We spoke with Ariel Guarco, president of the International Co-operative Alliance, who has been at the helm of the organisation since 2017, to find out how the ICA is working with members around the world to promote co-operatives, and about the upcoming World Cooperative Congress.
What does a regular day look like for you?
I always say that my workplace is the five continents. It may sound exaggerated, but that’s what I try to do every day. Be in constant contact with ICA member organisations. Today, technologies make this type of task much easier and even from Argentina I can do it, connecting in front of the computer, for many hours, at very different times. However, as far as possible, I prefer to travel and be face to face with our colleagues, to know first hand about their development and to support their campaigns before the public authorities, among other actions.
This means that many of my days are spent traveling or attending to the agenda of ICA members in their respective territories. I do the same when I am in my country, Argentina, following the issues related to the National Confederation – Cooperar – as well as the Federation of Public Service Cooperatives that I chair – Fedecoba – and my grassroots co-operative, Colonel Pringles Electric. For a year and a half, another responsibility I have is to be a member of the national institute that promotes our sector – INAES – where I engage with the directory of officials appointed by the government and representatives of co-operatives and mutual societies. In the midst of this agenda, which I try to carry out with the greatest responsibility and commitment, I try to dedicate as much time as possible to my family, which is the most important thing. In short, I do not have a regular agenda because I am at the service of what my representatives require, and my days are very long… but extremely satisfying!
How did you get involved in co-ops?
From a very young age I became involved in co-operativism, conceptually and practically. I could say I did it from my mother’s womb, because my mother worked in the same electric co-op that I now preside over, in my hometown, and I grew up listening to the co-operative values and principles and how a co-operative works. What’s more, I saw it with my own eyes, as I was involved on a family level. In addition, in places like mine, co-operatives are very present because, as well as to providing electricity to all households, they distribute running water, provide telecommunications, perform social services, civil works… one can see the co-operative present in each corner of the village.
I grew up in that environment and felt like a co-operator from a very young age. That led me to get involved and participate in different spaces, little by little, learning from those who had spent more years in the co-operative. In the same way I felt called to contribute in the Federation, the Confederation and, finally, in the ICA, where I have the honour of being elected after having made all that way from the base, where I still have my feet set.
How have the past two years been for co-ops? How did they cope with the Covid-19 crisis?
It has been a very difficult period, which is not over yet, because the health issue is not resolved as long as the possibility of vaccinating the population remains very unequal on a global scale. In addition, the social and economic consequences of the pandemic will remain in place until we are able to regain lost jobs and re-raise companies that have not been able to survive. In the case of co-operatives, although they were affected like all actors in production and services, they once again showed their resilience and their ability to respond to the needs of communities. Being companies rooted in each territory, they know first hand how to act in extraordinary situations like this and, not being oriented to maximise profit but to meet people’s needs, they were able to supply even in confinement to other companies, institutions and households with the goods needed.
What are the biggest challenges for the global movement?
I believe that, in this scenario, our biggest challenge now is to make the best possible contribution to regaining the ground lost during the pandemic. Each country and each region has different capacities to recover from a hard impact like this and we have to help, as always, to ensure that no one is left behind. This means, from a global perspective, supporting each other, fostering a greater degree of inter-cooperation and promoting the transfer of knowledge and resources between regions and between sectors so that there are opportunities everywhere to reach certain levels of development.
The other value we can add is the answer to how we want that development to be. From the ICA we have adopted the Sustainable Development Agenda as our own because we know, humbly, that it is the development model that co-operatives have been carrying out for almost two centuries. Today it is more a priority than ever to focus on creating decent work, reducing inequality, eradicating hunger, providing quality education and health for all, caring for natural resources and building positive peace as a result of harmonised societies, where no one lacks anything and where everyone, with their own sociocultural identity, can co-operate and achieve things together. That is where we propose an Identity with a capital letter, a Co-operative Identity that shelters us all, that allows us to get out of this crisis together and, above all, helps us build a world where these crises will not be repeated.
What are the ICA’s priorities going forward?
For the ICA, it is essential to continue consolidating the integration of our movement worldwide. To that end, we have articulated a higher level of dialogue from the presidency and the rest of the board with the regions and sectors, as well as with the networks and committees. We have created the International Cooperative Entrepreneurship Think Tank (ICETT), where for the first time we can jointly promote the work of co-operative enterprises with great advocacy capacity globally. This helps us to strengthen and position ourselves as a leading player in debates about the global future. We must add all possible support to our members in each country especially with regards to the agreements we have with organisations of the United Nations system, such as the ILO and the FAO, and to the excellent results that the partnership with the European Union has given us. I was recently in India, where for the first time since that country’s independence there is a national minister of co-operation. Co-operative organisations have done and are doing a great job, which I personally celebrate and support, so that this leads to greater growth opportunities for co-operatives in India and the Asia-Pacific region. I observed a similar relationship between the co-operative sector and the governments in the Basque Country and in Navarre, during my recent visit to Spain. In Russia, Egypt and Mexico, quite different countries in which I have also been recently, ICA member organisations took our presence in the country with great joy and took the opportunity to deepen their impact at the local political and economic level, which makes them stronger and helps us, in turn, to strengthen regions and sectors. The ICA we have been building and want to continue to deepen is based in large part on that permanent back and forth with members.
The theme of the upcoming World Cooperative Congress is ‘Deepening our cooperative identity’. Why is it important for the co-operative movement to explore this?
When we talk about Co-operative Identity we are talking about that capitalised Identity that we offer to all our communities to rebuild better together this world impacted by the pandemic and by multiple problems that existed before the pandemic. That Identity does not overlap with the others; on the contrary, it is a support of each individual and each community so that, each with its values, trajectory and sociocultural belonging, can meet and co-operate with others, who have other values, trajectory and belonging, and build more inclusive societies together, where no one is left out and where no one is left behind. On the other hand, we say that we want to deepen this Identity because we understand that it is part of a dynamic process. Co-operative Identity is not static and has not emerged overnight. Our Identity was forged over almost two centuries, from those guiding principles elaborated by the Rochdale Pioneers to the Statement on the Co-operative Identity passed at the Manchester Congress in 1995, going through each of the revisions and taking each of the contributions that they were made throughout the twentieth century and so far this century within the ICA. That Identity, firmly constructed, clearly written and that defines us as open, democratic enterprises, enterprises formed voluntarily by people and that are oriented to satisfy their needs and aspirations, is what we offer as a tool to the communities to solve emergencies and to project a better world in the long term.