A co-operative world

There is good news at a global level. After listening to and meeting with co-operative entrepreneurs from around the world at the General Assembly of the International Co-operative...

There is good news at a global level. After listening to and meeting with co-operative entrepreneurs from around the world at the General Assembly of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), it is evident that the co-operative sector has never been more international, nor more allied.

The General Assembly took place in Cape Town, the first time on the African continent. The economic context is harsh in South Africa, with 25 per cent adult unemployment and high inequalities of wealth, but the mindset is more optimistic. Looking at the present difficulties of Europe, one presenter suggested that the world was dividing into the emerging nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and, burdened by high debt, the ‘submerging’ nations of Europe.

The Assembly was organised around the key themes of the ambitious Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, which was agreed in Manchester last year at Co-operatives United, the close of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives. Co-operatives United was mentioned by many participants as an outstanding event hosted by the UK – and some of the features were copied in Cape Town, such as a wonderfully enthusiastic volunteer team. It was a personal relief for me, though, to be a participant, with a healthy UK delegation, rather than one of the co-organisers.

Even so, the first theme – and the most visible – was one that the UK co-operative movement has helped to lead, which is the theme of co-operative identity. On the first day, Dame Pauline Green launched the new global co-operative marque – a visual identifier which is taken up as the new ICA logo but is also open to co-operatives around the world to use, to show that they are proud to be a co-operative. Consumer co-ops, for example, have been among the first to register on www.identity.coop to pick up and use the marque.

Twenty years ago, I was one of the team that started the Fairtrade Mark, which has now spread worldwide. At the time, we had modest short-term goals – we wanted to do for global justice what the UK Woolmark was doing for wooly jumpers. Over time, it has helped to change the world, one product, one producer co-operative at a time. So a new co-operative marque won’t achieve much in a month or a year, but in ten or twenty, I believe it could create and promote a more visibly unified co-operative and mutual movement worldwide.

One of the first people to welcome the new marque was Harriet Lamb, Executive Director of Fairtrade International, who added to her congratulations to me, the comment that “let's hope that new mark can help strengthen the co-operative economy we so badly need.”

Kathy Bardswick declared that “the new co-op marque is not just a logo, but a passion, a commitment and an energy.” She was one of the many impressive candidates elected to the ICA Board in a highly competitive round. The voter count lasted longer even than the enthusiastic speech making of a panel of Government Co-operative Ministers the following day.

There was action too on the other themes of the ICA Blueprint: an imaginative review of action by co-operatives on sustainability, led by a young team from Canada; guidelines on co-operative principles, such as education, led by the UK Co-operative College; and a new Commission on co-operative capital, with participation from leading global financial co-operatives. There was a statistical report on the sector from the Italian research agency, EURICSE, the Co-operative Monitor. We are big.

Q. What has a worldwide turnover of 54 times the level of Coca-Cola? A. The global co-operative movement.

But if we want to grow, what kind of growth do we want? Bruno Roelants, who is the inspirational thinker who heads up the worker co-op network, co-authored a set of essays, ranging from an honest and open account of the rise of agricultural co-operatives in China through to the performance of co-operative banks in Europe, who tend to grow market share when times are tougher. I liked the motto of Agropur, a farmer-owned dairy coop in Canada, which I met: 'to grow without losing sight of one another'. Or, as a co-operator from Zambia, said in one session: “we want an end to the agony and backache of ploughing by hand and farmer coops can help us do that.”

Co-operatives have always tended to be local or national in orientation, but potentially international in mindset. We are fortunate to have an outstanding team at the International Co-operative Alliance, to make this easier than ever. But there is also evidence that co-operatives are moving across borders. The first European Co-operative Society, Fondo Salute, for example was set up as a partnership of French and Italian mutuals focusing on health insurance. Some of the challenges faced by co-operatives, such as access to capital for regulated financial co-operatives, reflect policy set at a global level on accounting standards and regulation on financial stability. More positively, the largest co-operatives are sourcing from around the world and some are selling around the world.

The world economy is getting smaller, but on the evidence from Cape Town, it is also getting more co-operative.

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