March 30, 2018 marks the 200th birthday of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, the German credit cooperative pioneer. Two centuries on, his ideas on sustainable cooperation founded on principles of solidarity are still highly relevant.
“Raiffeisen wanted to improve life in rural areas,” explains Hans Groeneveld, Senior Vice President Cooperative & Governance Affairs at Rabobank and Professor of Cooperative Financial Services at Tilburg University. “Where others weren’t able or willing to help poverty-stricken farmers, his idea of a credit cooperative offered farmers access to the financing they needed to become independent.”
Cooperatives in 2018
Groeneveld believes Raiffeisen’s mission has been achieved in the Netherlands, but that many small-scale farmers in developing countries still have difficulty obtaining credit. Rabo Partnerships and Rabobank Foundation work with local cooperative banks in these regions to develop financial solutions that will enable local farmers to invest in their own businesses, the way Raiffeisen did almost 200 years ago. That not only benefits farmers, it contributes to more stable and sustainable food supply chains, and helps develop stronger local communities.
“Raiffeisen’s legacy is more relevant than ever”- Hans Groeneveld, Senior Vice President Cooperative & Governance Affairs at Rabobank
The European Association of Co-operative Banks published ‘Cooperative banks: at the service of their members and society’ to mark the 200th anniversary of Raiffeisen’s birth. Hans Groeneveld edited the booklet, interviewing 11 leaders of large credit cooperatives in Europe and Japan in the process. They describe some enduring qualities of the credit cooperative, including its contribution to financial inclusion, long-term vision aimed at sustainable entrepreneurship, and the idea of a ‘sharing economy’.
“Raiffeisen’s legacy is more relevant than ever,” Groeneveld believes. “The number of cooperatives has grown in recent years, particularly in the areas of health care and energy. Jointly addressing local issues fits the current mindset perfectly.”
Rabobank has been criticized in the Netherlands lately for hardly differentiating itself from other major, non-cooperative banks. “Looking at our products and customer service, I can understand the criticism,” says Groeneveld. “But our governance model is still purely cooperative. We participate with our members in grassroots networks to ensure local visibility, we keep our financial surpluses within the company where possible and we don’t pay out to individual members. Instead, we invest part of the surplus in the sustainable development of local communities through cooperative funds. In that sense, not a lot has changed.”