The International Labour Organization's "Handbook on Cooperatives for use by Workers’ Organizations," written by Guy Tchami, has some sobering criticism of the use of the cooperative form as a tool for colonialism.
colonialism offered colonizing countries the opportunity to promote the cooperative form of organization as a way of grouping people for a better control over the colonized population. ...
The Industrial Revolution ...forced industrialized countries to seek out raw materials and new outlets for their products. It therefore played a not inconsiderable role in the colonization of the developing countries, the objective for the colonizing countries being to increase the area of their national territory by appropriating foreign lands. Countries thus lost their sovereignty and did so, on their own territory, in favour of the home country. Africa, Asia, and Latin America then found themselves dominated by western countries including Great Britain, Portugal, France and Belgium.
Once the country was conquered, the settlers ensured the promotion and development of the cooperative form of organization. The objective was never altruistic. Cooperatives were in fact used as a strategic tool to allow people to be grouped together and goods, essential for the economy of the home country (coffee, cocoa etc.), to be collected for export.
It is not clear here what the strategic advantage of the cooperatives was to the colonizer here. More efficient, somehow?
After independence in the colonized countries, the governments of the newly independent States accorded an essential role to cooperatives especially in the development of rural areas. Nevertheless, in most of these countries, cooperatives remained a State-owned tool with which to control the masses.
In the former French-speaking colonies, development was the same as before the colonial period. The structures set up by the colonial administration were abolished and replaced with government institutions, the objective being to improve agricultural production and product quality. Unfortunately, the cooperative development lauded by the government did not meet the farmers expectations. There followed a decline in membership and a bad reputation for cooperatives. The term “cooperative” was even banned in some places and replaced by “village association” or “village groups” or again “mutual”.
In English-speaking Africa, the post-independence period saw the cooperative sector grow considerably. Good results were achieved in farm production for export. But failings were experienced mainly in the area of staff qualifications and inadequacy of infrastructure.
Tchami reminds us that these were not "real" cooperatives, of course, as they were not for the benefit of the members.
It is important to bear in mind that, in the context of the period, the creation of cooperatives was encouraged in a bid to control the people conquered during colonization and in no way to promote the interests of their members.…the way the governments of newly independent countries used them is regrettable as it perpetuates this misuse of cooperatives with the risk of sometimes tarnishing the way local populations see cooperatives for ever.
There is some ironic foreshadowing in Tchami's brief treatment of Robert Owen.
He thought it would be more economical to deal with the poor in groups rather than individually… But gradually his concept grew, these villages of cooperation became, in his view, the ideal type of society towards which he wanted to push humankind.
So to Owen, the efficiencies of communal poverty were an model with which to evade the exploitations of capitalism - while the cooperatives were later used as a tool for more efficient exploitation.