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The boom in mutual aid groups is an opportunity for co-ops

Weekly newsletter of Coop Exchange
Weekly newsletter of Coop Exchange
As a result of the pandemic, mutual aid groups have boomed. This represents an opportunity for formation of new co-ops.

The boom in mutual aid
When the National Health Service in the UK put out a call for volunteers during the first lockdown, over 750,000 people signed up almost immediately, which was three times as much as estimated. This underestimate was not a meaningless curiosity with little practical importance: it also meant that there were nowhere near enough tasks prepared to be delegated for so many of the volunteers, which wasted a historical opportunity to utilise anywhere near the full potential of this great expectation exceeding mobilisation of good will.
Simultaneously, informal volunteering networks emerged spontaneously everywhere and out of nowhere of ordinary people operating through WhatsApp chats and Facebook groups to pick up groceries or prescriptions to their elderly neighbors who had to isolate themselves. More than one in five Britons now belong to a neighborhood support group as a result of a dramatic increase immediately after the first lockdown. The pandemic has seen 4.6 million people volunteer for the first time in their life, with a vast majority saying they want to continue doing so. Somewhat paradoxically, the measures for social distancing has also unleashed massive formations of new social ties: a 35 year old first time informal community group volunteer told The Financial Times that “I’ve met more people in the past few weeks than I’ve done at any time living in London”.
A review of the existing research on the phenomenon in the UK describes a
shift in volunteering around the country, with traditional formal organisations such as charities losing a large bulk of their volunteers whilst informal associational models are thriving.
These groups have been often associated with the practices of “mutual aid”, which has no single undisputed definition but is often differentiated from conventional charity by few distinct characteristics and tendencies. It is often described as forming more cooperative, reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationships between people: those who receive support from others often also provide support to others. This is in contrast to conventional charity which has a clear hierarchy between the people giving the support, who also run the charity, and those who receive their support. There is a clear overlap between mutual aid and the cooperative movement, with the former head of Cooperatives UK Ed Mayo going as far as stating that: 
“…Covid Mutual Aid groups that have emerged are essentially pop-up co-ops. They’re not formalised. They’re not registered as societies. But I think the first thing the co-op movement can do is recognise those initiatives as part of a wider co-operative sector. There we’ll find new talent, new ideas and a new vision that will give rise to new opportunities.
The Covid 19 Mutual Aid directory lists over 4,300 such groups in the country. If one agrees with the Mayos assessment, these groups could be perceived as including countless micro-sized “inter-platform” cooperatives who operate across many different platforms: it’s typical for a group to have both a WhatsApp chat and a Facebook page for example. Most were set up during the first lockdown, but a recent study reports that 40% are still actively operating. Although having volunteers distribute food and medication to elderly and other vulnerable people is still an important undertaking, they have rapidly started trying out countless different forms of activities as circumstances have changed and social capital has accumulated.
Many seek to tackle loneliness with social events like ‘virtual coffee mornings’, systematically phoning lonely seniors and by having “circles” for dog-walking, jogging, swimming etc. Items ranging from children’s toys, clothes, power tools, plants and homemade baked pastries are donated, swapped, shared, exchanged and borrowed. Around three hundred “community fridges” or “freedges” for sharing food has been established, alongside uncounted community gardens. 
This explosion of creativity around harnessing the best instincts of humanity using new technology can be an important source of new cooperative, officially registered, consciously and explicitly cooperative enterprises. Some have already done so. For example, the Cooperation Town network consists of 14 food co-ops and another ten that are ready to be launched, most of which have spun off from community support groups set up during covid. They are using a novel model: each co-op is intentionally kept small (less than 20 households) and hyperlocal: they are essentially a small group of close neighbours that set up a buying group to purchase in bulk. Instead of buying their rice separately, a dozen households who live on the same street decide to buy together a big bag of rice and split it between them. The savings of this kind of simple bulk-purchasing can be substantial: according to Co-operative News around 30% - 40% on the food bill. 
The necessary administrative and practical tasks are split, all members have to help out in some way. The tasks are also kept at minimum by limiting the membership to a group small enough for members to know each other personally and live close to each other, making organising simple. The network grows by new co-ops being “split” from existing ones rather than existing ones accumulating more members.
The model differs from conventional, well-established British grocery store cooperatives but resembles the most common model in Japan, where 38% of households belong to buying group co-ops that operate as similar, small, neighbourhood level cells. The Japanese food cooperatives however also differ from the Cooperation Towns model, as there are paid home delivery drivers and member owned stores. The Japanese consumer cooperative movement always focused on home delivery, which led to surging popularity during the pandemic. The Japanese Consumer Co-operatives Union reported 15% membership growth during the first month of the first lockdown. In fact, many cooperatives were forced to close applications for new members and faced a rather bizarre problem of having too many members who want to join.
Example of another new type of cooperative that has emerged from the covid era mutual aid networks doing food deliveries is the Wings Co-op, which is a worker owned cooperative alternative to gig work platforms like Deliveroo and UberEats. It is part of the Coop Cycle Network, which includes sixty similar cooperatives in cities across Europe that use and develop a shared software which is licensed to be used freely only by cooperatives or similar organisations.
Forming a cooperative and choosing the type of cooperative that would work best for a mutual aid group depends on the group’s unique circumstances: for example, Islington is the most densely populated constituency in the UK and therefore an ideal place for a venture like an electric bicycle courier co-operative which could be impractical in a scarcely inhabited rural town.
For many groups, creating any formal entity will not be necessary or beneficial. For many that form a registered organisation, cooperative will not be the best fitting type of organisation. For many that choose the cooperative model, the venture will not meet everyone’s expectations. But among the thousands of mutual aid networks, there are many creative ideas that could exceed everyone’s expectations if given a chance. And giving them a chance could often require only a tiny nudge.
For example, The Guardian describes one group and mentions that  an activity they have started to facilitate is borrowing power tools. To reduce the reluctance of some users to lend their tools to strangers, groups like these could form a cooperative to enable users who borrow tools to pay a deposit as a way to guarantee they will return the tools. For example, if a person wants to borrow a $100 chainsaw, they could pay a $100 deposit to the cooperative, borrow the chainsaw and get their money back once they return it. It can encourage more lenders to join and make them more willing to share more expensive items as they know that the borrower has guaranteed to return it by putting their money where their mouth is.
To manage the funds, some legal entity is likely necessary or at least beneficial. A simple solution might be a cooperative with a $100 membership fee that the member gets back if they have returned all tools they have borrowed. After paying the fee, one can join an invite-only Facebook group which is a place to connect with people in the area who have tools they are willing to lend. The members could also be able to prop up their membership deposit above $100 to make borrowing more expensive tools easier.
Perhaps an existing cooperative like a local credit union could promote the group to those who give home improvement loans, help the cooperative manage their funds or even allow the cooperative to hold some of the more expensive tools in the credit union safes. Perhaps the credit union could charge cooperative members who use their branch building to store, borrow and return tools, creating a stream of earnings for physical bank branches whose traditional use is declining due to growth in online banking. While money can be deposited and borrowed digitally, a drill or a saw need a physical location. This is just one of countless possibilities of mutually beneficial cooperation with mutual aid networks that credit unions could be in a good position to pursue.
Why aren't there more online communities operated as co-ops?
If there is such potential and endless possibilities with micro co-ops of online communities, why do we not see more of them?
One problem with this logic is that it could have been used to dismiss any new form of cooperativism. The UK has recently seen a growth in community owned pubs of which only one out of a total of 133 have ever gone bankrupt. This is amidst a situation where the overall number of pubs in the UK has been in a decline for a long time, a trend which has accelerated dramatically during the pandemic. The reason why the idea of community pubs did not take off earlier is not because it would have been impractical, it was just not given a chance (or enough chances) to be tried out in practice until recently. In fact, the pubs have a risk of insolvency so low it probably exceeded the expectations of even most of the proponents who first argued for the idea to be given a chance.
Pubs and cooperatives have coexisted in countless places for a long time: yet until very recently, cooperatively owned pubs were practically non-existent. Cooperatives have coexisted with online communities, especially the covid mutual aid networks, for a much shorter time. This is not to say there aren’t any obstacles to tackle.
Another problem is what the key pioneer of the platform cooperative movement Nathan Schneider calls “implicit feudalism” of online communities. He explains:
The Internet has been plagued by a phenomenon I call “implicit feudalism”: a bias, both cultural and technical, for generating absolutist fiefdoms. Think about it: When was the last time you participated in an election for a Facebook Group, or sat on a jury for a GitHub project? Implicit feudalism is how platforms nudge users to practice (and tolerate) nearly all-powerful admins, moderators, and “benevolent dictators for life.”
“From email lists to Subreddits, the feudal norms are so pervasive that we don’t even notice them. Admins punish other users for transgressions with the tactics of dictatorships, like censorship and exile. Ordinary users have no means of holding admins themselves accountable, short of asking for interventions from whatever corporation owns the platform. Yes, users can leave and choose another group, but often that is not as easy as it sounds, if the people they need to interact with are all there.”
However, although the governance model was the only practical option when the first online communities emerged, we have continued to use it even though the adoption of different and more sophisticated methods would now be technologically possible.
The cooperative movement should seek to take advantage of new windows of opportunities created by technology and global events: and to do so, it needs tools that help new cooperatives to launch and grow more rapidly. Coop Exchange can be one such tool, especially suitable for cooperatives operating in the sphere of digital technology where the conventional forms of financing such as debt are often hard to access due to lack of tangible, physical assets that can be used as a collateral to secure a loan.
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