How can the co-operative identity be defined in the context of global crises, deepening inequalities or the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda? These were some of the questions explored at the World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, which brought together 1,700 online and in-person participants.
In his opening speech ICA president Ariel Guarco highlighted the resilience of co-operatives during crises.
“This is no coincidence. It is the result of the strength of our co-operative identity. We have to be proud of our model and of our identity,” he said. He added that sustainable development is part of the DNA of co-ops and suggested they had been explicitly incorporated into the co-operative principles through the ICA’s 1995 Statement on Cooperative Identity.
Asking co-operators to remember their responsibility to “guard our co-operatives’ identity,” he added that any suggested changes to the statement should be carefully examined by co-op members from all regions and sectors.
As to whether the co-operative identity provided co-ops a competitive advantage, Mr Guarco said: “We know that our co-operatives are competitive as a result of the application of the co-operative principles, and not despite all the co-operative principles. Our competitiveness is built from the co-operative identity.”
The conversation around examining the co-operative identity kicked-off with a plenary session featuring Park Yeong-Bum, vice-minister, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Republic of Korea, who called on co-operatives to work together to share knowledge and information. The vice-minister engaged with the co-operative sector while working as an agriculture consultant. He sees a role for governments in supporting co-operative development, particularly by helping to set up co-operative federations where they don’t exist, to enable co-ops to grow. He argued that co-operatives often originate during crises, as in the 1997 Korean economic crisis.
The importance of co-operation among co-operatives was also emphasised by Akira Kurimoto, senior fellow, Japan Co-operative Alliance, who looked back on his experience as a survivor of two earthquakes. He described how after the 1997 and 2011 earthquakes co-operatives provided support and relief to the affected communities. Following the Fukushima disaster consumer co-operatives also helped to remove contaminated soil from agricultural land, supporting agricultural co-operatives and their farmer members.
Hilda Ojall, representative of the ICA-Africa Gender Committee on the ICA-Africa Board also shared her thoughts on the co-operative identity from the perspective of a young person.
“It is a joy for me that we see young people choosing to join the co-op movement because they understand the values it brings with it,” she said. She believes co-operatives respond to the needs of communities and ensuring that “the fabric of a society is made better every day.”
She shared various examples of co-operatives making a difference in young people’s lives across Africa and called on larger, already established co-operatives to work hand in hand with new co-operatives and support them to get off the ground.
For film producer John Houston, co-operatives are a means to empower disadvantaged communities. He described growing up in a small Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic where his father helped locals start a printing co-op and sell crafts.
The story is told in his film, Atautsikut/Leaving No One Behind, which explores the impact of co-operatives in the Inuit and Cree communities of Nunavik (Northern Quebec). He also advised co-operatives to take control of the narrative by sharing their stories more. He thinks this can be done via an international co-operative alliance of broadcasters.
The discussions continued during five parallel sessions which looked at examining the co-operative identity through: a strong co-operative brand, inclusive governance, educational opportunities, partnerships With governments; and co-operative culture and cultural heritage.
The first parallel session highlighted key tools that co-ops have to communicate their brand, including the .coop domain and the ICA’s global co-operative marque. The panel also gave examples of some of the benefits of being a strong co-operative brand, such as having better member recognition; higher member loyalty; more word of mouth; higher applicant quality; and higher employee motivation.
The second session explored the importance of the co-operative values of democracy, equality, equity and solidarity as well as the first, second and seventh co-operatives principles and the need for inclusive governance. The speakers argued that not having inclusive governance negatively impacts both the social and business dimensions of co-operatives and suggested ways to create truly inclusive governance that includes the diversity of those in the communities that co-ops aim to serve.
The third session looked at the importance of education in deepening the co-operative identity and furthering wider co-operative objectives as well as the lack of co-operative education. The panellists also pointed out the role of co-operative education for young people, arguing that this should be a lifelong process that people practice as life skills.
The fourth session examined the advantages of forming partnerships with governments as well as the need to be mindful of the issue of government control and intervention. Panellists highlighted the need to reinforce the co-operative ecosystem already in place and co-construct policies with governments.
In the final session the panel focused on the impact of the 2016 Unesco recognition of co-operatives as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an opportunity that, according to the panel, co-operatives have yet to seize. They also argued that understanding the diversity of experience within the co-operative movement across the world is crucial to refining the identity so that it stay relevant to the 21st century.