The Desjardins Group is the jewel in the crown of the worldwide credit union movement.
There are three features that make it special; its sheer size in relation to the banking sector in its region, the complexity of its organization structure, and its strong co-operative ethos. Then there is a fourth feature that comes from these, its socio-economic impact.
The only movement that rivals it in these ways is the Mondragon co-operative system in the Basque region of Spain, which has a savings bank at its centre but is organised around a different principle, of worker cooperation.
The success of both movements has been explained by their situation; an ethnic group who are in the majority in their region but form a minority within a larger nation state where the majority speak a different language. The result is a strong sense of social solidarity.
Desjardins is the market leader in the province of Quebec in Canada for nearly all financial services. A major factor in this success story is the tightly integrated and efficient group structure. The ‘caisses’ or credit union network is served by just one central, Desjardins Group that has a democratic structure of regional general meetings, councils and an assembly of representatives.
It has four business sectors, for personal services, business and institutional services, wealth management and life and health insurance, and property and casualty insurance. This structure works well, both as a business and as an association of people.
The word ‘movement’ is a loaded one, and suggests more than just a group of businesses that collaborate together. It suggests a sense of common purpose, of community and of shared values. In this case we do not just talk of a sector but of a genuine social movement that has transformed its regional economy.
• This extract is taken from ‘Resilience in a downturn: The power of financial cooperatives’, where Johnston Birchall highlights the strength of financial co-operatives.