Co-operatives and international development: what next?

Can co-operatives bring an added value to international development? This was one of the key topics addressed in a special session in the run-up to the International Summit of Co-operatives in Quebec.

Delegates from across different co-operative apex bodies highlighted what they were already doing to promote the work of co-operatives in development.

In the USA, the Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) works to promote effective international cooperative development. It comprises nine members, all of them co-operative development organisations, working in over 70 countries and has a budget of over USD $200m.

Since 1962 the USA’s Congress has maintained a positive language around the role of co-operative in development. Paul Hazen, executive director of OCDC, said co-ops were working in the field of development in agriculture, finance, telecommunications, health and social care.

“We were able to demonstrate the size and scale of co-ops and their impact of lifting people out of poverty,” he said. OCDC acts as an umbrella body, enabling the nine co-ops to share best practices and conduct research projects. Mr Hazen also pointed out that sometimes co-operative organisations could end up competing for the same funding from donors.

Session facilitator Dame Pauline Green talked about the need for co-operative bodies to work together without impinging on each other’s sovereignty and while retaining their specialisms instead of competing with each other. Having a third party recognising the contribution of co-ops to development can also help to make the case for co-ops, argued the panellists.

Dame Pauline Green, Amy Coughenour Betancourt, Carlos Ernesto Acero, Florence Raineix, Andreas Kappes, Anne Gaboury and Mully Dor.
Dame Pauline Green, Amy Coughenour Betancourt, Carlos Ernesto Acero, Florence Raineix, Andreas Kappes, Anne Gaboury and Mully Dor.

Dame Pauline gave the example of the International Co-operative Alliance, which has recently gained recognition from the European Commission. Earlier this year the Alliance signed a framework partnership agreement with the Commission for a global development programme to benefit and advance the co-operative sector worldwide.

“We have a third party, the EU, saying they believe we are different and are prepared to put their money,” she said. Cooperatives Europe, the regional office of the Alliance has launched a platform that enables co-ops involved in development to provide information about their projects. The platform includes information about 478 projects with a combined budget of €240m.

“Co-ops have a key role to play in supporting the Sustainable Development Goals by working in the development sector. Having an international platform will allow us to bring together experts,” added the former president of the Alliance.

Another panellist in the session, Amy Coughenour Betancourt, chief operating officer of NCBA CLUSA, the apex body for USA co-ops, also called for more collaboration within the sector. “One of the things to take out of today’s session is to collaborate. It is much more of an imperative now that we have the SDGs. We need to find the mechanisms to work together more,” she said.

Carlos Ernesto Acero Sánchez is executive president of the Colombian federation of co-operatives (CONFECOOP). Referring to his country’s experience, he argued that co-ops can also contribute to peace-building. Colombia ranks in the top ten most unequal countries in the world. By tackling inequality, co-ops help address the roots of conflict, he argued. Colombians have recently voted against a peace agreement signed by the President and the leaders of the rebels. “At this moment we need international solidarity. We have signed a peace act but democracy created a limbo. Solidarity and co-operation are needed to overcome this obstacle,” he said.

Another challenge for co-ops working in development is to redefine the model, said Andreas Kappes, head of department of international relations at Raiffeisen in Germany. He explained how in certain countries co-ops are seen as linked to socialism or state-owned models. Co-op bodies can help by redefining co-operatives as modern businesses, he said, adding that having the right governance was important.

Florence Raineix, chief executive of the National Federation of Credit Unions in France, highlighted that governance had to begin with training members and giving them access to information.

In countries where co-ops are not seen by governments as important development actors having examples from successful movements abroad can also be very useful, added the panellists.

Ms Betancourt described NCBA CLUSA’s approach to enable communities to make decisions about their own development path. “We are building capacity and enabling that,” she said. “It’s not just about how the co-ops are being managed and run and how they operate or whether they are being transparent or not. We are part of a movement – community led development, there’s a new movement out there now about how to drive decisions at local level,” she pointed out.

Another obstacle is the lack of coordination between co-operative organisations, she said. This often required having a specific person in charge. “We have an imperative from donors to work with each other all the time but problem that unless you have someone on team dedicated to coordination and co-operation with other donor projects.

“It’s very difficult because you’re charged with executing certain donors’ requirements, donors have separate agendas and sometimes they don’t co-operate with each other. It would be much easier if we had the knowledge of what specialisms we have within every organisation,” she said.

Mully Dor, chair of the board of Ajeec-Nisped, the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation and Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, also encouraged organisations to decide which areas they could work on and which countries they could focus on.

Ms Betancourt added that the movement needed to engage more with outside sectors. “We need to have greater impact. What’s important to everyone else? What’s our impact? We have very large projects funded by the US government, not focused on co-ops but on resilience and food security. Nobody wants to talk about co-ops but about development objectives,” she said, adding that co-operative apex organisations needed to show how they could meet objectives such as building peace or achieving resilience.

“What is the added value of co-ops in development? We are the largest organisation in the world with a single set of set principles – a billion people. There is not a single government, or entity that can say that. The problem is that we don’t think collectively like that. We don’t sometimes think that there is a real commonality there. We can tap into those common principles.

“However, we cannot pretend that the co-op model is a solution to everything. We have to understand that if we do not collaborate with other sectors, then we’re not leveraging our true value there,” she concluded.

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