nations Guidelines (United Nations 2001) and by the International Labour Office's Recommendation 193 (ILO 2001), and have been written into many co-operative laws around the world (Henry 2002). In the view of most commentators the subject is no longer open for debate; we just have to get on with promoting good laws that reflect the international consensus. Yet there are good reasons why we should not take the current set of principles for granted and should be prepared to do more work on the subject. This chapter begins by providing a brief history of the co-operative principles, showing how they were derived from the Rochdale Pioneers co-operative society and how the International Co-operative Alliance took charge of their codification, interpretation and occasional revision.
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