The Big Debate closes Co-operatives United

Leaders from the global Co-operative Movement came together for the Closing Event of Co-operatives United in the Big Debate.

Leaders from the global Co-operative Movement came together for the Closing Event of Co-operatives United in the Big Debate.

Organised by the International Co-operative Alliance and Co-operative News, the debate brought together representatives from NGOs, government and co-operatives to discuss the big issues facing the movement, from poverty to branding the worldwide movement.

Hosted by BBC Breakfast Presenter Steph McGovern, the Big Debate opened the floor to questions from delegates. Here is a transcript of the highlights, or watch the video above.

The panellists were:

• Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance.

• Kristen Christian, founder of Bank transfer day.

• Peter Marks, Chief Executive, Co-operative Group.

• Paul Hazen, Executive Director, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council.

• Seah Kian Peng, Chief Executive of NTUC Fairprice Co-operative.

• Simel Esim, Chief, Cooperative Branch at International Labour.

The event was chaired by Steph McGovern, Business Journalist for BBC Breakfast.

Question: How much is enough to enable human flourishing?

Dame Pauline Green: What has popped into my head is what Roberto Rodriguos said at he awards ceremony on Wednesday – if my neighbour is unhappy, I can’t be happy. When we’ve got enough it will be when everyone is properly fed, has clean water, decent housing, health and we’re not depriving or depleting the planet of everything that allows it to live too. It’s a hugely ambitious agenda and I’m only looking at it in the philosophical sense. When you’re talking about what is enough – until we have solved some of the critical issues in the world, then we have got a lot of work to do.

Peter Marks: I actually agree with Pauline. Organisations will never be able to do enough, I’m a realist and in the real world there will always be major problems. The Co-operative Movement is a leader in this field and needs to continue to be a leader. We’ll never be able to do enough, but what we’ve got to do is do as much as we can.

Paul Hazen: I’d like to bring it down to the practical level, the local level. Take a farmer in Africa who has an acre of land, they don’t have the education or technical skills in order to feed themselves, but by working with their neighbours they are suddenly able to double their production: now their able to feed themselves and have extra money. They want more – they might want a little meat with their meal, they might want to send their kids to school. What the co-op does, it can move them to that next level and higher as their needs change, as their expectations change. There’s always more to do, and we’re the business model that enables people to achieve that.

Simel Esim: At a time when we are seeing the existing economic model put into question with the current crisis. We need to get this co-operative education, this co-operative way of working into our schools from a very early age.

Seah Kian Peng: Trying to balance between doing well and also doing good, is a challenge, but this is what co-ops are good at and we need to focus on this and continue to do more.

Kristen Christian: I think most of would kill ourselves if we focus on how much there is left to do but rather I think we accomplish the most when we find the simplicity in focusing on the task in front of us.

Question: How can you measure how well co-ops trade with each other?

Peter: I have pretty much spent all my 45 years in the Co-op Movement in the UK trying to talk co-ops into merging with each other, consolidate, because most of my career, the Co-op Movement in the UK has been in serious decline. We call it the Co-operative Movement but in the UK it very rarely co-operates and didn’t move. Fortunately we have consolidated, and because of that we are now, in a renaissance.

Dame Pauline: If this year has given the Movement anything, it has given it a growing sense of cohesion. I think it has been empowered by that and we need to keep the momentum going, and not let it drift away.

Question: What initiatives are we putting in place to share the co-op message?

Kristen: In the US, consumers have proven what they want as far as their options for banking services, the next logical step was to have these consumers, who are also voters, let their representatives know. If our representatives aren’t supporting legislations that support communities, then they won’t get our votes.

Question: Why are under-developing countries co-ops unsuccessful?

Dame Pauline: The reason that the co-ops from the more traditional countries are more successful is that they started first and have built more scale.

Peter: Co-ops have failed very recently in the UK, most of my career all of the movement has been in serious decline. It hasn’t acted commercially enough, it’s been inefficient, and incoherent in the way it has marketed itself. We haven’t been able to compete against the large food retailers, largely because we have been fragmented. When I started in the late 60s, we had 25 per cent a market share in food, a few years ago 2006/7 it had got down to four per cent. We were great at ethics, great at values and principles, but we’d forgotten that we needed to make profit to succeed.

Dame Pauline: I wanted to come back on what Peter said, when he talks about the Co-op Movement being in decline, I don’t think we were good at our values and principles then. I don’t think we were good at anything then, to be able to pursue your values and principles well, you’ve got to have a good core business otherwise you can’t do it. I would say we were failing on all counts Peter, that we weren’t good at anything! We’re trying to compete with our competitors on the price of baked beans, and not on the value of our community engagement.

Seah: My business is 40 years old next year and we are the market leader – we have been able to hold our own because we run it fairly efficiently, and we have been built on trust. You highlight the values beyond prices and if you do this well, you get a descent market share and make a significant social impact.

Question: How can co-op gain access to capital?

Peter: We do have to find innovative ways to raise capital. We are looking at innovative ways of accessing capital markets, through saying to our members, would you like to invest in our business. We are right now, almost ready to launch a member’s certificate. We do have to find innovative ways to raise capital. The Co-op Group has access to the bond markets, but investors only invest for a return.

Paul: I do think there’s a class of investors out there, that we call impact investors, who are not only looking for an economic return but social impact – there is potential for us to appeal to that type of investor.

Kristen: On the Bank Transfer Page – there’s quite a lot of outrage at the idea of corporations having an involvement in financial co-ops. It leaves people feeling like they would lose that democratic control. As someone looking from the outside – I would caution financial co-ops to tread lightly in that area.

Dame Pauline: It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to find a way of creating development capital for co-operatives that does not jeopardise member ownership.

Question: Should co-ops become more involved with social protests?

Seah: We need to stay relevant and make use of social media, we need to involve and keep up with the times. We, the co-op, would lose its relevance, we’re aging quite rapidly, its more important that we plow more resources into it.

Simel: In this time there are a lot of different movements, the sustainable development movement, the women’s movement, trade unions, where everybody is struggling – who are actually allies. An enterprise democratic governance model is something that needs to be explained to our potential allies, who can just jump the fence and join.

Kristen: When I saw people protesting on the streets: I thought here is this very clear solution and asked why are we discussing the problem and not the solution. I think I can speak for most people in my generation. We are so fortunate but you don’t find this anywhere else-people who actually listen to the words we have to say and the ideas we have.

Question: What is the co-operative brand?

Dame Pauline: We do not have a global brand. We are not a Microsoft or a Nokia. My view is that we don’t want to be. We need to be different. When we talk about our brand is not about trying to be a monolithic corporation. For us is something much more profound. We need an identifier, something we can all subscribe to. We are not all one business. Our model is about so much more profound and important.

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