Co-operatives may share values and principles across international borders, but different political, legal, regulatory and policy arenas make it difficult to lobby on behalf of an international movement. Consumer Co-operatives Worldwide (CCW), a sectoral organisation of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), is trying to address this through the publication of its first policy guide for its members.
“People complain about regulation and legislation, but they often forget about policy,” said Peter Hunt, managing partner at Mutuo, the advocacy organisation and think tank that specialises in co-operatives and mutuals. “If you get a policy right – if you get the politicians and the decision-makers understanding why they should support, promote and help develop the co-operative sector – then you’ve got a real chance of that legislation and regulation flowing in a positive way. But you’ve got to get the argument right.”
Mutuo was established in 2001 to improve the business environment for co-ops and mutuals, helping them work together through a policy-led approach. Since 2013 this work has been global; Mutuo authored the ICMIF Global Policy Guide (2015), the Blueprint for an Enterprising Nation for Australia’s Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (2017) and the ICA’s Global Policy Guide (2018), among others.
In 2018, Mutuo was commissioned by CCW to develop coherent policy positions that could be used by its members as tools to align key public affairs and policy messaging across the sector, to maximise impact in multiple jurisdictions and institutions. CCW’s members include 28 national organisations of consumer co-operatives across Europe, Asia and the Americas.
“In 2018 an online survey asked CCW members about the impediments to the growth of consumer co-operatives, the threats, perceived advantages, safeguards, how well understood co-operatives are and the quality of lobbying,” said Mr Hunt, who was presenting the work to the Co-op Retail Conference, hosted by Co-operatives UK. “We looked at what are the tools we can use to try to improve the system in different countries. What can one learn from another? And what should be the basic standard that we’re adopting?”
The resulting guide explores the important contribution consumer co-operatives make to the global economy and society and shows how these businesses – focused on their core purpose of serving their consumer-members – improve the lives of people around the world. In particular, it looks at how different business environments need to respect the specificities of consumer co-operatives, so they are not disadvantaged by rules established for companies owned by shareholders, rather than members.
“It starts to get complicated because things that retail co-operatives may see as self-evident in one country are not self-evident everywhere,” said Mr Hunt. “Trying to influence the government is a different question entirely if you’re in China than if you’re in in the UK. Many of the different approaches have similarities, but they have very specific differences too – mostly around the industry sectors, but also around the approaches you have to adopt in countries with a completely different political system. You can’t just have a single approach.” For him, effective policy needs to supported by effective lobbying and widespread education.
He emphasised that the quality of the lobbying is as much about the quality of the argument, and “the ability of ourselves, as people in the co-operative sector, to say: This is why we exist. This is why we’re good. And this is why we need to have this particular environment in our business laws, regulations and policy”.
He added: “One thing that frustrates me about the international co-operative world is that it speaks in shorthand, in jargon, about a lot of the things that we want to achieve. That then develops a language for ourselves in the co-operative movement so we end up talking to ourselves as opposed to trying to convince other people of what we do.”
He gave the example of ILO 193, a 2002 recommendation from the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the promotion of co-operatives that provides an internationally agreed template for national policy.
“ILO 193 says that there ought to be a ‘positive policy environment in every country for co-operatives’ – that’s really significant,” said Mr Hunt. “It means that co-operatives should be understood and valued and that there should be legislation and regulation which helps them to grow. In some countries, this is taken very seriously, co-operatives are in their constitution. Some countries have legislation which promotes co-operatives because they understand the benefits of these types of businesses, what they do for markets, for fairness, and for consumers. Those are the things that you’re going to get the politicians waking up to, and believing that you’ve actually got something meaningful to say, as opposed to ‘ILO 193’.
“That’s the type of shorthand we should throw aside and instead, actually say: this is what we want to promote, these are the things we want to achieve, and this is why we want to achieve them. It’s the detail of this that is really important because that is what is going to win an argument. Don’t say ‘ILO 193’, say what it does.”
While policy is important, education is equally so, said Mr Hunt. In the UK, co-operatives do not form part of the mandatory curricular at any level – and it’s a similar story elsewhere. “If you go through the education systems in many countries, you don’t get taught about co-operatives, you don’t learn that there are different ways of doing business.
“There is a long term effort required in every single country to make sure that it’s part of the curriculum. Great, great strides have been made in the UK in the last few years through conscious activities to help to try to develop the materials around all of this, but it’s still not mainstream. Event if you do a business degree, you unlikely to hear about co-operatives. We absolutely have to change that.”
The CCW policy guide goes on to look at the what consumer co-operatives mean to economies and society in terms of corporate plurality and diversity; economic reslience; trust and accountability. And it suggests how governments can help build a fairer business environment – for example, by ensuring that government officials themselves are sufficiently skilled and supported to work with co-ops.
In terms of national co-operative legislation that matches global best practice and facilitate modern co-operative business operations, the guide sets out three priorities – including establishing the legal principle of indivisible reserves to safeguard co-operative assets for the purpose they were intended. “In some parts of the world, co-operatives have indivisible reserves as a matter of law, but this principle is not available to co-operatives everywhere. As a result, many face the threat of demutualisation, fuelled by the speculatory opportunity to appropriate assets built up by generations of members,” said Mr Hunt.
But as well as an enabling environment, “consumer co-ops need a strategy to help themselves, through co-operation among co-operatives,” said Mr Hunt, adding that this strategy could be replicated acropss other sectors.
To this end, the policy guide recommends that four new expert panels are established, on an informal basis to address some ofthe key challenges: business intelligence; public affairs; new business areas; and education and training for elected representatives.
“Of course, there will always be significant variations between countries and regions,” said Mr Hunt. “But we believe that it is possible to respect this diversity while growing consistent themes and messaging to strengthen our overall impact.”