Bruno Roelants looks back on his time at the helm of the ICA

‘In spite of specific sectors having suffered particularly acutely during the pandemic, the co-operative movement has again showed its resilience to the crisis’

We speak to Bruno Roelants, the retired director general of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA). He led the organisation for five years until the end of February 2023; prior to this, he was secretary general of the International Organisation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (Cicopa) for 16 years. Here he looks back on his time in office, and his fondest memories. Roelants, who had over 35 years of experience within the co-operative movement, was the 16th director general of the Alliance, which was founded in 1895.

Anca Voinea: You have been involved in the co-op movement for more than 35 years. How different is the current global landscape for co-operatives compared to when you started in the movement?

Bruno Roelants: The world landscape of the last four decades has been marked by the process of globalisation. On the one hand, the interconnectedness within the international co-operative movement, and the speed and depth of the exchanges taking place between co-operatives and organisations of co-operatives, have evolved significantly. After a low ebb in the middle of these 35 years, when many co-operatives were tempted to conform with the conventional enterprise model, we have gradually seen a renewed awareness and pride of being co-operatives. We have also witnessed a tangible advance in public policies and regulation for the promotion of co-operatives internationally and nationally. The ILO’s Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives was approved 21 years ago, and in the negotiations of which I was involved, was a big step forward in this regard: the insertion of the whole ICA Statement on the Cooperative Identity, the mention of co-operative organisations (and not only co-operatives) as key actors, and the public policy proposals it contains ushered in a strong acceleration of regulation as well as co-creation of public policies between governments and co-operative organisations through different modalities (partnerships, consultations etc).

On the other hand, with economic globalisation, co-operatives have increasingly stood out as a significant part of the economy (in particular in agriculture, banking, insurance, retail and, in certain regions and sectors of activity, in industry and services) that is not for sale unless co-operative members themselves decide to sell their business, which is rare.

AV: Looking back at the past five years, during which the world was struck by a global pandemic, what have been the key challenges for the ICA – and how have you sought to address them?

BR: In spite of specific sectors having suffered particularly acutely during the pandemic, the co-operative movement has again showed its resilience to the crisis, like during the 2008 economic crisis, even though the crisis has been this time a health one in its origin. As a result, ICA members could maintain their membership. The pandemic struck less than three months after the ambitious ten year Strategic Plan approved at the Kigali General Assembly in October 2019 came into force: we have done enormous efforts, in spite of the pandemic, to implement this strategic plan in earnest and in its various components. We also solved logistical problems very quickly: barely a few weeks after the pandemic was declared, we were able to organise the first online board meeting with simultaneous interpretation in three languages. Much of the period under the pandemic was concentrated on the preparation, implementation and follow up of the ICA 33rd World Cooperative Congress which, together with its related events, lasted nine full days. This exercise was particularly difficult due to epidemiological and logistical conditions: it was the first time a hybrid event (both in person and online) took place in the co-operative movement at the global level, with simultaneous interpretation in an array of languages. In order to mark the beginning of the post-pandemic world and help provide renewed confidence and optimism within the co-operative movement globally after almost two years with no in-person meetings at all, it was essential to carry out this event, even though we were still very much in the middle of the pandemic.

AV: Over the past couple of years the ICA has embarked on a journey to analyse its Statement on the Co-operative Identity and adopted a new strategy. What progress has been achieved so far and how will these two streams of work continue under a new director general?

BR: Let me start with the strategy. The ICA 2020-2030 Strategic Plan was launched in January 2020. It was the outcome of in-depth consultations with ICA members (with a record 62% response rate), ICA Regional and Sectoral Organisations, and ICA global Thematic Committees, and of over one year of work within the ICA board. It was finally approved by the General Assembly in 2019 after a final debate and a series of last modifications. After the Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade, which was a good step in the right direction, the effort with this 10-year Strategic Plan has been to make it fully operational, with long-term strategic actions to be broken up into short-term annual activities enshrined in annual work plans. I think that the Strategic Plan provides very useful guidance, as well as stability and coherence, to the ICA’s work for the next seven years provided it is properly implemented through annual work plans, even if it is adjusted in the middle of this period. Its four key themes are fundamental for the co-operative movement: first the co-operative identity, which is existential for co-operatives and was the focus of the ICA 33rd World Cooperative Congress; secondly, the growth of the co-operative movement in its various dimensions (from gender to public policies, from membership to youth etc); thirdly, co-operation among co-operatives (linked to the 6th co-operative principle); and fourthly, the sustainable development of the communities and the impact of co-ops on local development (linked to the 7th co-operative principle). Differentiating the growth of the co-operative movement and development through the co-operative movement has also been an important conceptual breakthrough, making it easier to put a value on the contribution of co-operatives to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As for the analysis of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity, it has been foreseen in the Strategic Plan as part of the first key theme on co-operative identity. The endeavour of analysing the co-operative identity began over a year before the Congress, with the 125th anniversary of the ICA and the 25th anniversary of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity in August-September 2020. A number of other events were then held in the run up to the Congress. The Congress itself, which took place in December 2021, analysed the co-operative identity from 24 distinct angles of analysis, from education to sustainable development and the SDGs, from digitalisation to peace, from capital to culture, from employment to the resilience to crises. A webinar on the Congress conclusions was organised in May 2022 and a wide-ranging survey was subsequently organised, being presently under analysis. Much of the feedback received before, during and after the Congress from ICA members, co-operatives and
co-operative members at large and researchers from over 130 countries has prioritised how to better utilise the international co-operative standards enshrined in the Statement on the Cooperative Identity in its present form. These have become part of the standards of the international community within the UN system since they were approved as part of ILO Recommendation 193 in 2002. The recognition of these standards has triggered off a huge wave of national co-operative legislation, and has contributed to solving specific issues like that of having the share capital of co-operatives recognised as equity and not as liability by the International Accounting Standards Board, or the argumentation advocating a differentiated tax treatment for co-ops at national level.

AV: What are, in your view, the greatest accomplishments of the ICA over the past five years? 

BR: First, the above-mentioned ICA 2020-2030 Strategic Plan, the first ICA strategic plan covering such a long period, is a landmark in providing guidance for the ICA activities year after year, and in raising the ICA staff’s motivation in their engagement for the co-operative movement. Secondly, we have improved substantially the value proposition to members, with member surveys, individual meetings with members to understand their specific needs, brand new assistance to members on legislation tailored to their needs, and information and communication targeted for members, to name a few. Third, we have seen a marked improvement in the ICA’s interaction with the UN and its agencies, not only bilaterally but also multilaterally, through the UN’s Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (Copac) of which the ICA has had the rotating chairship over the last two years, promoting a new Copac strategy and facilitating the membership of two new organisations of the UN system (the UN Research Institute for Sustainable Development and the International Trade Centre). Fourth, we made incipient steps towards creating a global network with national governments with a first ever ICA Global Roundtable of Government Authorities for Developing Cooperatives just after the Congress, with the presence of public authorities from 22 countries, four UN agencies and the EU. Fifth, in close co-operation with the ICA Regional Organisations, we successfully completed a huge multiannual programme (2016-2021) under a partnership with the European Commission, one of the first agencies of international development co-operation in the world. Beyond its many positive outputs, the programme consecrated the recognition of co-operatives as one of the most important agents of development in the world; within the framework of this programme, we organised the ICA Kigali conference “Cooperatives for Development”: it was the second ICA global conference ever held in Africa and the first one fully dedicated to development, with around 1,000 participants from 94 countries.

Among the accomplishments attained over the last 5 years, we should also mention: the first pilot steps in international co-operative to co-operative trade in partnership with the international Trade Centre (a joint agency of UNCTAD and WTO); the launch of the ICA International Cooperative Entrepreneurship Think Tank (ICETT) gathering some of the largest co-operatives and co-operative groups in the world (15 to date) and of the ICA G20 Working Group which was inaugurated under the Italian G20 Presidency (2021) and has spurred a series of references to co-operatives in G20 documents; the ILO-ICA Conference on the Future of Work convened in June 2019 at the ILO premises in Geneva, where the book Cooperatives and the World of Work which I co-edited was presented; the insertion of a reference to co-operatives in the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work, one of the key ILO documents, through intense lobbying in Geneva at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in 2019; the creation of the International Coalition on Social and Solidarity Economy (ICSSE) in September 2021 with ICMIF, AIM, GSEF and SSEIF; our active participation in the discussion in Geneva at the ILC in 2022 for two weeks on the ILO Resolution  Concerning Decent Work and the Social and Solidarity Economy, in close coordination with ICSSE; the co-organisation, for the first time and upon the request of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), of the UN Expert Group Meeting which, every two years, provides the basis for the UN Secretary General’s recurrent report Cooperatives in Social Development; the co-organization with UN DESA of a cycle of Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) labs dedicated to cooperatives within the framework of the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) taking place every year in early July, allowing to celebrate simultaneously in New York the UN International Day of Cooperatives; the approval of the 2018 Guidelines concerning Statistics of Cooperatives by the ILO Conference of Labour Statisticians after intense lobbying; and the hybrid event “Cooperatives are Key Stakeholders in advancing SDGs through the culture and creative sector”, organised in 2022 in the framework of the UNESCO Mondiacult Conference , where the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage inscribing theIdea and practice of organizing shared interests in co-operatives on the Representation List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity upon the proposal of Germany” was commented.

Last but not least, the already mentioned ICA 33rd World Cooperative Congress “Deepening our Cooperative Identity”, with around 1000 participants physically present and 500 online, and two academic conferences immediately before, has certainly been a landmark event of the last 5 years.

There have been many other achievements over the last five years, which I cannot mention here for lack of space. I must say that I am extremely grateful to all my colleagues at the ICA Global Office for their full dedication: without them, these achievements would have been impossible.

AV: What is your best memory from your time at the ICA?

BR: There are so many good memories of these five years at the ICA that it is difficult to choose. One very nice memory is the cappuccino ICA policy director Joseph Njuguna and myself had on the terrace of the Delegates Lounge at the UN headquarters, in front of the Hudson River, together with Undesa director Daniela Bas and her team, just after the Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) lab dedicated to co-operatives which we co-organised with Undesa during the high level political forum on sustainable development (HLPF) in July 2022: there was a sense of both relaxation after an intense event, and the promising prospect of collaboration on the VNRs for the next few years.

AV: Will you continue to be involved in the movement after retiring from the ICA?

BR: Having been involved with co-operatives since the late 1970s, co-operatives have become part of my life. Being in good spirits, I do intend to continue working for the development of co-operatives in different roles, among others as a consultant on co-operative development, and as an author of a series of books and articles.

AV: Any words of advice for the incoming director general?

BR: Every period is specific, so it is difficult for me to recommend anything to the incoming director general who will have to work in specific conditions. I would just like to share a few points, which have been important to me as director general.

First, every day, I visualised that I was working for ICA members, and, beyond, for members of our members, down to each grassroots co-operative around the world. I also visualised every day one or two of the many co-operatives I visited during my fieldwork in previous decades. My multicultural and multilinguistic background has hugely helped me in this exercise and in reaching out to ICA members and co-op members in all parts of the world.

In my successive positions as chief executive of international co-operative organisations, I have tried to develop horizontal relationships with my colleagues at the ICA global office, and I have seen the talent and motivation of my colleagues opening up as a treasure.

Although the job of ICA director general has claimed complete dedication, including weekends and holidays, I have also seen how important it was to keep at least a few days off every year in order to take stock of such an amazing experience.