The Unesco preserves, what people developed. Since 2016 also the idea of cooperatives is part of the World Cultural Heritage.
In the middle of the 19th century Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch developed the modern idea of the co-operative society and through this found an answer to the pressing problems of their time: the overcoming of extreme poverty and the elimination of social injustice. The two reformers had become convinced, quite independently of one another, that self-help, self-responsibility and self-management would offer people new opportunities. Co-operative societies are based on values and fundamental democratic principles and put an emphasis not on capitalist interests but on the interests of their members. They enable social, cultural and economic participation and create the opportunity of active involvement in the formation of the society – in whatever way.
In Germany today over 22 million people are members of a co-operative society and world-wide it is around a billion people in more than 100 countries. All of this encouraged the German Hermann-Schulze-Delitzsch-Society and the German Friedrich-Wilhelm-Raiffeisen-Society to nominate the “idea of the co-operative society” to be recognised as an “Intangible World Cultural Heritage” by UNESCO. At the end of 2013 they submitted their application to the German UNESCO Commission – under the patronage of the former president of the Federal Parliament Rita Süssmuth. In December 2014 it was announced that out of more than 80 applications received, 27 submissions had been accepted, including among others choral singing, Morse-code telegraphy, timber rafting, organ building and finally also the co-operative idea.
What especially convinced the jury was the involvement of civil society which was expressed by the co-operatives over against private and state forms of economics. The “co-operative family”, according to the justification for the application, stood right from the beginning for a movement that was oriented towards social values, which – building on spiritual principles such as solidarity, honesty, responsibility, democracy – had an influence on people’s thoughts and actions.
The title “Intangible Cultural Heritage” was relatively new at that time. When the convention on this was first agreed in 2003, UNESCO wanted to assert the significance of the variety of cultural expressions and human creativity in all regions of the world. Since 2013 Germany has registered cultural traditions in a national directory.
Following this national recognition, the co-operative idea was proposed by the Federal Republic of Germany as its one and only nomination for international recognition on the representative list for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and it submitted the corresponding application in mid-2015. The decision-making meeting of the UNESCO Committee in Addis Ababa in November 2016 was more tense than had been expected: following a preliminary examination by an international jury of experts, the German application was, like those from some other countries also, marked at first with the stamp “refer” (for further information). It was not least through the personal intervention of the German delegation who were present at the time that the decision-making committee was finally convinced. Indeed, many of the countries involved in the discussion highlighted the way in which co-operatives are an important element in their own structures and make a valuable contribution to economic and social development locally. The recognition of the co-operative idea as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is thus above all also an acknowledgement of all those who are involved in co=operatives all over the world.
Werner Böhnke is in the Chair of the Board of the German Friedrich-Wilhelm-Raiffeisen-Society.