The Italian cooperative system is a model that inspires many organizations because it is so successful and versatile. And few people know as much about this system as Enzo Pezzini.
As Director of the Brussels office of the Confederazione Cooperative Italiane (Confcooperative), Mr. Pezzini has helped to promote and coordinate a number of large- scale European research projects on social cooperatives.
In this interview, Mr. Pezzini talks about the characteristics of the Italian cooperative movement and the challenges it faces.
What motivated the creation of the Alliance of Italian Cooperatives a year ago and what challenges does it face?
The creation of the Alliance of Italian Cooperatives (Alleanza delle Cooperative Italiane) on January 27, 2011 marks the beginning of ongoing coordination between the three main and most representative cooperative associations: the Associazione Generale Cooperative Italiane (AGCI), the Confederazione Cooperative Italiane (Confcooperative) and Lega Nazionale delle Cooperative e Mutue (Legacoop). It's an extremely important event because the purpose of this alliance is to reconcile and move beyond very different traditions and models of entrepreneurship.
There are two main reasons behind this unification. The first is a desire to give a powerful signal that things are changing – without disregarding the cooperative movement's historical divisions – and demonstrate that Italian cooperative associationism is undergoing a process of simplification and cohesion and showing great responsibility in a very complex framework of political and economic crisis. The second is a desire to have cooperation play a more significant role in the edification of society and the market to provide greater balance between work, the economy and well-being.
The Alliance faces a number of challenges. The first is cultural because it's important for the public to clearly understand cooperativism: its role, objectives of working for the common good, ability to meet the needs of people and their communities, and its function as a bastion of economic democracy. It also faces the challenge of allying itself more with the public authorities so they can facilitate the expansion of the cooperative model through legislation and regulation.
Lastly, it has an entrepreneurial challenge. Italy has 43,000 cooperative enterprises, with financial cooperatives owning 12.9% of ATMs and representing the country's 4th largest banking system. In addition, the Italian cooperative movement accounts for 30% of the country's consumption and commercial distribution, 50% of the agri-food sector, and 90% of cooperation in the social sector. So there is lots of potential for promoting new entrepreneurial projects, at the level of the product chains and in terms of territory.
In Italy, cooperatives are recognized in the country's constitution. What principles is this recognition based on and what are the benefits?
Italian cooperatives benefit from legislative protection under article 45 of the constitution, which states that the Republic recognizes the social function of mutuality-based non-profit cooperatives. The law promotes and facilitates their development through the most appropriate means and protects their character and purposes with the help of appropriate controls. Italy is not unique in this regard, as there are other constitutions in Europe and other parts of the world that protect cooperatives.
It's on this basis that successive legislative measures have laid down the principles of solidarity and democracy and the mutualist criteria with which cooperatives must comply.
The key benefits include the recognition of the function of cooperatives and the role they play in the country's economy, and also of their specific entrepreneurial characteristics that warrant special attention.
Social cooperatives are a type of cooperative unique to Italy. What makes them different and what is their socio-economic impact on the country?
It's true that the Italian social cooperative is a pioneer experience in terms of its use of the cooperative formula for solidarity in the area of social services. And Italy was the first country to recognize this new type of cooperative with legislation.
This cooperative model is different because its principal purpose is to serve the general interests of the community, and not just of its members, through:
- a) The management of social, sanitary and educational services;
- b) The development of diverse activities – agricultural, industrial, commercial or services – to promote the inclusion of disadvantaged people in the labour market.
The experience was also new in terms of the whole cooperative phenomena because it was the prototype for the multi-stakeholder model. It paved the way for all kinds of players with varying interests (workers, users, volunteers, subscribing members) to get involved and to unite and work together through cooperatives.
In September 2011, there were 11,808 social cooperatives and consortiums in Italy. In six years' time, they have grown by 57.7% and have a work force of over 350,000 people, including more than 30,000 disadvantaged persons working in type B social cooperatives. Approximately 4.5 million people benefit from their services.
However, this situation is no longer unique to Italy. Over the past few years, we've seen legislative renewal in several countries aimed at consolidating or stimulating new fields of activity for cooperatives in a diverse range of initiatives normally associated with work integration and social services, by applying operating methods that often entail using multi-stakeholder models.
This is the case both in Portugal, which amended its Cooperative Code in 1996 to include the social solidarity cooperative sector, and in Spain, which introduced social initiative cooperatives in 1999. France passed legislation on June 28, 2011 that introduced the Société Coopérative d'intérêt Collectif (SCIC).
But there is also Greece, the United Kingdom, Finland and Lituania… At least 11 of the 27 member States of the European Union have passed legislation in recent years that configured new forms of cooperative or social service enterprises.
Once again, this phenomenon and legislative evolution are not exclusive to Europe. Quebec's experience with solidarity cooperatives since 1997 is another good example.
At the end of the International Summit of Cooperatives, a Common Declaration will be presented to the participants. What key element should this declaration contain?
The cooperative model is successful and versatile and still has so much more to contribute to our globalized societies.
In these times of extraordinary social and economic change, cooperatives will be able to take up the challenge of fulfilling their role and meeting people's needs by setting up productive enterprises based on the principle of self-organization.
Given the structure of our increasingly more complex societies where needs are greater, more diversified and interconnected ─ cooperatives must remodel themselves accordingly. If the cooperative movement doesn't make an effort to adapt itself to today's reality, needs may remain unmet.