Interview: Bhima Subrahmanyam, International Cooperative Banking Association

A look at how co-op banks around the world report on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

As the International Cooperative Banking Association (ICBA) marks its centenary, we speak to its president Bhima Subrahmanyam about its plans to celebrate and progress the sector is making on the UN Sustainable Development Goals,

This year marks the ICBA’s centenary. How are you planning to celebrate?

Our celebration will most likely take place this November in Brussels, home of the International Cooperative Alliance’s (ICA) global office. 

Specifically, the centenary celebrations will focus on the following actions: to revisit the role and objectives of the ICBA as a global organisation for co-operative financial institutions (CFIs); to define the key parameters of the ICBA; to organise a global seminar on strategies to strengthen CFIs; to plan and bring out, if possible, a commemorative document comprising  messages and articles on banking and finance; to publish the results of the three studies undertaken by the ICBA for analytical discussions; and to work out the strategies to execute the ICA’s strategic plan 2020-30.

The ICBA has published a study on how co-op Banks report their contribution to the SDGs. How did this come about?

Over the last two years – while dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – the ICBA has published a number of academic documents: 

1. Regulation and Sustainability of Cooperative Banks: A cross country Study (2020), which was written by Dr R Bhaskaran, a financial consultant, with Dr Padmanabhan, an IT expert.

2. Sustainable Development Goals & Objectives: Contribution of Cooperative Banks (2020), written by Dr Olivier Boned. The intervention of Dr Eum Hyungsik, director of the ICA Global Office, helped to fine tune the report.

3. Report of Country Papers on Regulation and Sustainability of Cooperative Banks – produced by the ICBA Secretariat

4. ICBA Members Today: How Do They Contribute and Report on Sustainable Development? (2021)

This written by Dr Nazik Beishenaly, researcher at KU Leuven and Rubiga Sivakumaran, independent consultant. Santosh Kumar, director of the ICA Global Office, extended guidance to the team which helped to concretise the methodology and fine tune the report.

The reports have been widely circulated and very well appreciated by many.

A matter of great satisfaction to all of us at ICBA was that the first three reports were formally released by Ariel Guarco, president of the ICA, on 30 November at Seoul, South Korea – during the hybrid meetings of the ICBA General Assembly and board meeting. 

The fourth report on ICBA members was been fine tuned and finalised after discussions at different levels, with two webinars involving eminent personalities. Mr Guarco was accompanied by some of the directors from the ICA board at the 30 November webinar –including Jean-Louis Bancel and Isabelle Ferrand.

The ICBA acknowledged the contributions of all those involved in finalising the above study reports.

To answer your question precisely, the ICBA Members Today report has come out very well – in spite of certain limitations,  and sets out a clear message to CFIs about their role and involvement with the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

What were the main challenges faced when putting together the report?

Truly important question. There were number of challenges:

1. Inconsistencies in contact information of ICBA members who are spread over four regions

2. Communication channels are not updated

3. A long- term gap between members and ICBA functionaries

4. An ‘uncalled for’ tendency to question the usefulness of the ICBA and its relevance. This has been aptly answered by the ICA board in reviving and reconstituting the ICBA

5. Inability to integrate available information about all 17 SDGs

6. Dependence on secondary sources of information

These challenges have been ably addressed by Dr Nazik Beishenaly and Rubiga Sivakumaran.

What does the report tell us about co-op bank reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals?

Despite the increasing awareness of sustainability disclosure, more than half of ICBA members have not yet integrated the SDGs into their reporting and communication. The ICBA members that actively engage in sustainability reporting are often encouraged by national and regional regulators.

ICBA members’ contributions to sustainable development are driven and enabled by a range of internal and external factors.

Could some of the best practices in the report be replicated elsewhere?

Certainly, yes. It is possible to replicate the best practices and the ICBA can play a significant role in disseminating the practices.

Furthermore, as has been documented in the report, the best practices and knowledge sharing are among the most important expectations of ICBA members because they are based in different regions of the world. The ICBA could serve as a platform to share regional experiences, banking knowledge and co-operative expertise. It could also share best practices on developments in areas such as financial and environmental regulation. 

The exchange of best practices is essential during pandemic times – and indeed at all times that require novel approaches in terms of health measures, hybrid working, and the resumption of activities and international travel. 

A regular benchmarking and exchange of CFI practices would also be helpful in establishing virtual communication, organising conferences and sharing north-south good practices.

The ICBA could centralise the communication of its members on topics of common interest through its website, conferences, training, study tours and other means.

How can the ICBA help with difficulties co-operatives may face when reporting their performance on sustainable development – such as their capacity to do this, or the need to educate their communities?

As has been said, the ICBA could centralise the communication of its members on topics of common interest through its website, conferences, training, study tours and other means.

The ICBA shall assume the advocacy role effectively, in contributing to SDGs.

Given the report’s main recommendations, what comes next for the ICBA?

ICBA institutions can enter into partnerships with the co-operatives. They will then have access to funding, so they can use those funds themselves, or let co-operatives access funding for their own use. These are two major advantages the ICBA is having as a global  organisation. 

The ICBA could also consolidate the information it collects and develop guidance on sustainability reporting:

As has been enumerated in the study report, sustainability reporting is mandatory in many countries, but questions remain because co-ops also need to develop their stance on how they contribute to sustainability and what their value-added is. 

The ICBA – which benefits from its international positioning and access to global policy platforms, the international co-operative community and other financial institutions, can help develop the conceptual grounding that emphasises the co-operative difference. 

Members expect the ICBA to support practical tools that include system to organise the measurements of the cooperatives’ contribution to the SDGs. 

As a part of advocacy, the ICBA platform could also allow the direct exchange of existing and new regulations with policy-makers and regulatory authorities. 

One of the ways to measure is to assess the extent of demonstrating and disseminating with case studies and other examples aimed at influencing the policies of governments. 

Furthermore, the ICBA – with its potential as a global organisation – may also attempt to develop a separate mechanism to measure the impact of the contributions by their members. It could use the result of this facilitate conducive policy formulations.

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