Co-operatives are key actors on the EU’s development agenda

  With EU institutions setting out their agenda for 2015, the European Year for Development,  this is an crucial time for the co-operative movement. With this in mind,...


With EU institutions setting out their agenda for 2015, the European Year for Development,  this is an crucial time for the co-operative movement. With this in mind, co-operators, politicians and NGO representatives met at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the role of the private sector.

The seminar – Business for development: Perspectives from the Cooperative World – was hosted by Linda McAvan and jointly organised by Cooperatives Europe and Euro Coop. Ms McAvan chairs the European Parliament’s Development Committee (DEVE) in the framework of the European Year for Development 2015.

“The upcoming international meetings on the framework of the European Year for Development will be critical,” she said. “The private sector is key to development.”


The seminar included a presentation by Klaus Niederländer, director of Cooperatives Europe (the regional body for the International Co-operative Alliance), on a new database which will showcase the work of the movement.

The website follows 295 active international co-operative projects carried out by the Cooperatives Europe Development Platform (CEDP), a European network of co-operatives active in international development. The database was set up to allow co-operatives active in development to pool resources and share ideas, information and experiences.

“It provides a platform for collaboration among our EU organisations and within different regions of the ICA, to build a strong family, working together,” said Mr Niederländer. “The most important part is not online, but offline – contact between people.”

EC support

Paul Renier, deputy head of unit at the Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, said the European Commission supported inclusive business models. Its communication on the role of the private sector in sustainable growth noted that co-ops, social enterprises and other people-centred business often lead the way in providing decent jobs, sustainable livelihoods and inclusive solutions to social problems.

In December last year, the European Foreign Affairs Council adopted a second set of conclusions on the role of the private sector in international development, and this also mentions co-operatives. The document highlights the role that private sector players, including co-ops, can play in tackling poverty, achieving sustainable development and promoting inclusive growth.

The document adds that the EC, member states and European financing institutions should look at local banking systems and improve the access of co-ops and social enterprises to capital, long-term financing and financial services.

Funding remains a challenge for African development co-ops, said Chiyoge Sifa, director of the ICA’s regional office for Africa. Some members might not have the training they need to write successful funding proposals, she said – but co-operatives still provide the best examples of how business can drive development.

Promoting co-operation

Another issue raised was how to encourage EU businesses to co-operate, rather than compete. Linda Shaw, vice-principal of the Co-operative College, who looked after its research and international programmes, said companies and NGOs might be keen to work with co-ops, but they often fail to understand the model. This can result in NGOs creating co-ops, but setting them to fail.

“The win-win kind of thinking can’t live any more,” agreed Brian Sundstrup, senior CSR advisor at Coop Denmark. He added that the changing environment means that retailers have to build up new relationships with providers.

Legal framework

The co-op model increases bargaining power, said Ms Shaw. “What co-ops would like – not just in Africa – is a level playing field, because the legal and policy framework have not caught up with the realities. It’s much harder to set up a co-op – a lot more hoops.

“One of the challenges is to improve this – there are many challenges to do with the legal and policy environment.”

Mr Niederländer also called for work on the legal framework. The informal economy contributes 80% of the labour market in Sub-Saharan Africa, he said – and, while forming co-ops could help formalise this, in some countries, the legal framework makes this process difficult.

Todor Ivanov, secretary-general at Euro Coop, the consumer co-operative body, said that co-operatives had consistently showed the way on sustainable development.

“Through their inclusive entrepreneurial model, they have shaped a different way of doing business in developing countries, based on empowerment and the creation of long-lasting value,” he told the seminar.

“That is why we call on the European institutions, as well as the other partners active in the international development field, to recognise and support the co-operative difference.”


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