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Welcome to the Cooperative Development Learning Series!

Authored by

Emily Varga
Technical Lead and Program Director

Emily Varga is the technical lead and program director for USAID's Cooperative Development Program (CDP) within the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education, and Environment, Office of Local Sustainabi

lity.  Ms. Varga has over 10 years of experience building, strengthening, and supporting cooperative businesses in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.  In 2007, she founded the nonprofit organization, Crafting Change, which supports artisan cooperatives in Brazil to become more competitive in global markets.  Ms. Varga holds an MBA in Supply Chain Management and Logistics from the University of Maryland and a Bachelors of Arts in International Development from Boston University.

This is the first post in a blog series exploring cooperatives. View the second post here.

I was first introduced to cooperatives in an urban slum called Mare on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Women’s artisan cooperatives are scattered throughout Rio’s most notorious slums. Many of them were initially formed as self-help groups to cope with the emotional struggles of gang violence, HIV, and unemployment. They have become income-generating for members, empowering them through handmade crafts peddled to tourists along the pristine beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. When I spoke to members they expressed, often with tears in their eyes, incredible gratitude to the cooperative for creating space for them to discover self-confidence through art and for providing them with a livelihood.

Cooperatives are first and foremost businesses, rooted in their communities to serve their communities. They are democratically-governed, inclusive, and powerful market instruments. They can be any sector, in any country. Throughout my career, I’ve seen cooperatives ensure coffee farmers produce, aggregate, and bring high-quality specialty coffees to markets. I’ve seen cooperatives extend affordable lending to small businesses in marginalized communities. I’ve seen them provide high-quality healthcare to vulnerable populations and provide reliable electricity to hundreds of thousands of households. I’ve also seen them build schools, construct roads, and equip hospitals. While, like all businesses, they do face challenges, they have the potential to transform communities, enhance markets, and pull vulnerable people from poverty. 

Today I am fortunate enough to support USAID’s global and multisectoral Cooperative Development Program (CDP). It’s about supporting local institutions, businesses, communities, and leaders to drive their own success. It’s about reinforcing local partners to strengthen the self-reliance of local businesses and local communities. CDP aims to strengthen cooperatives in the sectors of agriculture, finance, health, energy, and information and communication technology and is currently working through 10 implementing partners in 15 countries. The program also enables and empowers environments where cooperatives can thrive and encourages development partners to collaborate for joint research, learning, and dissemination.  

This blog series, the Cooperative Development Learning series, will highlight voices from the program.  Implementing partners, cooperatives, local governments, and resource partners will share their learning, mishaps, and “aha” moments within the CDP program. Some topics include financial inclusion for smallholder farmers, joint ventures for long-term business growth, urban development with marginalized communities, member loyalty and market performance, social capital and technology adoption, and, finally, capitalization for sustainability through member equity. I hope you’ll find these topics useful in your partnerships with cooperatives across the globe as we all seek to find new ways to support local sustainability.