Cooperative Development in Poland: A Legacy of USAID Assistance.

Cooperative Development: USAID commissioned the International Cooperative Research Group (RG) of OCDC to carry out a legacy study to examine what, if any, lasting effects of the USAID assistance to cooperatives can be seen in Poland today, nearly 20 years after its conclusion. The RG carried out this study as a complement to the countrywide survey research project, “What Difference Do Cooperatives Make?”

Research Question: What is the Legacy of USAID assistance to the cooperative sector?As the Iron Curtain came down in early 1990’s and radical economic and political changes swept across Eastern and Central Europe, the US Government, largely through USAID, supported the transition to democracy and market economies in a significant way, investing $918,014,204 (1988–2000) in Poland alone. Of that amount invested in Poland, a relatively modest amount ($24.5 million from 1990 on) was invested in the cooperative sector.

Through secondary and primary field-based research, the RG found in the Legacy Study that the USAID assistance provided to the cooperative sector in the 1990’s left traceable effects as an effective investment in institutions and in human capital. The support and guidance provided to the cooperative sector as it transitioned to a market economy was reported to have been a key element in helping to chart a new course for both cooperatives and individuals. This was perhaps the most significant key element, since this assistance was provided at a time of enormous social, economic and political change in Poland, and navigated many changes that were simultaneously occurring.

The outcomes of the assistance include new approaches to cooperative organization reflecting the international cooperative principles as well as the development of new ways of doing business particularly in some areas of agriculture (dairy), communications, and housing all of which benefited from technical support through USAID funded CDOs. The cooperative development programs aided in Poland’s important transition to a market economy and a decentralized government, and to what is now the eighth largest economy in Europe with a GDP that has doubled since 1990.

Judith Hermanson:”What Difference Do Cooperatives Make?”

The assistance to the cooperative sector was viewed as useful for the role that it might play in the evolution of cooperatives, which were previously largely used as instruments of national policy rather than empowering local communities. Cooperative development was also viewed as a significant way to transform production and services in key sectors, such as agriculture, housing, finance and communications. The research was designed to investigate whether and to what extent the legacy of cooperative assistance could be identified, a challenging task nearly 20 years after USAID’s exit from Poland. Despite the challenges, the RG was able to identify legacy effects of the USAID assistance to the cooperative sector. Since much of USAID’s assistance, although not all, was provided through Cooperative Development Organizations (CDOs) — a new generation of cooperatives has emerged. Poland has transformed itself and “re-joined” Europe through accession to the European Union (EU) in 2004. As with many institutions and segments of the economy and society, the trajectory of cooperatives has had its share of ambiguity and “changing rules.”

Methodology: The legacy research study, conducted in parallel with the “What Difference do Cooperatives Make?” research, used mixed methods, including literature review, key informant interviews, and interviews with cooperative members and others directly associated with the USAID supported assistance. It supplements the systematic survey research that show the positive impacts of cooperatives currently in Poland and illuminates the journey that cooperatives have taken there. Without any intention or ability to determine impact in a strict sense, the legacy study also shows how some of the investments made by USAID through CDOs have developed, grown and evolved.

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