Committing to the co-op identity to tackle global challenges

Report from the third plenary of the Word Co-operative Congress

The third Congress plenary focused on how a commitment the co-operative identity can tackle global problems through fairness, inclusion and innovation.

Kicking off a roundtable, Giuseppe Guerini, vice chair of the ICA’s G20 working group and president of Cecop-Cicopa, the European confederation of industrial and service co-ops, said digital tech, demographic changes and migration all present challenges for the future of work. As a broad community for the common good, co-ops can tackle these threats – for instance by using tech to create a new type of mutuality. Online behaviour shows a desire for relationships and a network – and co-operatives have the values to deliver that.

“We must not be afraid of innovation, and technology,” he added. “Digital technologies, for instance, can help us to increase the capacities of the co-operative.”

Ana Aguirre, worker-owner of Tazebaez (an international consultation, education and communication worker co-op) and vice chair (Europe) of the ICA Youth committee, agreed that co-ops can help deliver a better future of work. Young people have serious concerns over this, she said – not just in terms of pay but also from a desire for jobs “that make us better humans, and are really connected with the values that we stand for”.

Co-ops must rethink the idea of representation, she said. “Half the world is youth, but half this room is not youth; half the world is women, but half this room is not women.” 

Bill Cheney, board member of the Woccu Worldwide Foundation and president of Schools First Federal Credit Union in California, USA, said co-ops can address “economic inequality, social inequality, digital inequality” – which often stem from systemic barriers to financial services and education.

Credit unions help overcome systemic, racist barriers to financial services by not using the credit scoring systems that exclude certain groups, he added. And principle 6 – co-operation among co-operatives – sees credit unions doing something corporate banks don’t: collaborating to deliver solutions to social problems. Mr Cheney gave the example of Californian credit unions working together to deliver financial education to young people.

Related: Mondragon, Tazebaez and the Travelling University

The parallel sessions threw up useful case studies in how a commitment to the co-op identity can work in practice.

Sokchiveneath Taing Chhoan, senior manager, Socio-Economic Development, Canada, gave a presentation on the co-operative sector in Nuvanik, the northernmost region of Quebec. The sector has been crucial for indigenous communities, he said; there are 14 Nuvanik co-ops with over 11,000 members and 11,000 employees, active in hospitality, tourism, the arts, construction, retail – with a general store in every village – and transport. 

In the past five years the co-op movement has delivered CA$30m in returns to members, $67m to co-operatives and communities, and fostered a sense of ownership which underpins the region’s development.

“The co-operative business model was promoted because it was designed to empower economically vulnerable people through alliances and because its values were in harmony with those of the Inuit, notably the values of collaboration and autonomy,” he said.

The success of co-operatives “showed that Inuit were ready to own and control their own business … a significant step to reclaiming autonomy,” he added.

Masahiro Higa, senior managing director of Japan Cooperative Alliance (JCCU), said his organisation is working to tackle issues facing communities in Japan – declining birth rates, ageing populations, and inequality. “In some cases, the very existence of the community itself is at stake,” he warned. 

“The sustainability and revitalisation of a community where members live and work, and which is the foundation of co-operatives’ business and activities, is essential.”

Related: Ela Bhatt’s keynote looks to a nurturing economy in 100-mile communities

Principle 6 is a vital tool here, he said. For example, Covid-19 shut down students’ part-time hospitality jobs. To help them, agricultural co-ops worked with student co-ops to provide food and work opportunities. This was motivated by meeting social need rather than generating profit – and has in turn left grateful students wanting to help others. This is crucial in a country with an ageing population and weakening social ties.

There are also lessons from the field of international co-op development. Patrick Develtere, professor of international development co-operation, University of Leuven, Belgium, said the world is moving away from the notion of developed north and underdeveloped south, towards a peer-to-peer endeavour. This offers opportunities for co-ops, provided it commits to less colonialist and paternalist methods.

Driving equality

Examples of this co-operative spirit include the movement’s work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) on child labour and displaced people. ILO programme manager Guy Tchami said “co-operatives are uniquely placed to support displaced persons and host populations by combining activities that support economic and human capital development, alongside a strong focus on self-help and collective action”.

Similarly, co-ops can help drive improvements to gender equality. Xiomara Núñez de Céspedes, vice president of the ICA Gender Equality Committee, advocated women and men collaborating as leaders, and suggested co-ops work to educate families and communities on equality and democracy. They can also drive equality through co-operative principles such as one member, one vote.

Gender was discussed in another a parallel session, on the maintenance and promotion of peace. Maria Eugenia Pérez Zea, chair of the ICA Gender Equality Committee, and ICA board member for Colombia, said her country had suffered more than 70 years of armed conflict – and 72% of the victims had been women.

Co-operatives have a crucial role to prevent such tragedies, she said, because they “deconstruct structural violence in daily societies”. She talked about the role of co-ops in peace-building and empowering women by providing jobs, equal economic participation, access to land and leadership opportunities.

Malena Riudavets, vice-president of COCETA, Spain, said that in her country 50 women die each year at the hands of their partners. Gender-based violence also exists in the workplace.

“We cannot allow this to continue,” she said. “That’s what co-operatives are here for. We have non-discriminatory selection processes, no salary gaps between men and women, different dynamics that favour gender equality in decision making.”

A COCETA survey of 70 Spanish co-ops found that many had been running equality plans before they became a legal requirement. Around 87% had risk prevention plans and 25% had plans against harassment and violence. The survey found no cases of workplace harassment.

“I teach future electricity installers,” added Ms Riudavets. “They are all men, and I wish that no workmen tell anyone, as I was told: ‘Don’t come, ask your father to come’. 

“I try to teach my students that we women can work in any environment without having to be discriminated against.”

Natural disasters are another threat:  Mijung Jung, chief director of the Asia Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management for Korea (A-PAD KOREA), told how she lost her home in an earthquake – but also saw the power of co-ops at all stages of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Climate change means co-ops will have to be increase this preparedness for disaster. In another parallel session, Clara Maffia, director of Brazilian co-op apex OCB, said co-ops in her country are working to stop deforestation.

“The OCB has a membership of 4,868 co-ops representing 17 million members,” she said. “We are working with the government who have introduced a new Forestry Code which states all farmers must preserve 20-80% of their land, depending on where they are located.”

Aboma Anuma Getachew, support expert for the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union in Ethiopia, said female empowerment is important to tackling climate change. “Throughout most of my country there is no access to a central grid so people use diesel generators for electricity and firewood for cooking,” he said. OCFCU is teaching women to use solar panels by creating women ambassadors to champion the technology in their communities.

SP Singh, managing director of Indian Farm Forestry Development Co-op, said India is increasing its forest cover to help meet its climate targets; 22% of the country is now forest, which equates to sequestering nearly 30 billion tonnes of CO2. Its carbon targets will require another 166,000sq km of forest cover. “We will be developing forestry on wastelands, capacity building with forestry co-operatives and introducing fast-growing tree species,” he said.

Yanio Concepcion, president of Cooperativa Vega Real (CVR) in the Dominican Republic, said small island states can help tackle climate change. CVR works with over 500 communities to conserve water and has organised a congress on environmental challenges, based on local ecological footprints and using tools such as green schools, tree planting and eco parks.

Another parallel session looked at how co-ops can build the strength to withstand crisis. Euricse’s Giuanluca Salvatori said the World Cooperative Monitor showed that co-ops have been quick to recover from the pandemic. But he warned that Covid-19 and the 2008 financial crisis “were not just crises within the system, but a crisis of the system”.

In recent years there has been a repositioning of shareholder companies, who now talk about social responsibility, he added. “Co-operatives are no longer the only ones taking the task of combining economic mission and social mission,” he said. But he believes co-ops should develop their own metrics to show their advantages when it comes to social and environmental goals.

Minsu Kang, director of the Seoul Cooperative Support Center, discussed the Zero employment adjustment campaign, which saw 231 social enterprises pledge that they would not lay off a single person. This was helped by an emergency fund, which raised 630m Korean won to help organisations pay rent.

Lucia Lacuesta, from the Basque Country, shared her own experience of how her co-op has coped with Covid-19, but told the movement to pay more heed to youth. Ms Lacuesta, 22, is in the last year of a degree with Mondragon University, which uses an alternative educational model based on learning by doing. “The greatest learning experience for me is being responsible for my own achievements and failures,” she said.

Co-operativism “is not attractive or clear for the people in my generation,” she warned. “We need to open the doors of co-operativism to young people and to start an intergenerational dialogue from both sides.”

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