The United Nations has proclaimed first Saturday of July as the International Day of Cooperatives in recognition of the indispensable role cooperatives play in economic and social development.
IFAD focuses on improving a range of opportunities for the rural poor - primarily through better agricultural production, rural finance and local capacity-building. In these areas, IFAD's bottom-up approach encourages the participation of the rural poor and the formation of local groups.
Group formation fosters participation and enables the poor themselves to own their own development efforts. This not only ensures that measures are targeted efficiently but also helps to make development activities sustainable after a project ends.
The development of small enterprise groups can benefit rural economies because they help promote growth in rural areas. In addition, the promotion of rural entrepreneurs also helps revitalize local economies through the development of various activities aimed at satisfying the basic needs of rural households (manufacturing and repair workshops, garment making, hairdressing, small shops, small business centres, etc.).
IFAD systematically promotes participatory approaches and community mobilization across all regions. The recent development of the microfinance sector has helped to fill an important 'gap' in rural areas by providing basic savings and credit services to the poor. In Benin, for example, IFAD financed an outreach programme enabling the cooperative system of savings and loans to reach the poor. Credit recovery rates were more than 97% by the time the project was completed.
Guadelupe, 58, is one of the 71 members forming the Cooperativa Agrícola Integral Paquixeña Cuchumateca at Paquix in Guatemala. The cooperative used to sell its produce to middlemen, '' sharks, who were making the most profit, and earning more than we were'', she says. Thanks to project services and training, these farmers who previously had never attended school or at least not for very long are now managers, assistant bookkeepers and loan officers, marketing their own produce with double the return.
In Lebanon, under IFAD's Smallholder Livestock Rehabilitation Project, Walid Sabah, runs the Zahle cattle cooperative. He has teamed up with 14 other local men to make the most of the resources they have. ''The fights among factions were intense and 70% of the local livestock were destroyed'', explains Sabah. The project lent them nine cows; they were able to add ten more, some imported from France. They now have good milk production and once again earn a decent living.
Representative rural enterprise institutions such as trade or business associations should be reinforced and encouraged to provide a range of services and advice to their members, including market information and business knowledge. These associations should, in addition, lobby the government concerning issues linked to the small rural enterprise sub-sector.
Even the most disadvantaged and poorest groups - rural women, indigenous peoples, small and marginal farmers can overcome hunger and poverty if they are empowered to do so. They have the capacity and the will: what they need is the opportunity and the means.