As a keen observer of the cooperative movement for the past 30 years, the British writer and financial journalist Andrew Bibby has extensive knowledge of cooperatives and mutuals.
In addition to publishing several books and working for various newspapers and magazines, Bibby has also undertaken work for the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), the International Labour Organization (ILO – Coop branch), Co-operatives UK and the Cooperative Group*.
We asked him to trace the milestones of the cooperative movement and the challenges that lie ahead.
Has the cooperative model undergone any major changes in the last 30 years, and if so, which stand out the most to you?
There's been a welcome renaissance in the global cooperative movement in the past 20 or 30 years, with a renewed commitment to fundamental cooperative principles, including the importance of member control and member democracy.
For me, the 1995 revision of the ICA's cooperative values and principles symbolized the necessary fight-back against the widespread distortion of the cooperative business model into quasi-state-managed enterprise in many parts of the world. The ILO's Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation in 2002 was another step forward, and of course, the 2012 UN Year of Cooperatives is a massive opportunity.
Coupled with these international initiatives, I sense a new determination by many long-established cooperatives to run their businesses more effectively and more “cooperatively.” But there's still a long way to go.
Based on your observations, what are the main challenges facing cooperative enterprises in the years to come?
If cooperatives are to claim – as they should – the ethical high ground in business, then corporate governance is of fundamental importance. There are still too many examples of poor practice within our movement.
The second big challenge for cooperatives to address, I think, relates to capital – of being able to access sufficient capital for business development needs, without having to rely on equity markets. We need to be creative in devising new financial instruments, and in channelling socially responsible investment (SRI) funds into cooperative enterprise. The risk of demutualization remains a real one in some countries.
And how should they prioritize to meet these challenges head on?
The ICA and its sectoral organizations need to give a strong steer in relation to corporate governance. I think we are approaching the time when the values and principles of the movement may need to be reviewed again and strengthened. And there needs to be much more intensive work undertaken around cooperative capital.
One of the goals of the International Summit of Cooperatives is to have participants adopt a common declaration. What is the one key point you would like to see included?
At present there is no commitment in the ICA 1995 values and principles to meeting the International Labour Organization's Decent Work standards for cooperative employees. I think it should be part of cooperative principles that core labour standards (as identified in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work) are respected by all cooperatives.
* In recent years, Andrew Bibby has worked for various organizations, including Co-operatives UK, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), the International Labour Organization (ILO – Coop branch), Co-operatives UK and the Cooperative Group, as well as for international trade union bodies and NGOs. He edits the quarterly magazine of the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF).