Training and organizing university students in cooperative enterprise and its management.
Efforts to stimulate the formation of cooperatives in Hualien, on the east coast of Taiwan.
Local Proutist Chou Yi Ru, jointly working with other progressive-minded people, and after persistent lobbying, received government funds in 2016 to assist in local economic development.
This represented a victory, procuring finances that would have otherwise been used for grandiose schemes and projects largely divorced from the lives of common people in the region.
The tangible results of that initiative include: four cooperatives were formed, teaching materials and several films were produced, and training programs were conducted. Perhaps the most enduring and valuable outcome is the network of like-minded people and contacts that developed.
Three of the cooperatives now continue to operate - a credit union at one university, and in nearby villages of aboriginal people (local inhabitants before the KMT fled to the island from Mainland China in 1949) an agricultural cooperative formed and another for people who make traditional arts and crafts. The fourth is a housing cooperative for families with autistic children whose parents are now elderly or deceased. Legalities and difficulties with local authorities have prevented this coop from getting properly established.
Despite these gains, important lessons were learned about what to avoid. Government funds helped but local authorities who wielded control were not authentically interested. The approach was top-down, enticing people’s participation rather than igniting their aspirations and vision.
Now Mr Chou and his allies work mostly with students in three universities (TCU - Tzu Chi University, TCUST - Tzu Chi University of Science and Technology, and NDHU - National Dong Hwa University). A network of mentors and professors with varied knowledge and professional experience supports new ventures. Students learn to envision a new economic alternative to the dominant paradigm controlled by the ruling elites. A consumers’ cooperative has been established through the university-based credit union in NDHU.
The same team now develops new training programs in all three universities. These programs focus on the skills and knowledge needed to successfully establish both consumer and producer cooperatives. The training program’s motto is “Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem”. Students learn through applied problem solving, identifying needs and cooperatively finding solutions.
The ultimate goal of Consumer-side Courses is to reinforce the establishment of consumer co-ops in the Universities. These coops will make use of a shared E-commerce platform allowing members to place orders on their smartphones and participate in decision-making within their own coop.
The purpose of the Production-side Course is to bring students to the farms and villages, to experience the real difficulties of local farmers, and come up with solutions based on cooperation. Making use of the same E-commerce platform, needed data of consumption patterns will be collected which allows the production coop to plan accordingly.
TCU Students use the Design Thinking Process to explore the challenges of forming consumer coops.
A three-year grant from Taiwan’s Education Ministry will be applied for in June 2017 as funding for the program’s initial phase. The trainers see this integrated focus on both consumer and producer coops will result in a local circular or self-sustaining economy based on cooperatives.
Chou Yi Ru works as an associate professor in the Center for General Education, Tzu Chi University.