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Assessing the co-operative's impact on people's well-being and community development: the case study of Coppalj, a co-operative located in Maranhão State, Brazil


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After years of preconceptions about co-operatives in developing countries, scholars and international institutions have re-evaluated their role particularly in poverty reduction strategies. Crucial condition is that co-operatives are considered as genuine, authentically participatory enterprises. Here, investigating how these peculiar enterprises affect people’s well-being and contribute to institutional transformation of communities emerges of crucial importance. The paper, by showing the results of a case study, carried out in the Maranhão State through a field research, provides a methodology to evaluate the genuineness of the co-operative and its impact on people’s well-being and community development. Adopted methodology entails quantitative and participatory methods and, based on the Human Development and Capability Approach (HDCA) framework, it provides a multidimensional analysis of poverty. In such a way, this methodology aims at contributing to overcoming the evaluation of co-operative performance based only on monetary indicators, enhancing the concrete contribution that co-operatives can bring to human development and poverty reduction.
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Sara Vicari - Pasquale De Muro
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Dipartimento di Economia
Università degli Studi Roma Tre
Via Silvio D'Amico, 77 - 00145 Roma
Tel. 0039-06-57335655 fax 0039-06-57335771
Sara Vicari - Pasquale De Muro
Sara Vicari
and Pasquale De Muro
After years of preconceptions about co-operatives in developing countries,
scholars and international institutions have re-evaluated their role particularly in
poverty reduction strategies. Crucial condition is that co-operatives are considered as
genuine, authentically participatory enterprises. Here, investigating how these
peculiar enterprises affect people’s well-being and contribute to institutional
transformation of communities emerges of crucial importance.
The paper, by showing the results of a case study, carried out in the Maranhão
State through a field research, provides a methodology to evaluate the genuineness of
the co-operative and its impact on people’s well-being and community development.
Adopted methodology entails quantitative and participatory methods and, based on
the Human Development and Capability Approach (HDCA) framework, it provides a
multidimensional analysis of poverty. In such a way, this methodology aims at
contributing to overcoming the evaluation of co-operative performance based only
on monetary indicators, enhancing the concrete contribution that co-operatives can
bring to human development and poverty reduction.
Key words: co-operatives; human development and capability approach (HDCA);
propensity score matching; participatory methods; Brazil.
JEL classification: O150; O540; P130
The paper is extracted from Vicari’s PhD thesis, written under the supervision of Professor De
Muro. The authors are grateful to Mario Biggeri, Alexandre Apsan Frediani, Matteo Mazziotta, José
Manuel Roche and Mario Salani for their comments to the thesis. The authors are also very grateful to
Silvia Terzi and Anna Giunta for their helpful comments to the working paper. The usual disclaimers
PhD in Environmental and Development Economics, Department of Economics, Roma Tre
University, email:
Associate Professor in Human Development Economics, Department of Economics, Roma Tre
University, email:
1. Introduction
In last twenty years, co-operatives have been rediscovered and praised for
their contribution to poverty reduction. In fact, even if literature judging as a failure
the experience of co-operative movement in developing countries is not lacking (e.g.
Lele, 1981; Attwood and Baviskar, 1989; Holmén, 1990; Thorp, 2002), both scholars
(Sen 2000; Birchall 2003; 2004; 2006; Stiglitz 2004; Simmons and Birchall, 2008)
and international institutions (e.g. UN 1992-2011
; ILO 2002) have pointed out that,
once genuinely in operation, co-operatives represent an important means for
enhancing well-being of members and their families and for community
In reassessing the role of co-operatives in fighting poverty, investigating how
concretely these peculiar enterprises affect people’s well-being and contribute to
institutional transformation emerges of crucial importance.
To this aim, the Human Development and Capability Approach (HDCA)
be identified as an appropriate framework, enabling to go beyond a mere evaluation
based on efficiency criteria. In fact, this framework seems to be the most suitable for
the analysis of co-operatives, especially when it regards their role in poverty
reduction. The main reason lies in the full recognition given by this approach to
participation. For HDCA, participation in political/social/community life helps to
achieve commonly valued results, but it is also a process, intrinsically valid, because
as such it enlarges the real freedom enjoyed by people. On the other hand,
participation is a core element of genuine co-operatives where members have the
right to self-determination, working together, participating in decision-making and,
finally, taking decisions in a “democratic” way. Therefore, genuine co-operatives,
can play an important role in expanding people’s agency and capabilities, being the
latter basic capabilities, such as being adequately nourished, sheltered, educated, and
so on, as well as complex ones such as participating in the community life or in
household decision-making (Vicari and De Muro, 2012).
Thus, based on the HDCA, the paper proposes a methodology for impact
assessment of co-operatives in low human development areas. Adopting quantitative
as well as qualitative/participatory methods, it attempts to evaluate co-operatives’
genuineness; its impact on people’s well-being and its contribution to institutional
transformation of local communities.
Since 1992, the UN Secretary-General has issued the Report on Co-operatives in Social
Development”. They are available at
Human Development is defined by Sen (1999, p.3) as the process of expanding the real freedoms
that people enjoy”. Therefore, the expansion of human capabilities, not income per-capita nor GDP, is
the central feature of the process of development. Notably, as stressed by Robeyns and Crocker
(2009), HDCA is not a theory to explain poverty, inequality or well-being, although it provides
concepts and normative frameworks within which to conceptualize, measure and evaluate these
phenomena as well as the institutions and policies that affect them.
Proposed methodology was used in a field research, focused on an
agricultural primary co-operative, called COPPALJ (Co-operative de Pequenos
Produtores Agroextrativistas de Lago do Junco) and located in the Maranhão State,
one of the poorest among Brazilian States. This co-operative, set up nearly 20 years
ago as result of a common action carried out by the local population affected by
socio- economic exclusion and unequal power relations in the field, was selected as a
good example of genuine co-operative.
Therefore, focusing on this case study, the paper is divided in five sections.
Section 2 will show applied methodology, while section 3 will deal with the context
of the field work and the presentation of the sample. Here, some characteristics of
co-operative member participation will be illustrated in more depth, thus, providing
the justification for COPPALJ to be considered as a genuine co-operative.
Finally, section 4 will deal with data analysis. Through the application of
Propensity Score Matching techniques in the analysis of data collected in the survey
and the application of participatory methods, together with open interviews, there
will be an assessment on to what extent, presumably, co-operative membership had
an impact on members’ well-being, on which dimensions of well-being, as well as on
their agency and community development.
The last section is devoted to conclusions and agenda for further research.
2. Methodology for evaluating the impact of co-operative membership on
members’ well-being
The aim of this study is to evaluate whether being a member of a co-operative
results in enjoying some valuable outcomes at an individual level (the co-operative
member), involving their families and their communities, and whether these
outcomes are attributable to co-operative membership. Furthermore, consistently
with the adopted framework of HDCA, the mentioned outcomes for individuals
should be evaluated in terms of their functionings
and/or capabilities
, and agency.
Both types of literature on the measurement of capabilities (e.g. Alkire 2002a,
2008; Robeyns 2003, 2005, 2006; Comim 2001, 2008) and on impact evaluation (e.g.
Baker, 2000; Ravallion, 2008; Khandker et alii, 2010) recognise the importance in
overcoming the fierce cross-discipline debate on the value of different data collection
methods, namely qualitative and quantitative methods. Indeed, it is clearly
recognised that, due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of concepts such as
capabilities, and the difficulty in identifying differences in individual well-being as a
consequence of participation in a project (that is, being member of a co-operative in
this case study), in most situations a mix of data collection tools provides a more
reliable and complete picture of the phenomenon under study.
Thus, due to these considerations, the empirical work adopted in this study
was both qualitative and quantitative, divided into the following sequences:
a) Drawing up the draft questionnaire, based on questions adopted in LSMS and in
studies on “missing dimensions” published by Oxford Poverty Human Development
. The questionnaire is divided into 7 sections: section 1 and 2 regard
general information on the people interviewed, education included; section 3, work
and assets holding; section 4, health; section 5, participation in the co-operative and,
Functionings are defined as “the various things a person may value doing or being” (Sen, 1999, p.
Capabilities are defined as “the various combinations of functionings (beings and doings) that the
person can achieve. Capability is, thus, a set of vectors of functionings, reflecting the person’s
freedom to lead one type of life or choose from possible living” (Sen, 1992, p. 40).
“Agency refers to a person’s ability to pursue and realize goals that he or she values and has reason
to value” (Alkire, 2005, p. 3).
In going beyond the dimensions usually included in the Human Development Index (income,
longevity and education), which do not cover all the dimensions of poverty, Alkire (2007) asserts that
“it is at times necessary to conduct empirical studies using individual or house-hold data level on
multi-dimensional poverty”. Thus, in order to complete all the most well-known surveys, such as the
World Bank Living Standards and Measurement Survey (LSMS), with the “missing dimensions”, the
Oxford Poverty Human Development Initiative (OPHI), proposes numerous indicators and related
questionnaires to represent them. Some of these works regard: Employment Quality (Lugo, 2007);
Agency and Empowerment (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007); Physical Safety (Diprose, 2007); The Ability
to Go About Without Shame (Reyles, 2007); and Psychological and Subjective Well-being (Samman,
2007). The questionnaire has been drawn up under the supervision of the OPHI staff, mainly Dr.
Sabina Alkire and Dr. Emma Samman.
generally speaking, local organisations; section 6, participation in community life;
and section 7 regards individual achievements and aspirations. The chosen
dimensions of poverty regarded basic capabilities, such as education, health, access
to sanitation and shelter, decent work. Moreover, beyond such relative questions
drawn up in line with LSMS and surveys on micro- assessment adopting CA (e.g.
Pillai and Alkire, 2007) and more contextualised questions regarding participation in
the co-operative and information on the local economy, some questions extracted
from “missing dimensions” were added, about the quality of work (Lugo, 2007) and
participation in household decision-making in the domains of health, household
expenditure, children’s education and tasks at work (Ibrahim and Alkire, 2007).
b) Identification of population to be analysed and extracting the sample and
relative control group. The population regards rural workers who live in the
communities where the co-operative under study operates. They are men and women,
who share the household with a partner (where at least one of them is the head of the
household), whose main job is linked to co-operative activity and who hold some of
the characteristics which are considered important to participate in the co-operative.
A simple random sampling was adopted with a significance of 8%.
c) Discussion of selected capabilities with the local community. In line with
suggestions by Robeyns (2003) and Alkire (2008), the selected capabilities were
discussed with local communities through a focus group. This focus group was held
in the community of Ludovico with 10 members of the co-operative participating.
Participants were asked to draw a map of their values, placing themselves at the
centre, surrounded by what they felt to be more important in their daily lives, while
at the outer extremities what they felt to be less important or more distant from their
values. This activity was used as a starting point for fostering a debate and, thus, for
identifying the valued dimensions of well-being. The identified dimensions made it
possible to draw up the final version of the survey questionnaire and to prepare cards
used in the adopted participatory method, that is, the card game.
d) Drawing up the final version of the questionnaire and testing through a pilot
survey. The final version of the questionnaire was also approved by Board Members
of the COPPALJ and the personnel of local NGO ASSEMA, which support the
activities of the co-operative. The questionnaire was tested through a pilot survey in
the community of Ludovico. Furthermore, a staff of 6 high-school and university
students (children of co-operative members) were trained to provide assistance in
carrying out the field work.
e) Carrying out the survey. The survey was carried out from November to
December 2008 in 6 communities of the municipality of Lago do Junco, where the
co-operative operates. In total, 63 members and 84 non-members were interviewed.
f) Use of the card game. This is a participatory method used in order to explore the
impact of the co-operative on valued capabilities
. The author was trained to use this
technique in the International Workshop “Children’s Capabilities and Project Why”,
held in Delhi, on 4-9 September 2008, promoted by the Human Development and
Capability Association Thematic Groups, respectively on Participatory Methods and
on Children’s Capabilities. The technique was used with 4 groups: two with co-
operative members (one with only women, one with both women and men); one with
a control group (both with women and men); and one with a comparison group (only
women from the community of Riachão, a community where there are no co-
g) Interviews with key members of the co-operative. Seven co-operative members,
holding (or who had held) managerial positions were interviewed through open
interviews. Answers were recorded but not codified.
h) Data Analysis triangulating the survey findings obtained by elaborating the
dataset through the application of Propensity Score Matching
, with qualitative
findings obtained through the participatory technique and open interviews.
A first application of the card game in CA is found in Frediani (2007). Other interesting
applications of participatory methods in the CA can be found in Alkire (2002b), Biggeri et alii (2006),
Biggeri and Bonfanti (2009), (Biggeri and Anich, 2009).
Propensity Score Matching (Rosenbaum and Rubin, 1983; 1985) is one of the most used
econometric method in impact evaluation literature for reducing selection bias (Jalan and Ravallion,
2003; Setboonsarngand Parpiev, 2008). An application of PSM to co-operatives is found in Bernard et
al. (2007) but only for evaluating more “economic” variables, such as prices .
3. Study context and presentation of the sample
3.1 The COPPALJ and the Babaçu economic system
Even if nowadays Brazil ranks among high human development countries, the
issues of inequality and poverty are still a major feature in the Brazilian
socioeconomic system
. Particularly, once we analyse Brazilian HDI divided into
regions (UNDP, 2008), we observe significant disparities, with the North-East region
showing the lowest HDI (0,716)
. Among the states belonging to this region, the
states of Alagoas and Maranhão show the lowest HDI, respectively 0.677 and
. The situation is even worse when we look at single municipalities, since
15% of these (636 out of 5,507) are ranked with an HDI lower than 0.6 and,
specifically, 21 municipalities are ranked as low human development (UNDP et alii,
2000). The HDI of the Municipality of Lago do Junco, in the Mearim region of the
Maranhão state, where the co-operative under study is located, is 0.567 and it ranks
5,163th out of 5,507 Brazilian municipalities, thus representing one of the poorest
municipalities in Brazil.
COPPALJ (Cooperativa de Pequenos Produtores Agro-extrativista de Lago
do Junco) is an agricultural primary co-operative, set up in 1992 and active in six
rural communities of the Municipality of Lago de Junco. It was set up as a
spontaneous initiative of the rural population searching for a way out of poverty and
to shake off the oppression of the landowners. It is owned by 136 members, who are
small-scale farmers and “Babaçu breaker women”, involved in family agriculture and
extractive activities
The main activity of the co-operative is to buy the members’ production, that
is, the nuts from the Babaçu coconuts and other products, such as rice, beans and
corn. While the latter products are traded in local markets, the transformation of the
Babaçu nuts and selling of the derived oil represent the co-operatives main economic
activity. Moreover, the co-operative owns farmland which members can collectively
cultivate, practicing agro-ecological methods, which provide a solution also for
Brazil economy ranked among the 10 most unequal countries in the world, despite its recent
improvements. From 2005 to 2011 Brazilian Gini Index decreased from 0.56 to 0.51
Brazilian HDI in 2008 was 0.8.
Index values comparable with countries such as South Africa considered as medium human
development countries
Babaçu is one of the most important species of Brazilian palms, more highly concentrated in the
States of Maranhão, Parà, Piaui and Tocantins. The nuts found in the Babaçu shell (the coconuts), are
the most important part extracted by hand mainly by women using a traditional system practiced in a
subsistence economy and thus called “Babaçu Breaker Women”. They have good market value, as
well as industrial value, in fact all the local oil pressing mills which produce refined and unprocessed
oil are the main receivers of the Babaçu nuts. (Amaral Filho, 1990; May, 1990). This is the only
means of income for a great majority of the families not owning land, living in the region where the
Babaçu grows. In fact, selling Babaçu nuts to dealers, women, on average, earn 80% of the household
income, representing a fundamental component of household subsistence. Extracting the nut involves
about 300,000 families, even though the census has enormously underestimated this entity (MIQCB -
GERUR, 2001).
gender conflicts in the families related to production, as the men were used to
destroying Babaçu palms in favour of land to cultivate and, thus, the women were
forced to go longer distances to collect the Babaçu nuts. Moreover, the co-
operative’s commitment to agro-ecological production has enabled it to place the
organic label of oil on its products, being the main output of COPPALJ.
Basically, COPPALJ has been set up by its members to overcome the
monopsonistic power of the dealers who had been the only buyers of the Babaçu
nuts. Thus, they have developed a productive trading model that is able to challenge
the unfair low price of the Babaçu nuts previously offered by the landowners.
As Ms Sebastiana Sirquiera (Dona Sebá), ex-president of Coppalj reported:
”In the town of Lago do Junco the conflict for the land was very fierce in the
‘80s, and it was a very hard struggle. We won. But it was only after the
conflict was over, did we realise that we had achieved freedom from the
landowners, even though the Babaçu production was still in their hands, as
they were the only buyers and their price for the nuts was incredibly low.
How could we solve our problem?, we asked ourselves. We thought about
creating an association, which we called <<commercialisation>>. Then,
after many discussions, we discovered it to be the co-operative form of
business. This idea came from the necessity to free ourselves from the
dealers. United, we formed a group, of men and women, aimed at continuing
our struggle to survive”.
The Babaçu related activities are organised and managed by two co-
operatives, the COPPALJ the co-operative of small agro-producers in Lago do
Junco -, which is the case study under investigation, and the COPPAESP the co-
operative of small agro-producers in Esperatinópolis which produces the mesocarp
flour - and, as well, an association of women, AMTR – an association of rural
women workers which produces soap bars transforming the Babaçu oil produced by
The high concentration of land reached in the 1980s, together with the destruction of the Babaçu
Palms and the privatisation of the forests, caused violent conflicts between landowners and small
producers. The most serious problem was to define property rights, since landowners wanted to
extend their property into the Babaçu forests. In the Municipality of Lago de Junco and other
communities around, the long and difficult battle was initiated exactly by the Babaçu Breaker Women
and their families who fought for the so-called stolen coconut liberation”. It meant that the fencing
off of land for cattle breeding prevented access to the Babaçu forests and so, hindered the working of
the land and the harvesting of the nuts. The only option for the workers was to give half of their
harvest to the landowners and sell the other half to the self-same landowners who also decided on the
price paid to the workers for the nuts. The privatisation of the larger forests also meant a decrease in
the areas used for home-grown vegetable gardens and, thus, changing family subsistence patterns. In
other words, some families were forced to rent the land and some rural workers had to find work in
the mines, while others fought for access to the land and natural resources. The mobilisation of the
Babaçu Breaker Women and their families to have the right to access the land and natural resources
was carried out mainly during the 1980s, culminating, towards the end of the decade, in the
expropriation of vast expanses of land, allotted to the so-called “agrarian reform settlements”
(assentamentos). This was the result of the state’s intervention in the great conflicts between the rural
workers and the landowners.
COPPALJ. They are all members of a local NGO, called ASSEMA
, founded in
1989 on the initiative of rural community leaders and the rural workers’ unions of the
Mearim Valley. One of the most important objectives achieved by “Babaçu Breaker
Women” and farmers in municipalities where ASSEMA works is the adoption of the
municipal law, “Babaçu Livre” (Free Babaçu), which guarantees the free access to
landowners’ lands for the harvesting of Babaçu nuts.
In speaking about this Local Rural System, the SEBRAE (Support Service for
Micro and Small Enterprises) declared: “the model which the region is developing is
a cluster, an island of specialisation and excellence in Babaçu utilisation.” The
organisation of the supply chain can be seen in figure 1.
COPPALJ organisational system is structured as in figure 2. Nuts are
collected through the cantina,
that is, a kind of shop, where members, as well as
non-members, can sell their nuts and buy goods at lower prices. Clearly, members
have the right to more profitable conditions, such as buying goods at a 20% lower
price and receiving the member refunds at the end of the year. However, both
members and non-members can sell their nuts for a price that is 50% higher than the
average prices offered in the region (ASSEMA, 2008). Afterwards, nuts are sent to
the COPPALJ plant transforming nuts in gross oil, which is then sold in domestic
and international markets, i.e. in the USA, as well as the EU, mainly the United
Kingdom (Body Shop) and Italy (Cooperativa Mondo Solidale)
The marketing strategy of COPPALJ is aimed at incorporating in the final
price the benefits of the organic feature of the oil, as well as the history of the social
struggle and the development of the local communities. This higher price is then
converted into a higher revenue for the co-operative and, thus, a higher income
distributed among its members. After almost 15 years since COPPALJ was set up, it
is still financially sound with a turnover of 1,531,771 R$ (year 2007).
ASSEMA (Association for agrarian reform settlements in the Maranhão State) is a non-
governmental, non-profit regional organisation, which is attempting, through technical, juridical and
political support, to strengthen the position of the rural workers and their families who survive thanks
to agriculture and the related activities.
The cantina has an important role also concerning the co-operative’s governance, since each of
them works as a representative group of the co-operative. Being closer to each community, the
“cantina” is the place where members of that area meet up and discuss the issues regarding co-
operative management, but also regarding community problems. Every community is represented on
the Board by a Board member who organises twice monthly a meeting in the “cantina”, together with
the manager of the local shop and the co-operative members from that community. In this way, all
members are aware of all the current issues that the co-operative is facing and are able to
communicate their opinions to the Board. Then, all members participate in the General Assembly, that
takes place twice a year, and is the proper location where decisions are taken through the one person-
one vote principle.
The oil is used as an ingredient in cosmetic products and detergents by enterprises committed to
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In particular, the inter-co-operative relationship between
COPPALJ and Mondo Solidale has taken on an important value from the viewpoint of the role of
Western co-operatives in fostering development. In fact, it represents a significant example of
North/South co-operative networking promoting reciprocal opportunities for development on the basis
of common values and principles (the so-called “co-development”, see Bellanca et alìì, 2011).
Fig. 1 Organisation of Babaçu supply chain
Fig. 2 Model of the co-operative’s local development
3.2 Sample description
In the Municipality of Lago do Junco there are 9,833 inhabitants, with a male
population of 5,007 units, and a female of 4,826 units. There are 2,297 households in
the municipality, 80% with a man as the family head, and in 96% of these cases, the
household is shared with a female partner. In the residual households led by a
woman, only in 4% of cases is there also a man. It means that women mainly head
the households in the absence of a man. Thus, according to this data, 78% of the
households in the municipality have both partners present. (IBGE, 2000)
In the communities of the Municipality of Lago do Junco where COPPALJ is
active (i.e. Ludovico, São Manoel, Centrinho de Acrisio, Centro de Aguiar, Santa
Zita and Sitio Novo) there are 377 households. For the sample, we assumed that the
male and female population in these communities is distributed as for the population
in the municipality. Population and sample size are listed in table 1.
According to the statutes of COPPALJ, co-operative members can be small-
scale farmers and “Babaçu Breaker Women”. Units of the co-operative member
group were selected through a simple random sampling. Units of the control group
were selected from among people living in the same communities and with the same
characteristics considered important in becoming a potential co-operative member.
Thus, they did not hold land or they held only up to 10 hectares; their main work was
related to agriculture and/or the agro-forestry activity of the Babaçu palm; and they
lived with their own partner and the couple (or one of partners) was the head of the
Table 1. Population and sample size
members group
Control group
3.3 Some considerations about COPPALJ as a genuine co-operative
The assumption to consider COPPALJ as a genuine co-operative is a
fundamental prerequisite for the significance of the outcomes of the analysis. To
achieve this, information was collected using both participatory methods and the
questionnaire. From the questionnaire data, which have been confirmed by findings
from the participatory methods, it emerges, first of all, that COPPALJ members are
moved mainly by reciprocity, the need to produce collectively and autonomously and
advance in their work. Moreover, they highly value the improvement of their
families’ well-being and community development.
Figure 3 Motivation of members to join the co-operative
As possible evidence of the principle of open door, 30% of interviewed
members reported to have been invited to join the co-operative while 70% decided
autonomously. With reference to democratic participation, all interviewed confirmed
that decisions are taken by the majority through the principle of one person-one vote.
Nearly 40% of members held a decision-making position - 36% of women and
45.7% of men. However, correlation between gender and participation in decision-
making positions is not significant, thus, presumably also showing the absence of
significant gender bias in decision-making. Moreover, the average length of a
decision-making position is no more than 4 years suggesting the existence of a real
turnover. The data concerning quality of participation show that active participation
involves 56.6% of co-operators, even if the absence of participation is registered only
in a very few percentage of cases.
4. Data analysis through participatory and econometric methods
The implementation of the methodology highlighted the complementarity of
qualitative and quantitative methods in responding to the main research question, i.e.
whether and how the co-operative influenced members’ well-being and community
development. In particular, participatory methods helped in understanding the causal
connection between co-operative membership and well-being, the local context and
how the co-operative contributed in transforming it. Participants were asked whether
they considered dimensions studied achieved (or not), however, these results can not
be considered representative for the whole population. This was the role of the
quantitative methods. The survey revealed statistically significant results regarding
achieved (or not) well-being dimensions. However, since in using Propensity Score
Matching we can reduce the bias on observables, but not on unobservables, by only
looking at ATT outcomes, it is not enough to affirm causal connections for co-
operative membership and outcomes. Therefore, using the two methods together
results in being a successful methodology to understand the role that COPPALJ plays
in local poverty reduction strategy.
4.1 The application of the participatory method “card game”
In the empirical work the card game was used to explore more thoroughly the
dimensions of well-being that co-operative members value and the impact of
COPPALJ on them. Through this method it was possible also to analyse more in
depth the impact of the co-operative on members’ agency as well as to evaluate the
genuineness of the co-operative.
This method involves using 30 cards, previously designed according to the
well-being dimensions that emerged in the focus group of 10 co-operators from the
community of Ludovico. Every card represents people, places, activities and feelings
familiar to members of COPPALJ and to local people, in general. In table 3, the
important well-being and agency dimensions are listed, matched with respective
cards and some explanations of issues usually reported by focus group participants
regarding such dimensions.
The application of the card game basically involved the group’s participants
collectively choosing 14 cards out of the total of 30. They were asked to select those
cards representing the dimensions that they considered particularly important for
their life. Afterwards, they had to explain their interpretation of every card and to
decide jointly whether such card represented a dimension of their life that they had
achieved (or not achieved). While explaining their arguments, the participants were
also asked to explain whether participating in the co-operative had had any impact on
the dimensions achieved (or not achieved). The discussions that emerged during the
first phase of the game, that is, when they have to unanimously choose the 14 cards,
led to a deliberative debate, with participants expressing their opinions, and usually
dissenting with each other. This process allows participants to think about
dimensions and their historical background that has led to their current situation. At
the same time, a lot of information emerges which could be very helpful also in
interpreting the quantitative findings from the survey.
Four groups participated in the game, each of them made up of an average of
10 people. The first group meeting was held in the community of Centrinho do
Acrisio, with only women co-operative members participating; a second was held in
the community of São Manoel, with the participation of both men and women co-
operative members; a third was held in the community of Ludovico, with a control
group made up of both men and women non-co-operators; and a fourth group was
held with women of the community of Riachão, a community where COPPALJ does
not work. This last group worked as a comparison group.
As shown in table 3, cards selected by all groups were related to youth
education; gender relationships at home (particularly the violence aspect); the daily
activities related to collecting and breaking Babaçu nuts; the fights for land and free
access to Babaçu palms; and the church. It emerged that the most valued well-being
achievements generated by the COPPALJ were related to the provision of schools in
the communities were the co-operative acts; a reduced gender bias in member
households, due to an increased men’s sensitiveness and women’s self-esteem and
consciousness of their role; the enhancement of Babaçu for local economy, due to
the role played by the co-operative in overcoming the monopsonistic power of
dealers; access to lands and to Babaçu palms, due to co-operators’ commitment also
in promoting the municipal law, “Free Babaçu”, that legally enforced the free access
of the small farmers to the Babaçu palms, even if they were located on landowner
properties. All these findings were supported by the fact that participants from the
comparison group reported exactly the opposite for all of the considered well-being
dimensions. Finally, the card related to the church demonstrated the origins of co-
operators’ common action, since during the dictatorship it was the place where they
found support and were given the incentive to react and organise themselves.
Concerning the cards chosen only by groups from the communities where
COPPALJ works, one card deserves a specific mention, the one showing the word
“cooperativism”. Here how people perceive the co-operative and being a co-
operative member has been analysed, confirming also the genuineness of the
COPPALJ. Co-operators stressed the significance of “being a member”, that is,
working in autonomy and in reciprocity; owning the enterprise; having the control
over their business, even if they are not Board members, as, at any moment, they can
have access to any information they require and they can actively participate in the
meetings, addressing the co-operative activities; and having the opportunities to
improve their knowledge and know-how, also being directly involved in managerial
Table 2 Dimensions explored with the participatory method and description of related cards
Possibility to receive health
assistance in the community
Use of popular natural
1) Health centre in a
rural area
2) Woman preparing
herb infusion
Possibility to have access to
education in the rural
communities, both in terms
of public school and quality
education provided by social
movement (“escola familia”:
family school)
Possibility for adults to be
educated and attending
training courses
3) School in rural areas
4) School provided by
social movement
5) Adults studying
6) Adults receiving
training on their
Possibility to have a decent
house, that according to the
local standards, means not
having a straw roof, and
having electricity and piped
7) Decent house
Typology of relationships in
the household, care feelings
or male oppressive and
violent behaviour.
8) Couple with child
caring for each other
in the family
9) A man beating a
Possibility to have free
access to natural resources,
as babaçu; to sell fairly their
products, avoiding dealers
power; to access fair markets
also abroad and having fair
relationships with other
producers around the globe.
Possibility to organise
collectively and
autonomously their
productive activities,
providing themselves with
decent work.
10) Only the word
that evokes co-
operatives and
related movement.
11) Woman breaking
babaçu nuts, with
closeby a donkey,
important animal for
the extractive
12) People borrowing
money from
13) COPPALJ Babaçu
oil plant
14) Local shops of the
COPPALJ (called
cantina) where
people sell their
15) A Babaçu Breaker
Woman selling her
production to the
16) A globe with arrows
starting from
Maranhão and going
around the world
17) Producers holding
hands around the
Possibility to reach the urban
centre without walking for
hours or waking up very
early in the morning, that is
the only time when public
transport passes.
18) COPPALJ truck
Concern for the
environment, especially
regarding forest destruction
and water pollution
19) Fires and destruction
of Babaçu palms
20) Lakes in the forest
Collective and individual
activities to claim rights
regarding access to natural
resources (land, babaçu
palms) and relevant
institutions considered in
some way reference points
for such claims.
21) Women leaders
22) Fights against
23) Women claims for
free access to the
babaçu palms
against the landlords
24) Municipality of
Lago do Junco
25) State/Federal
Leisure/recreation activities
held in the community such
as carnival festivities
26) Carnival parties held
in the communities
Participation in community
organisations, such as the
co-operative and the church
Qualification of the level of
participation and
relationships among
27) Co-operative
General Assembly
28) Co-operative Board
29) Church
30) Disunion among
Table 3 Cards selected by groups
1) Health centre in a
rural area
2) Woman preparing
herb infusion
3) Schools in rural
4) School provided
by social
5) Adults studying
6) Adults receiving
training in their
7) Decent house
8) Couple with child
caring for each
other in the family
9) A man beating a
10) Only the word:
that evokes co-
operatives and
related movement.
11) Woman breaking
babaçu nuts, with
nearby a donkey,
important animal
for the extractive
12) People borrowing
money from
13) COPPALJ Babaçu
oil plant
14) Local shops of the
COPPALJ (called
cantina) where
people sell their
15) A Babaçu Breaker
Woman selling
her production to
the dealer
16) A globe with
arrows starting
from Maranhão
and going around
the world
17) Producers holding
hands around the
18) COPPALJ truck
19) Firesand
destruction of
Babaçu palms
20) Lakes in the forest
21) Women leaders
22) Fights against
23) Women claims for
free access to the
Babaçu Palms
24) Municipality of
Lago do Junco
25) State/Federal
26) Carnival parties
held in the
27) Co-operative
General Assembly
28) Co-operative
Board meeting
29) Church
30) Disunion among
4.2 The application of Propensity Score Matching to this case study
By using the Propensity Score Matching technique, we can reduce the bias in
the estimation of treatment effects with observational data sets. An attempt was
made, adopting this technique to estimate how participating in COPPALJ could have
had an impact on members’ capabilities. Co-operative members were considered as
the treatment group, while non-treated units were obviously the control group units.
Matching methods contribute to developing a counter-factual or control group
that is as similar to the member group as possible in terms of observed
characteristics. Thus, the Propensity Score Matching builds a statistical comparison
group by modelling the probability of participating in the co-operative on the basis of
observed characteristics unaffected by the participation. Co-operative members are
then matched on the basis of this probability, or propensity score, to non-participants.
The average treatment effect of participation in the co-operative is then calculated as
the mean difference in outcomes across these two groups.
Therefore, this technique “corrects” the estimation of the treatment effects
checking for the existence of confounding factors, based on the idea that the bias is
reduced when the comparison of outcomes is performed using treated and control
units who are as similar as possible. To this aim, this method proposes to summarise
pre-treatment characteristics of each unit into a single-index variable, that is, the
propensity score, which renders the matching feasible.
To apply Propensity Score Matching we need to select some variables that
influence a treatment group but not the control group. In our case we selected co-
variates that could have influenced participation in the co-operative but not the
outcome variables. The co-variates we selected were: community in which
respondent lives; gender; age; civil status and main occupation.
As required by theory, after calculating the Propensity Score (using a logit
model), the Balancing Hypothesis had to be checked to ascertain that it was satisfied,
a condition implying that observations with same propensity score must have the
same distribution of observable characteristics, independently of treatment status.
Therefore, once each treated unit has been matched with a control unit with
the closest propensity score, the difference between the outcome of treated units and
the outcome of the matched control units is calculated. The ATT is then obtained by
averaging these differences. Thus, by calculating the ATT
for every variable of
interest, the impact that participating in COPPALJ could have on selected outcomes
was estimated.
Chosen variables tested by this econometric method concern the following
dimensions of well-being: nutrition, education, health, shelter and sanitation, decent
work, access to land, participation in household decision-making, participation in
community life.
ATT estimations computed with Nearest Neighbour Matching method and bootstrapped standard
Table 4 Logit regression
Table 5 Table of the balancing property
- 0.681
- 0.466
- 1.093**
- 2.565***
- 0.001
Civil Status
- 0.635
Main occupation
- 0.590
- 3.496*
Pseudo R
Note: *** p-value<0.01; ** p-value<0.05; * p-value<0.1
Table 6 Estimation results - Outcome Nutrition
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 7 Estimation results – Outcome Education
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 8 Estimation results: Outcome Health
Table 9 Estimation results: Outcome Shelter and Sanitation
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 10 Estimation results: Outcome Access to land
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 11 Estimation results: outcome Participation in Community Life
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 12a Estimation results – Outcome Decent Work (security)
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 12b Estimation results – Outcome Decent Work (protection in the workplace)
Table 12c Estimation results: Outcome Decent Work (psychological well-
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 13 Estimation results: Outcome Participation in Household decision-making Domain
Household Expenditures
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 14 Estimation results: Outcome Participation in Household decision-making Domain
Tasks at work
*p-value<0.1; **p-value<0.05; ***p-value<0.01
Table 15 Estimation results: Outcome Participation in Household decision-making Domain
4.3 Conclusions on the case study
By merging the results obtained through adopted methods, it follows that
COPPALJ had presumably had the following impacts:
a) Education
Concerning education, it seems that participation in the co-operative
contributed to expanding this members’ capability. On the one hand, only co-
operators participating in the focus groups selected cards showing adult education
and training, reporting on the importance of the co-operative’s commitment, together
with the NGO ASSEMA, in providing them with training opportunities and adult
courses to attain a higher qualification (e.g. PRONERA). On the other hand, PSM
results showed better performance in terms of education, particularly among women
co-operators, who have a statistically significant higher probability to be literate and
to attend schools.
In fact, in a rural area where access to education was very difficult among
small-scale farmers, and even more difficult in the case of women, interviewed co-
operators pointed out that participating in the management of the co-operative
constituted a significant “learning by doing” opportunity for practicing and
improving their educational skills, especially for illiterate members, thus,
representing a daily school in itself.
Women’s findings are particularly important, due to the widely recognised
key role that education plays as a basic capability for both personal human
development and also for the well-being of families and children. Participatory
methods particularly revealed the importance of member participation in the co-
operative regarding their children’s education, a dimension that was not thoroughly
explored in the survey. Through the use of the card game, the importance of the co-
operative in having schools provided in every community was revealed. This was
carried out by co-operative members pressuring public authorities, stressing the right
for their children to have the opportunity to be educated without being forced to
move to urban areas. However, since it is broadly recognised that accessing
education is not synonymous with accessing quality education, COPPALJ
contributed actively in establishing a school, namely the “Escola Familia”, (which
was also written up in the English newspaper “The Guardian”, 27
October 2007),
recognised by the public authority, and inspired by agro-ecology and co-operative
principles. In referring to the “Escola Familia”, people participating in the card game
underlined its fundamental role in providing a high quality education for young
people and in creating the future leaders of the co-operative. Interestingly, as
emerged from the card game, all these contributions in terms of youth education
involved not only member households, but also those of non-members, who could
also send their children to the “Escola familia”. This underlined the significant role
of the co-operative in the development of the community as a whole.
b) Nutrition
The co-operative’s commitment to food security clearly arose from the focus
groups and interviews. With reference to the FAO definition of food security
, we could say that COPPALJ has a significant role both in making more
food available, selling member production in community shops (cantinas), and in
improving member purchasing power through income distribution. Furthermore,
fostering organic production, has increased food safety and promoted training in
nutrition, educating member in diet diversification.
These results found their confirmation in the quantitative findings, showing
the higher propensity of members in the consumption meat/fish and vegetables/fruit.
Notably, this last domain was statistically significant only with reference to women.
In fact, on the one hand, the result regarding the meat/fish consumption could
represent a proxy of household income, since, usually, such food is bought and,
probably, a higher income enables members to buy and, thus, consume this food
more frequently. On the other hand, the increased consumption of vegetables/fruit
could suggest the role of the co-operative in raising women members’ awareness of
the importance of a diversified diet, as well as, of a diversified agricultural
production contributing to household food security, as emerged in the group debates
and open interviews. Interestingly, these findings also underline the crucial role of
women in household food security.
c) Health
Health care in the region is not sufficiently developed, as pointed out by all
those interviewed, who complained about the absence of decent public health
assistance providers in rural areas, as well as, in urban areas. In fact, they widely
agreed that, for serious health problems, the best option was a private hospital, since
public assistance was not effective. However, even if the co-operative is not directly
involved in healthcare assistance, members interviewed reported that it supports
them through lending money when they cannot immediately afford the health costs
for private hospitals. Nevertheless, quantitative methods do not show statistically
“Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when
all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to
meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 1996).
significant differences between co-operators and non-co-operators concerning severe
diseases reported in the last year and access to decent healthcare, leading to the
conclusion that health is one of the well-being dimensions not yet adequately
achieved and, however, the co-operative has not particularly contributed to
expanding this capability.
d) Shelter and sanitation
The importance in having access to decent housing and related facilities was
reported by all those interviewed, showing a difference between co-operators and
non-co-operators. In fact, during the card game, both the control group and the
comparison group selected the card showing decent housing, identifying the need for
a decent shelter as one of their most important priorities. This card, instead, was not
selected by members, even though, during discussions they expressed satisfaction in
their homes, recounting how they had been able to build them, especially thanks to
the member refund from the co-operative at the end of every year. Quantitative
findings confirm such differences between co-operators and non-co-operator
outcomes regarding women, showing that women co-operators have a higher
probability to access decent housing and also toilet facilities. No significant findings
emerged for access to water.
Therefore, the co-operative role in this well-being dimension could be seen,
considering the fact that one of the priority areas where members invest their annual
co-operative member refund is, in fact, in their home. This confirms the important
role of the co-operative in shelter achievement, not directly, but indirectly through
monetary benefits. The fact that the quantitative findings revealed a statistically
significant difference for women could confirm this income-related explanation,
since women co-operators, being involved in the Babaçu activity, usually receive the
highest amount of member refunds, being proportional to the amount of Babaçu nuts
sold to the co-operative in the year.
e) Decent work
During the participatory methods, all groups belonging to the communities
where COPPALJ works chose the card showing the word cooperativismo. Co-
operators immediately explained their idea and their experience of what being a
member has meant, outlining their feelings about being autonomous, and, thus, not
being exploited by the landowners; being able to address their business activity and
to control management information, but, moreover, being able to improve their work.
Specifically for women, as they reported, participation in COPPALJ has meant, first
of all, the opportunity to enhance their identity as women, agricultural producer and
“Babaçu breakers”, without shame or feelings of being useless and invisible. In fact,
many women reported that, before setting up the COPPALJ, they had denied their
work activity and had not been aware of their fundamental contribution to the
household economy, attributing value only to the men’s work.
This result was confirmed in the quantitative data analysis, where there was a
statistically significant difference between members and non-members with
reference to psychological well-being at work, specifically with regard to the
opportunity to express their own potential and to improve.
Concerning protection at work, at different moments during group activities
and individual interviews, members underlined that participating in the co-operative
contributed to improving their way of working, increasing their knowledge regarding
agro-ecology principles, trying to produce without using pesticides and burning off
fields. However, PSM shows that there is not a significant difference between
members’ and non-members’ concerns regarding the possibility of being exposed to
chemicals, with the majority of those interviewed declaring not to be concerned.
Nevertheless, in discussing the topic in the focus groups, it clearly emerged that
using chemicals is the norm in local agricultural production, while organic
production has been promoted only by the co-operative, though, with many
No improvements resulting from co-operative membership regard comfort of
work posture. In fact, even if the co-operative members have found a way to trade
their products fairly, to transform them increasing their added value and to manage
autonomously and commonly their business, it does not mean that their daily work,
cultivating the land, and collecting and breaking the Babaçu coconuts, is not
physically exhausting. As members, especially women members, reported,
technologies at least for alleviating difficulties of breaking coconuts with axes have
been tried, but up to now appropriate technologies which allow them to fully exploit
the coconuts have not been discovered. Moreover, women evaluated very carefully
such new technologies since in the majority of cases, they are not developed for
improving their work, but for supporting industrial activities which look at the
Babaçu coconuts as input for iron and bio-diesel production, ignoring the socio-
economic context where Babaçu palms grow. Quantitative findings confirm this
result, showing no significant difference between members and non-members
regarding comfort of work posture, with the majority of respondents declaring its
With reference to the risk of exposure to intimidation or physical and verbal
abuse, co-operators reported that COPPALJ activities for the last 20 years, together
with other social movements, have contributed in improving social relations in the
field, especially with the landowners, eliminating the probability to be abused.
Nevertheless, they declared that much has still to be done, demanding respect for the
law, especially regarding free access to the Babaçu forests. Moreover, there have
been signals of deterioration in relations over the last years, as a landowner, against
whom members had fought fiercely 20 years ago, has been elected mayor of the
municipality of Lago do Junco. This situation is consistent with quantitative
outcomes, showing no statistically significant difference between members and non-
members for this indicator, and with descriptive statistics showing the majority of
respondents declaring not to have been subjected to intimidation, but still with about
20% of respondents affirming the opposite.
Finally, some considerations concerning decent work in the dimension of
security are necessary. From the quantitative data there emerges that there is not a
significant impact of membership on access to retirement pensions. This aspect did
not emerge during the focus group discussions, but, it should be underlined that even
if the co-operative pays the trade union fee on behalf of its members, access to a
pension depends on the trade unions and there is not a close relation, in fact, with co-
operative membership.
To complete the analysis concerning findings on decent work, an interesting
variable investigated both by participatory methods and quantitative methods is
access to credit. It was investigated in the survey through a variable expressing the
fact that people have borrowed money for last three years. Descriptive statistics show
that a higher percentage of members than non-members borrowed money in the last
three years and the PSM showed the difference to be statistically significant,
highlighting that, in fact, co-operators show a higher probability to having accessed
credit than non-co-operators. Still descriptive statistics showed that the majority of
members used the loan for production, while non-members for covering health
expenses (it is interesting also to observe that 8% of members used the loan for
education while non-members did not). Moreover, regarding the source of lending,
family and friends represent the most significant source for non- members, while it is
the bank for members, followed by the co-operative. It could be concluded that co-
operative membership presumably expands member opportunities in accessing
credit, on the one hand, itself providing members with small loans and, on the other
hand, facilitating the access to official sources, but only indirectly, increasing their
access to owned land, an important condition required by banks.
f) Access to land
Concerning owned land, the data showed that members have a statistically
significant higher probability of holding such property, either as private individual
entitlement or as a consequence of land distribution through the Agrarian Reform. In
this case, direct causality between co-operative membership and access to land
cannot be taken into account because, as the qualitative results showed, the majority
of co-operative members participated in the fight for land, well before the co-
operative had been set up and it was only after they took over the land, that the co-
operative came into being. Nevertheless, one of the most important challenges
underlined in the literature is that, access to land does not only mean legal
entitlement to that land, but also the possibility to remain in rural areas and to
cultivate the land over time, accessing the market and other important services for
production and household livelihoods. Thus, in this regard, members strongly
asserted the role of COPPALJ, not only in continuing the struggle for land access but
also after, when the co-operative was set-up, and above all, enabling members to
continue holding their land and cultivating it. As well, it also provided them with
technical assistance and access to local, domestic and international markets.
g) Participation in household decision-making
In a region deeply affected by gender bias, where women are mainly
considered for their reproductive role, it was interesting to analyse whether and how
the co-operative influenced this aspect. Participatory methods clearly reported that
co-operative membership has significantly increased the members’ attitude to
participating in the decision-making process, at work and, as well as, in the
household. This was shown to be particularly evident for women. In the card game,
all groups selected the card showing a man beating a woman, explaining that the
problem does not necessarily concern physical violence, but an unbalanced
relationship, with women not being allowed to participate and decide autonomously.
In fact, co-operators stated that this was the case before the co-operative was set up,
and that, even if there was still much to be done, the situation had considerably
improved. In fact, it clearly emerged that by working on gender equality issues in the
co-operative, women empowered themselves, growing in self-confidence and
awareness concerning their rights, thus, taking on important decision- making and
managerial positions and asserting themselves in decisions made in the household.
On the other hand, experimenting with gender equality behaviour in the co-operative
constitutes an important education for men, who have carried over some changes in
this regard into their family life. However, it should be noted that even if some
changes have been observed in decision-making in such domains, working tasks
included, women members still complain about the unequal distribution of tasks
among partners in the household.
h) Participation in community life
The research question regarding this dimension was to understand whether
members were able to spread the bonding social capital created in the co-operative,
to the communities where they lived, thus, creating that bridging social capital so
important for the sustainability of a development process. Participatory methods
highlighted a high level of member participation, specifically in the co-operative, but
also in other organisations existing in the area. Members reported how they always
felt committed to improving the well-being of their community, and not only their
own, specifically attracting and/or conquering the public services for community
well-being (such as public schools; Babaçu Free Law) or providing, themselves,
services for the benefit of their communities as a whole (such as transportation, local
shops). However, beyond this important spill-over offered by the co-operative to the
community, it was important to understand, if, by actually participating in the co-
operative enabled members to increase their individual commitment to the
community, through providing voluntary work. Consequently, this dimension was
analysed in the survey. Here, the PSM revealed that there is a statistically significant
difference between co-operators and non-co-operators. However, even if the PSM
shows a high percentage of probability for members to be committed to community
voluntary work, this is one of the variables where unobservable factors can have a
strong interference and, therefore, it is necessary to be very careful in affirming the
causality direction. Indeed, the co-operative has played a very important role in
community development and also in developing members’ sense of agency.
Participating in the co-operative does not only generate a stronger social capital
among members but it also fosters their sense of agency, thus, spreading the
opportunity for community development, in general. This attitude to promote not
only the bonding social capital inside the co-operative, but also, the bridging social
capital, connecting the co-operative to the communities, as well as, to groups
belonging to other communities and relevant institutions, represents a winning
strategy in fighting poverty and enabling a sustainable development over time.
However, it is also important to take into consideration that the people most
committed to improving the community, were those who fought for land and access
to natural resources, and were also the people who were most probably motivated to
participate in the co-operative. However, this is a circular self-reinforcing process,
and, presumably, participation in the co-operative could have increased the
participation in the community of members who had not been used to it before
becoming members.
4.5 The role of the conversion factors and other institutional aspects
All results outlined above pointed out which well-being dimensions have
been presumably most affected by participating in the co-operative, and which
dimensions were not. At this stage, it is important to wonder whether there were any
specific conversion factors
, which facilitated/impeded that participation in co-
operative that could be transformed into expanding member well-being.
To this aim, a first group of dimensions could be grouped being linked to
state welfare as one of the conversion factors. They are: education, health, water,
shelter and sanitation and retirement (i.e. security at work). None of these well-being
dimensions are the main mutual aim of the co-operative, i.e. the reason why
members decided to set up the co-operative. In fact, the objective for this co-
operative was and is market access for their production, where these services were
found to be lacking from the state. Nevertheless, as seen, the area where the co-
opertive is located cannot rely on state effectiveness in the automatic achievement of
these well-being dimensions. The low HDI of the municipality of Lago do Junco is a
confirmation of this. In this situation, the co-operative, being interested in the general
well-being of their members and communities, decided to play a role, basically, in
three ways: a) providing directly the needed service; b) demanding from public
institutions to receive the services required; c) cooperating with other organisations
which can provide such services. However, among the above dimensions
investigated, it seems that education is the one that can be expanded through co-
operative membership independently of the institutional context. In fact, “learning by
doing” is inherent in all co-operatives where member participation is high, enabling
members to expand their knowledge and skills despite their educational level. The
more the institutional context lacks in providing this opportunity, the more the co-
operative contribution will be appreciated.
Another conversion factor to be taken into account is the economic and legal
framework. It is a fundamental conversion factor to examine in order to properly
evaluate the co-operative impact on dimensions such as access to markets and natural
resources, access to credit, decent work (here meant mainly as a fair income, safe
working conditions, but also as psychological well-being), and also to one of the
most important market and natural resources related dimensions, that is, nutrition.
The economic framework is closely linked to geographical factors, as it is in remote
rural areas that the pre-conditions for the monopsonistic power of landowners are
Conversion factors can be defined as elements which can facilitate/impede the achievement of such
capabilities through participation in co-operatives. These conversion factors can be personal,
environmental or social ones. In this study, social conversion factors are particularly relevant and
could gather social norms, the role of the state (including the legislation framework), the economic
framework and participation in networking (Vicari and De Muro, 2012).
created. Landowners were able to exploit the small-scale farmers and rural workers
taking advantage of the difficult access to communities, as well as the distance from
the markets and urban areas. The legal framework providing incentives to large
properties, and impeding small rural workers from accessing natural resources, such
as land and the Babaçu palms, strengthened a situation of inequality and land
exploitation. In this situation, prior to the setting up of the co-operative, people were
extremely deprived in terms of well-being and freedom to improve their lives. They
also lived under a fear factor as landowners used to engage violent armed people to
impede to access to their land.
In this context, the co-operative, being a form of enterprise able to foster
collective agency, has played a fundamental role in changing power relations,
enabling members to autonomously manage their production, accessing productive
factors, natural resources and markets, also international ones, which often represent
a driver for local development, as happened in this case study.
In fact, this aspect recalls another important conversion factor, which is the
social and economic network, and where, in this case, it strengthened the ability of
the co-operative to impact on the above-studied dimensions. Participating in national
and international fairs is an important opportunity for co-operatives in remote
contexts, enabling them, not only to access markets, but also to create powerful
relations and alliances with other co-operatives, organisations, and institutions, from
developed countries, as well as in the national context. This happened to COPPALJ,
which over 20 years has been able to create an impressive network, improving their
access to markets and attracting important development projects.
From these conversion factors, two seem to be fundamentally important, as
prerequisites of cooperative action: the state position regarding the autonomy of co-
operatives and social norms that can favour or impede democratic participatory
processes. In Brazil, co-operative law recognises the autonomy of co-operatives,
thus, resulting in the development of an important co-operative movement. The
acknowledgment of co-operatives in poverty reduction strategies mainly concerns the
federal government, and COPPALJ has benefited, in part, from this attention, for
instance, by participating in many international fairs thanks to support from the
Ministry of Agricultural Development.
In referring to social conversion factors, in the case of COPPALJ, the unequal
relations that dominated the region and the effort of the local population to defend
their livelihoods played an important role as powerful source of social capital among
workers, underlying the common action that fostered the setting up of the co-
operative. It is also important to outline that in the communities were COPPALJ was
set up, there were also close and collaborative relations, at least, among some groups
of people and such factors played an important role in creating the ‘glue’ among
members which guaranteed its success. However, this bonding social capital must be
continuously renewed by members, and not taken for granted, since it can always be
threatened by new external and internal factors. Internal democratic debate represents
an important tool for this aim. Moreover, the presence of bonding social capital does
not necessarily imply an equally developed bridging social capital. The co-operative
can represent an enclave in the communities, or a source of development for all. It
depends on the relations which members establish with others in the communities
where the co-operative works. Personal attitude and social norms in the community
can influence both people’s choice to become members, and member participation in
community life. As already mentioned in the previous point, both aspects were
important in this case study.
Finally, another social conversion factor to be taken into account regards
gender relations in the field. In fact, male domination could have reduced the impact
of the co-operative on the women’s well-being by impeding the women to participate
or under-valuing the role they could play. However, as shown, in the COPPALJ
experience, the gender issue was deeply worked into the co-operative in order to
raise the awareness of the men and to foster the women’s self-esteem.
5 Conclusions and agenda for further research
The paper had a double focus: on the one hand, it focused on a joint
implementation of qualitative and quantitative methodologies for the analysis of
human development and the application of the capability approach; on the other
hand, it focused on providing an empirical analysis, verifying how participation in a
co-operative located in a low human development municipality in Brazil could have
affected the well-being of member and their families, their agency and community
Despite the literature asserting that co-operatives do not benefit the poor, the
case study showed that the co-operative COPPALJ worked successfully in improving
members’ well-being, examined in its multi-dimensionality, thus, enabling
disadvantaged people, from a socio-economic point of view, to fully take part in
socio-economic life, and moreover, in fostering transformative development in
communities where it operates. Dimensions of well-being presumably mostly
affected by the co-operative membership regard basic capabilities, such as women’s
education; nutrition; access to markets and land; shelter and sanitation; decent work
(mainly in its dimension of psychological well-being and access to credit); and
complex ones, such as participation in community life and participation in household
decision- making (at least, in some domains).
All outcomes were obtained both through quantitative methods (survey data
elaborated with Propensity Score Matching) and qualitative ones (participatory
method, i.e. the card game and open interviews). Such methods hold a
complementary role and triangulating them represented a crucial methodology in
investigating how the co-operative influenced member well-being. In particular,
participatory methods helped in understanding the genuineness of the co-operative,
the local context and causal connection between co-operative membership and well-
being. However, these results could not be considered representative of the whole
population. In fact, this was the role of the quantitative methods. By analysing data
collected through the survey, statistically significant results were found regarding
achieved (or not) well-being dimensions.
This case study showed that, although the co-operative is first of all an
enterprise whose aim regards the meeting of members’ needs, its democratic and
participatory nature enabled to foster both income related capabilities and
participation related capabilities, becoming a powerful means in community
development strategy.
In fact, beyond the meeting of members’ need, that is founding a market for
members’ production, (and doing so it enlarged also other economic freedoms, such
as access to land and credit) it significantly contributed in expanding members’
agency and well-being and transforming their community. Contributions in terms of
gender equality represented a particularly valued outcome, as well as the improved
psychological well-being of members.
Referring to community development, a crucial role was played by the
increased members’ agency, which was addressed to attracting public infrastructures
and services (for instance, schools, electricity, transport) for the benefit of the
community as a whole. Youth education received particular attention, being
considered also a crucial factor for transferring co-operative values.
Results in terms of improved well-being seems to have played a significant
role also in the sustainability of the co-operative over time, linking the success of the
co-operative to members’ satisfaction and motivation.
However, conversion factors play an important role in understanding the
reason why this co-operative was presumably successful in expanding member
capabilities, while others have failed. An analysis of the economic and legal
framework where the co-operative operates was very important in understanding the
existing power relations that the co-operative had to face and its possibility of the co-
operative to work as a genuine democratic enterprise. Investigating the level of
public welfare provision is important in evaluating the effort of the co-operative in
expanding basic capabilities, considering that, in this case study, they are not the
mutual aim of the co-operative. In fact, here it is possible to identify three ways of
co-operative action: a) providing the needed service directly; b) demanding public
institutions provide the services required; c) cooperating with other organisations
which can provide these services.
The social norms also represented a fundamental conversion factor to be
taken into account. In fact, the economic and power inequality which dominated in
the field in the ‘80s and the consequent battles to access natural resources was an
important catalyst in generating a strong bonding social capital among members, a
crucial factor for the success of this co-operative. Moreover, the ability of co-
operators to work on gender aspects and to expand bridging social capital, including
the co-operative in national and international networks, enabled the positive impact
of the co-operative on member well-being, avoiding the possible limitations
represented by the traditional social norms and geographical isolation, which could
have resulted in social inequalities within the co-operative.
However, despite the interesting results revealed by this case study, it would
be useful to carry on other empirical studies on this topic, providing useful insights
for policy-makers and practitioners. Verifying, in other contexts, which well-being
dimensions are more (or less) affected by participation in a co-operative, and which
conversion factors seem to be more influent in expanding people’s agency and well-
being and promoting community development could be crucial to implement sound
policies and to learn from good practices.
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Finito di stampare nel mese di giugno 2012- Dipartimento di Economia -Università degli studi Roma Tre ROMA -
... Co-operatives can protect members, create room for building capabilities and take collective action in response to market and policy changes (Vicari and de Muro, 2012). Co-operatives can also serve as a haven to protect farmers from potential risks through building resilience capabilities (Valentinov and Iliopouls, 2013). ...
... Finally, participatory methods were utilized to identify a tentative list of important capabilities for children (Biggeri et al., 2006), involve children in the evaluation of their well-being (Biggeri and Bonfanti, 2009;Tekola et al., 2009). More recently, participatory techniques have been used to evaluate the impact of co-operative membership on people's agency and well-being (Vicari and De Muro, 2012) and household decision-making (Burchi and Vicari, forthcoming). ...
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