Dynamism and energy spreads to global movement from Cancun

You can't help but conclude that the co-operative sector is on a roll. Here in Cancun, Mexico, there are well over two thousand representatives from co-ops around the...

You can't help but conclude that the co-operative sector is on a roll. Here in Cancun, Mexico, there are well over two thousand representatives from co-ops around the world and the mood is upbeat, hopeful and optimistic.   The economic context may be grim, but in many countries, not least India and China, the co-operative sector is playing a growing role in a growing economy.   In India, for example, the remarkable rural co-operative IFFCO has teamed up with mobile phone companies in a joint venture to deliver daily tips on farming and access to expert advice for their members, from goat and cow rearing through to weather forecasts. The project is called "mpower". One million farmers use this service, nine out of ten of whom earn less than $2 a day. 97% say that they trust the messages they receive and benefit from them.   The co-operative sector has the most amazing capacity both to humble and inspire you with stories such as these. The 18 strong UK delegation includes many of our own exemplars. It has been encouraging to see our international links grow – Midcounties in dialogue with energy co-ops around the world, the Co-operative Group finding ways to bring the co-operative sector from Tanzania to the global co-operative Expo in November 2012 in Manchester, the housing co-operative CDS building alliances to get a movement wide commitment to using only sustainable timber. But the truth I am finding is that the UK has far more to learn from cooperatives overseas than we have to teach. That makes it perfect timing to have an international year.   I have organised one session on communications, advising co-operatives on how to make the most of the international year. The global co-operative news hub has attracted growing interest and coupled with the existing Inter Press Service, a global media agency co-operative, and the emerging online bank of co-operative stories (or case studies) we have more opportunities than ever before to learn and share co-operative developments. And I talked in a plenary, after the Mexican President, about the UK 2012 'make it co-operative' campaign and activities, from a new smart phone app through to posters and resources to make it easy for our members to celebrate what makes them different over the year.   What you see and what you don't, who you meet and who you don't is, however, more down to luck than design. There are different sessions throughout the programme and the top three findings I report on here would no doubt be different for any of the other UK delegates present.   First, there is a growing harmonisation of legal frameworks for co-operatives, at least at a regional level around the world.   It may come as something of a surprise to learn quite how eclectic and diverse co-operative legal frameworks are. What we might think of as a single model, defined in a common statement of identity, spreading from Rochdale outward is simply wrong. It is a remarkably plastic model and has been adapted and shaped to fit local cultures and traditions across the world. Some of those models have been spread through the usual international channels – co-operative legislation in India spreading across the Commonwealth, similar models across francophone Africa and so on.   More recently, there have been efforts to develop common frameworks at a regional level, such as across Latin America and with the European Cooperative Society. The development agency USAID has supported the development of a framework to test the quality of the co-operative framework. These 'clarity' principles have been used in ten countries around the world and help to identify best practice.   As my colleague Helen Barber argues, the UK has a creaking regime, which has suffered from a lack of attention and investment by policy makers. The clarity principles help to show up where we and other counties fall short. For example, in terms of registration, in the Philippines, under the Cooperative Code, 1990 all applications for registrations have to be completed within thirty days, and if that doesn't happen, the registration is deemed to be approved.   One of the speakers quoted a cooperative legislator from a previous generation, WP Watkins, that "true cooperation draws its inspiration from realms where the state's writ does not run. Cooperative movements are not created by legislation. Nevertheless, without an appropriate legislative framework, a cooperative movement in the form of a growing economic organism is not possible or even conceivable."   Second, there has been a strong emphasis on using the new technologies of online communication and social media to promote and reflect the cooperative advantage. Sam Graham Fenton, the lead blogger for the first Obama presidential campaign, stressed the importance of using online networks to equip your supporters to promote your cause. And because people like to make an emotional connection with what they see, he encouraged cooperatives to tell the stories of ordinary people.   Third, the Latin American co-operative movement, including Mexico our host, is a genuine leader in terms of cooperative values and principles. There is a framework for social auditing across Latin America which tracks and reports on performance against the seven co-operative principles. The track record and commitment of cooperatives across the region to gender equality is impressive and there is an understanding that these are about issues of power and equality, so fundamental to the cooperative purpose. A proposal was heard to mark Rochdale as the global capital for co-operatives, which came from colleagues in Latin America rather than the UK and Europe.   Furthermore, after consultation with cooperatives across the region, the ICA President for the Americas, Ramon Imperial, brought forward proposals to strengthen the wording of the seventh co-operative principle, which is about care for the community, with a much stronger commitment to environmental justice and sustainability. This is a concern and debate that can only grow over time.   After the success of the launch of the International Year at the United Nations, the dynamism and energy I have seen here is a tribute to a renewed ICA and a renewed and interdependent global movement. • Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK.

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