Co-operation among co-operatives from an international perspective

ICA director general Bruno Roelants shared his view on how co-ops are working together at an international level

ICA director general Bruno Roelants provided various examples of co-operation among co-operatives at last week’s UK Society for Co-operative Studies (UKSCS) annual conference.

During his session, on 9 September, he set out the history of the principle, which was put into action much earlier than its first mention at the 1966 Vienna World Cooperative Congress.

Mr Roelants, who has been leading the International Cooperative Alliance since 2018, said the establishment of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in 1844 was soon followed by co-ops in other countries. Co-operators in Britain and other European countries started attending each other’s national co-operative congresses to exchange ideas. By 1893, preparations for an International Co-operative Alliance had already started; the decision to set it up was officially adopted at the 1895 Cooperative Congress in London.

“The ICA was started on the basis of intercooperation,” he said, adding that there are two types of intercooperation, entrepreneurial and institutional.

The first type of intercooperation is linked to the development of secondary and tertiary co-operatives and higher-level co-operatives, as well as co-operative groups. In the early days of the modern co-operative movement, this included the development of the Cooperative Wholesale Society in the UK, or the Desjardins Federation in 1932.

“All these groups are characterised by national character,” said Mr Roelants. “When they internationalise they establish subsidiaries. One of the big challenges in the next few years and decades will be how international entrepreneurial co-operation among co-operatives will be able to develop, either through co-operatives that straddle borders, but that’s very complicated in because of legislation, or by upcoming projects, or common tenders.”

Entrepreneurial co-operation at international level is one of the three founding missions of the ICA, he added, and the organisation is trying to make more progress on this. The ICA also plays a major role in terms of institutional co-operation among co-operatives at international level.

“The ICA system has gradually established a series of regional, sectoral and thematic institutions similarly to how the co-operative movement has developed in many countries,” said Mr Roelants. “So international co-operation among co-operatives, at the international level includes co-operating among co-operative divisions and co-operative sectors as well as between the regions and the sectors.”

In addition to its regional and sectoral organisations, the ICA runs thematic committees on gender, youth, research and legislation.

“The new ICA 2020-2030 Strategic Plan, which was approved in 2019 at the General Assembly, calls for more coordination within the system and we are presently trying to do just that,” he added.

The ICA also focuses on promoting the role of co-operatives in the field of development. Between 2016 and 2021 the organisation ran a partnership with the European Commission – Co-operatives for Development, also known as Coops4Dev – through which it carried out a series of activities and research projects aimed at raising the movement’s profile as a development actor. The ICA is currently working on establishing a second Coops4Dev programme.

Another important role for the ICA is acting as custodian of the co-operative identity; here too, intercooperation plays a key role.

“In relation to this co-operative identity, we have seen co-operation among co-operatives and co-operators internationally at its best,” said Mr Roelants.

“We have seen the capacity of the co-operative movement, internationally, not only to debate and promote these co-operative principles, but also to strengthen and complete them, and make them gradually better and stronger through years of preparation, and lots of interaction and intercooperation.

“This is no small deed because we don’t have many examples of global standards that have been established by the civil society itself.”

Similarly, intercooperation is key to coordinating the discussions with the ILO ahead of its adoption of the Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Co-operatives in 2002.

“The existence of these international corporate standards required from us co-operators at the global level to co-operate, even more strongly. We’re forced to co-operate internationally in order to promote the standards even further because without these standards, the co-operative model will disappear.

“It could be like some kind of phenomenological concept like the social enterprise, but not a reality enshrined in legislation, as is the case in so many countries of the world. So we have to co-operate more in order to further promote legislation in coherence with the standards.”

The existence of the standards also forces the movement to revisit, them, added Mr Roelants. Examining the co-operative identity will be on the agenda at the next ICA World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, the Republic of Korea (1-3 December). The event will be preceded by two conferences on research and legislation.

The Congress will be a “point of departure”, said Mr Roelants, which will seek to better understand and use the co-operative identity for the growth of the co-operative movement and its contribution to the global challenges.

“It should be another chapter in international co-operation among co-operatives. We have a lot of to do a lot of work to do, including in the field of research and in the field of education and in the further development of the co-operative movement through inter co-operation,” he added.