When Equality is not Enough
November 2008
There are times when we are terribly unjust when applying the strict principle of equality. Do you know the story about the teacher; he thought equality was the ultimate creed? He refused to treat anyone differently; in fact, he made it his duty to treat everyone the same. “In my classroom, he stated during an interview for a teaching position, I treat all my students equally. I consider this to be very important and I write all the important stuff visibly on the blackboard to make sure everyone gets equal information”. The teacher did not get the position, in spite of his deeply held belief in equality. He had not taken into account that several of the students in the class were blind.

Naturally, equality is part of the values espoused by cooperatives. In fact, it is a basic fundamental value. The first section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. This is all well and good. But once we’ve all agreed on this elementary principle, we need to go further and use our sense of judgement to reach our egalitarian ideals. Let us examine how another cooperative value can, with utmost skill, take on this challenge. I am referring to fairness.

When, in our cooperatives, we pay out twice as many dividends to one member rather than to another, equality is not the guiding motive, fairness is. Each person receives his or her fair share of the value of his or her purchases. This means that a person who contributes heavily to the success of our cooperative will, in turn, receive bigger dividends. A person who doesn’t buy anything gets zero dividends. That’s only fair. And again when a discount is granted to a member who buys a large volume of feed, equality is not the guiding principle. When you buy large volumes, our cooperative actually saves money thanks to your purchases and in turn, our cooperative rewards your participation by grating you a discount. That’s fair and equitable.

Furthermore, fairness is sometimes experienced not in terms of profit calculations but purely on the basis of philanthropy. For example, several cooperatives within the network have disaster assistance policies. If your stable is lost in a fire, we’ll help you rebuild by offering you low prices that are not available to other members. That’s fair and equitable because your need is greater. Simple. Efficient.

And when La Coop fédérée implements a plan of action to include and involve more women in the network’s democratic process and for that purpose makes an effort to organize meetings, conferences and other events geared to women, this certainly represents preferential treatment. But it is justified in terms of fairness. In fact, when the International Cooperative Alliance adopted its gender equality policy, itwrote: “Equal treatment of persons in unequal situations will simply perpetuate inequalities.” And yet, women are not yet in a position of equality within our cooperatives. They are still underrepresented and account for a mere 12% of the network’s elected officers. Our cooperatives cannot afford to deny themselves the talent, energy and passion of women willing to work and serve the cooperative movement. The same logic applies to our young people who are invited to take part in our Youth Forums. It seems clear to me that equity is a guiding value in our cooperatives. It brings a level of humanity that is not present in many other businesses. Ask a computer to process everything equally and it will do the work for you. But ask a computer to process information fairly, it cannot since this notion is not programmable onto a hard drive. Fairness calls upon a sense of good judgement and intelligence. That’s why, in our cooperatives, fairness is a fundamental value that, like a springboard, allows us to go forward and reach for ideals we all support, such as justice and equality.





 

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Email: colette.lebel@lacoop.coop
Fax: (514) 858-2025
 



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