Interview: Jeroen Douglas, new director general, International Cooperative Alliance

'We are in a world that is volatile, complex and ambiguous ... I think co-ops can be a source of inspiration'

“There is a big story ahead of us,” says Jeroen Douglas. “A new, big story that keeps the world together … and I think that co-ops are one of the pillars of this story.”

Douglas was appointed director general of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) last July and officially took up the post in January. The six months in between, he says, gave him “the time to conclude my role at the Solidaridad network after almost 30 years of service and some space to become familiar with the history of the organisation”.

“So far, I’m thrilled,” he adds. “I’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg but it’s massive, the whole ecosystem of the ICA.”

His connection to the co-op movement has roots in student activity around global issues and social justice. “I studied anthropology and theology,” he says, “and ended up working for a Dutch not-for-profit organisation called Solidaridad; over the next three decades, I helped to build that organisation into a global institute.” 

Solidaridad is now an international network organisation, working in over 40 countries with seven regional offices on five continents. His work there – including most recently as executive director – focused on sustainable supply chains in tropical commodities such as coffee, tea and cocoa. Solidaridad founded the Max Havelaar Foundation in 1988, thus launching the first Fairtrade label for sustainable coffee.

“At Solidaridad we were fighting for sector transformation, for profits that are shared fairly and for an economy that works for all – and we did that with a lot of co-operatives themselves as producers,” says Douglas. “Nonetheless, working with large, multinational food companies, we were not able to bring systems change. 

“I always thought that co-ops, through their principles, their design and their inspiration, do have all the elements for such a change. I moved to the ICA in part to help progress this history of systems change.”

He is clear that addressing challenges around principle six (co-operation among co-operatives) and sustainability will also be high on his agenda – as will the fact that “tangible, concrete, market-based solutions” must be found if co-ops are to grow, thrive and unlock their full potential in a changing world. 

Related: Preparations under way for 2025 International Year of Cooperatives

“From its very beginning, the ICA has worked in lobbying and advocacy, and provided information and inspiration,” says Douglas, “but I think we should also add a third pillar to that workflow and that is to offer market-based solutions.”

“The world is moving from a unipolar or Western-dominated world, towards a multipolar world,” he adds. “Last year, we had more warfare than ever; 183 conflicts were registered by the Economist, almost the same number as there are countries. 

“We are in a world that is volatile, complex and ambiguous. A complicated world. I think co-ops can be a source of inspiration – and, if we manage to bring concrete solutions, they can be a force that builds a better economy that works for all.”

He acknowledges that bringing together the ICA’s 300 members, spread across more than 100 countries, is a big task, particularly with the emergence of new economic and social issues. One of the key challenges, he says, will be looking at how co-ops navigate these issues together and act as a “force” in different regions. He believes 2024 will be a “pivotal” year for the world, in part because there will be more elections over the next 12 months than ever before, with over four billion people invited to vote. 

“In 2024 we are almost going to reset the social order of the world, with all this warfare in between,”
says Douglas. “My hope is that co-ops, by collaboration internally with their neighbours and communities, but also with each other, can create a system that works for all. Because the underlying problem of all these wars, as usual, is poverty and inequality. 

“We need to realise that this model of neoliberal capitalism, which came with the promise of creating wellbeing and welfare across the whole world, is not delivering. If co-ops can help to work towards a more equal distribution of wealth – and also through worker co-ops and producer co-ops create more sustainability – I think we can help the world move into the next phase of global capitalism, away from the ‘wild capitalism’ that, as we know, is not delivering on the sustainability agenda.”

Another challenge here is posed by the specificities of issues facing co-ops in different sectors, of different sizes, in different places – and here, Douglas sees platform-based solutions.

“How can we collect ideas and tools from the global treasure trove of humanity and translate them into inspirational local solutions?” he asks. “We are moving now to a decentralised, decarbonised, digital world – and I think there is huge potential here if co-ops build smart
digital solutions.

“There is so far no platform that delivers smart tools to multiple continents and multiple countries, but there is much here to unlock. You need to get over the hurdle of creating critical mass and you need some significant sponsoring because the initial costs are significant. But it’s doable.”

Douglas has some heady ambitions, based on collaboration, interconnectivity and a sense of belonging – “the three key drivers of the ICA”. 

These include harnessing the “power of data and digital” to create a membership portal for ICA members, to explore how the Coop Marque can be better used as a label, and to develop a smart climate proposition for members. “Imagine the ICA facilitating with many stakeholders, the opportunity to offset and inset your carbon proposition by connecting demand and supply in the co-operative movement.”

He adds: “What I understand from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard is that the lowest point for co-ops has passed, and there’s a huge revival taking place. Co-operatives are part of the mainstream economy and an interesting way to organise –  supported by legal frameworks.

“Alongside this, young people working in the gig economy and in the digital environment are being encouraged to organise co-operatively, and to advocate for platform work as real, full and decent employment. 

“I see a bright future for co-ops, and I can see the ICA playing a role there to ensure that we are fostering, in particular, principle six. That’s the innovation and aspiration I have, and the story I hope to tell in the years to come.”

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