If you take some of the images I have just encountered in a visit to Sri Lanka and Indonesia and couple them with African poverty and the ravages of HIV/Aids, one begins to see the world in a rather different way.
A divided world of haves and have nots; a world where the accumulation of material wealth knows no bounds while poverty knows no limit of despair. And a world where politicians, particularly in the West, refuse to take seriously the role that our Movement could play in alleviating this dreadful situation.
As Keith Darwin said last year as Congress President, and sharing his belief in co-operative democracy, I always felt a lay person should hold these positions and as a Co-op employee I am not that.
But in a way that is falling into the easy trap of assuming consumer co-operation is the only type of co-op. To be an employee of a co-op is hardly unrepresentative in a workers co-op and, as I represent all types of co-ops, I feel justified to be here.
Suffice to say I am more than happy to acknowledge my debt to the consumer Co-operative Movement.
Being in Glasgow of course brings back so many memories. I don't think Congress could be held in a more vibrant and political city.
I experienced democracy and participation here in its many forms as a co-operator, a Labour and Co-operative Councillor and as a peace activist. It was all here and still is.
British co-operation is a bit different in being openly political. I have had to be a bit more pragmatic since my arrival in Geneva.
But I can tell you, unlike someone in the UK who recently said he thought co-ops only happened in Britain, the global movement is very much alive and after 160 years we have a great deal to be proud of – but a great deal to do.
The ICA Board has just met in New Lanark – which must be one of the best places to reaffirm your beliefs in co-operation. It's where the British contribution to "Making Membership Meaningful" took place.
I like to think that that book served us well in initiating democratic change leading to the situation we have today.
And it was those international links which proved very influential showing whether in Italy, Canada, Sweden or Japan that co-operation and commercial success were entirely compatible.
And so to internationalism. Henry May, who served as Secretary General of the International Co-operative Alliance from 1913 to 1939, made one of the best and simplest cases for co-operative internationalism in the ICA Review of 1938:
"The Co-operative Movement of the world should stand unflinchingly for the principles of toleration, equity and justice in all the relations of life; respect for the rights of others; the settlement of disputes by reason and the abolition of armed conflict; the honourable fulfilment of all contractual obligations and association of the security of all in the exercise of their legitimate functions."
Many of these sentiments were behind the founding of the ICA in London in 1895. Today, its 219 members are national and international co-operatives in all sectors of activity including agriculture, banking, fisheries, health, housing, insurance, tourism.
These represent at least 800 million individuals worldwide. As the world's largest and oldest NGO, ICA was, in 1946, one of the first non-governmental organisations to be accorded United Nations Consultative Status.
Today it holds the highest category, that of General Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Perhaps one of the best ways today of promoting co-operation is to purchase and use a dotCoop domain name to demonstrate co-operative identity.
As an original sceptic I am now an unrestrained enthusiast for this development. You need only look at the use being made of dotCoop by some of the largest and most influential co-operatives in the United States to realise that the business case has been made.
What better way of raising our profile in this technological age!
It is also important that we recognise the very important role played by Bob Burlton and Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Society in bringing the dotCoop registration business back into co-operative ownership – and ICA is currently working with OSG to increase our own involvement in promoting dotCoop.
If the ICA didn't exist you'd have to invent it – especially in this age of globalisation. As Graham Melmoth said in 2002 quoting from our publication ‘Co-operative Principles for the 21st Century': "People in nearly every country around the globe have benefited from co-operatives. They have done so under all kinds of governments, within every kind of economy, and amid all the divisions – gender, race, religion, politics and culture – that typify the human condition."
But his message was that Britain should take its place in the global movement just as in the European Union and in the United Nations – splendid isolation is not an option. We must plan our globalisation – we should not be ‘anti global' but ‘anti neo liberal' and ‘pro Co-op' in a globalised economy.
Indeed you could say the Co-op has been global long before anyone else – since 1895 in fact, when the ICA was set up in London.
Indeed, the theme of our next General Assembly in Cartegena, Colombia is "Co-operative Values – a competitive asset in a globalised economy" – emphasising that co-operatives are businesses, but with a difference. And we will also discuss this year's UN Co-operatives Day theme ‘Microfinance is our business – co-operating out of poverty' – making the point that despite its flavour of the month status, microfinance only helps in a sustainable environment as provided by co-operatives.
Before going further, let's remind ourselves of the sheer size and scale of our global movement and why it is so important we sell ourselves more aggressively and believe in ourselves.
When I gave international greetings to Congress two years ago, I heavily emphasised this point and I do so again because if we crack the issue of self belief, we will all benefit – commercially, socially and politically.
There are some signs that we are making progress and Governments are at last showing some interest in policy guidance.
In particular on how to provide a favourable environment for the growth of co-operatives as a way to tackle poverty eradication, the generation of full and productive employment, and enhancement of social integration.
So we are not just for poor people – we are for everyone. We are the biggest sector of the world economy. So why don't governments recognize that?
If I wasn't so pragmatic nowadays, I might think our capitalist competitors were conspiring against us – surely not.
But we should recognise that possibility. Why, with some notable exceptions, doesn't Co-op management feature as an option in business schools and universities?
If we think we have political connections it's time they were a bit more effective.
In Spain and Colombia for instance, co-operative health has been successful for years – and here we hide behind ‘Foundation Hospitals'. What on earth does that mean? No wonder they are not popular. I do not understand why their co-operative credentials are not properly emphasised.
I know many of us instinctively want to protect the National Health Service and rightly so, but it doesn't mean it cannot be improved.
We need to decide – public, private or co-operative – I know which side I'm on!
Having said we are not just for poor people – world poverty is the most serious problem in the world today, whether it is through wars, natural disasters or epidemics. And it is always poor people who seem to suffer.
For instance, Africa is the world's worst hit region for HIV/AIDS. Over 13 million people have died of HIV/AIDS and 28 million are now living with the virus.
The devastating impact of HIV/AIDS is reducing economic growth; increasing attrition of skilled workers; adversely affecting agricultural productivity and food security; and reducing school enrolment; increasing pressure on health services and undermining household security particularly for older people and female-headed households.
The ICA, through the generosity of its members, carried out an assessment of needs of what was required to help reconstruct the Co-operative Movement in these countries.
As an initial phase, several projects have been identified and we have asked members to choose which ones they would like to support.
Our great advantage is that unlike relief organisations we can offer long term solutions with co-operative enterprise providing self belief as well as sustainable income and development.
So don't worry if your profits occasionally dip or shopping patterns change – we are in a much bigger game than that! Stick to our values and principles. Fair Trade, although only a small part of your business is a wonderful example of what can be achieved and it combines democratic participation trade, commercialism all in one – it also combats poverty by giving people hope. I've seen it and it is the UK Movement, which is getting the credit.
So to all those co-operative internationalists – I say thanks for keeping us moving forward.
But as some might expect I leave the last word to the man who in my view started it all and whom I have had great difficulty in not mentioning up till now – Robert Owen: "There is but one mode by which man can possess in perpetuity all the happiness which his nature is capable of enjoying – that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each."
• This article was adapted from Iain Macdonald's Presidential address to Congress. Mr Macdonald is also Director General of the International Co-operative Alliance.
In this article
- British co-operative movement
- Business models
- Co-operatives UK
- Consumers' cooperative
- Henry May
- Human Interest
- International Co-operative Alliance
- Keith Darwin
- Rochdale Principles
- Secretary General
- Social Issues
- The Co-operative brand
- The Co-operative Group
- the ICA Review
- North America
- Sri Lanka
- United Kingdom