Meet… Bruno Roelants, incoming director general of the International Co-operative Alliance

Mr Roelants talks about his 30 years working for the movement and his priorities for the future

Bruno Roelants is the outgoing secretary general of industrial and service co-op organisations CICOPA and CECOP-Cicopa, which are part of the International Co-operative Alliance. He joined these in 1995 as a volunteer, and helped build them into a global force. This month he takes on the role of director general of the Alliance.

You have been with CICOPA since 2002 but you have been involved in the co-op movement for over 30 years: how did this story begin?

I was indirectly linked to co-ops before that, when I started working as a volunteer then as a professional in the NGO world, working for a European NGO. At that time there was a big discussion within NGOs about articulating democracy in the community so that NGO was already supporting a number of projects run by co-ops and other similar participatory structures, this then started to get into idea of co-ops conducting development. Thirty years ago, I went to China and with it I came across an organisation that was revived as an individual resistance movement against the Japanese during the war in the form of small co-ops.

In 2002 you coordinated the co-operative movement’s negotiating group on the ILO’S Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Co-operatives. What has been the impact of the Recommendation?

The co-op movement was not represented; employers, trade unions and governments were the ones represented within the ILO so it was difficult to play part in negotiations so we had only 10 people there out of 300 negotiators. I was representing employers from Italy, by chance I found myself being the coordinator of that effort. There was no director general of ICA at that time. The result was that over 99% of representatives voted for the amendment that the co-op movement wanted approved. There has been a big impact because the recommendation includes the whole identity statement of the ICA. The ICA is, therefore, the only organisation mentioned in an ILO instrument.

Will the mention of co-operatives in the B20 recommendations have a similar impact?

It has an important impact, but the political implications of the B20 are not the same as an organisation of the UN: the B20 is by definition a group of wealthy countries, which have enormous amount of influence. But obviously, the ILO Recommendation 193, just like any text of reference we can have in the UN, is extremely important from an institutional and political point of view. The B20 is more a question of being an influence in the big powers in the world. These are two extremely important issues and have to be pursued. It is very important in terms of mainstreaming and having a dialogue with the business community but this should also be pursued with national business organisations, not only within the B20, to make these organisations understand we have more in common. Co-ops of small producers or SMEs form an enormous part of the co-op movement. There is also co-operation within the business world.

With the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade coming to an end in 2020, what will be your priorities going forward?

There has been a motion at the ICA General Assembly, which was voted unanimously, saying the board should work on a new strategy, which will be voted at next General Assembly. At the last board meeting on 19 January this has been addressed and there will be a period of dialogue between the ICA and its members about the new strategy we want for the next 10 years.

What will be the main characteristics of the new strategy, and its content, the members will have to set out for the board to work on and vote. So as director general I will be just a facilitator in the process.

Given your background in Labour studies, how do you see the role of co-operatives in a future world of work increasingly dependent on automation?

We’ve feared machines would replace human beings in the past. Like in previous occasions, the vision of labour and possibility that most human beings have a job, is first of all, a question of political will. Automation will accelerate restructuring but the future of work has to do with social distribution. Like in previous technological periods, we have enormous opportunities, we have witnesses an enormous evolution of IT co-ops. There will be much more need of IT engineers. Secondly, there are a number of jobs, which no matter what people say, are never going to be replaced. This is shown by the expansion of
co-ops in social services, it puts value on what machines cannot do. The same is happening in environmental fields. So, all in all, I think that this way of automation can be a positive force, this will be an opportunity to better show our advantages.

Related: Co-op News special edition on the future of work

What are the biggest challenges for the global movement?

There are some big challenges but each can become an opportunity. These include

  • work and employment poverty and exclusion
  • food security
  • climate change
  • energy production
  • peace
  • migration and refugees, including climate refugees

In the past co-ops have been able to cope with similar challenges but the economy was not so linked, they were not so globalised. So the co-op movement responded to big transformations happening in Germany in the 19th century as it was becoming an industrial country. The co-op movement played a role in the modernising of agriculture in Germany. Now all these changes are appearing around the world. Because of that we need an even stronger role for the ICA being the only organisation grouping all co-op organisations across the globe.

  • Meet more leading players in the co-operatives sector here.
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