Co-ops and corporations: Can they collaborate more on the UN’s 2030 Agenda?

Co-op leaders joined discussions at a side event of the UN Commission for Social Development last month

With the UN’s sustainability agenda for 2030, launched in 2015, nearing its halfway point, co-op have leaders met with private corporations to find ways to speed up the effort.   

The discussion – held at a side event of the 61st Session of the UN Commission for Social Development on 8 February – brought delegates from around the world to look at issues such as biodiversity and rural poverty.

Organised by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in collaboration with Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (Copac) and the Permanent Mission of Mongolia, the event looked at how co-ops and corporations work together on the SDGs – notably those on reduced inequalities (10) and  decent work and economic growth (8).

Daniela Bas, director of the Division for Inclusive Social Development of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DISD DESA), highlighted the importance of SDG17 on co-operation and partnerships.

“Our goal is to identify how corporations and co-operatives can partner to maximise their impact in promoting employment and reducing inequalities,” she said. “Let us emphasise the importance of finding common ground and leveraging each other’s strengths and expertise.” 

There is scope for fruitful collaboration when it comes to sourcing goods and services, she said. Joint ventures could develop new business opportunities and create employment, support sustainable production and marketing practices, promote fair trade and ethical sourcing, and drive community development initiatives.

For example, the Body Shop has entered a partnership with 20 co-ops around the world through its community trade programme.

Enkhbold Vorshilov, Mongolia’s permanent representative to the UN, described his country’s recent initiative to amend co-operative legislation and develop guidelines to help companies, corporations and other companies to disclose their sustainability practices.

Related: How co-operatives are mitigating the effects of climate change

Kenya’s cabinet secretary for labour and social protection, Florence Bore, also highlighted the role of co-operatives in her country’s economy.

“We believe that the future of Kenya depends on the strength and vitality of our co-operative sector,” she said, adding that co-ops and corporations could work together on community development initiatives or form joint ventures and partnerships to pool resources, expertise and market access. 

Corporations can also provide training and support to co-operatives to help them build capacity and become more competitive in the marketplace, she added. “Co-operatives and corporations are both important players in their economy and their collaboration can have a profound impact on the development of communities.”

The event also featured a panel discussion with corporate and co-operative representatives.

Adinan Kielb, administrative director of Cresol, the third largest credit co-op in Brazil, gave an overview of its work. Cresol has 734 branches, represents 78,000 co-op members and manages US$4.7bn in assets. It provides micro credit for small farmers and small companies and has a number of partnerships with insurance companies and public and private banks.

Aldo Uva, CEO of CSM Ingredients, shared some of his organisation’s projects with co-ops, including its Ancient Grains initiative, which is helping farmer co-ops plant rare ancient grains. This encourages biodiversity and creates opportunities for farmers – and through co-ops, farmers can work with corporations directly, cutting middlemen from the supply chain.

“The more co-operatives are there, the more frameworks that encourage co-ops, the more corporations can add value to the full ecosystem, and to the full value chain of food,” added Uva.

Bruno Roelants, director general of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), who was also representing Copac, which the ICA currently chairs, said co-operatives contribute to SDGs 8 and 10 by having a lower than average income gap, redistributing profits according to members’ transactions, and fostering knowledge and innovation in their communities.

“Co-operatives naturally promote the SDGs and they had been doing so even before the SDGs came into being,” he said. “Co-ops tend to create networks of enterprises among themselves and with the rest of the corporate world, and we have a lot to gain from stronger co-operation between co-ops and the rest of the corporate world.” 

The two types of enterprises could work together more strongly on the SDGs on the agenda 2030, added Roelants, and they can also  start “thinking beyond the 2030 agenda.”

Meanwhile, Angus Rennie, partnerships manager at UN Global Compact, said it was important to continue to “lift up co-operatives as leaders in really living those values of partnership and resilience”.

The UN Global Compact intends to launch a call on companies everywhere to commit to a living wage. “I think this is something that partners in the co-operative sector might also already be able to demonstrate,” said Rennie. 

Larger co-ops are also leading the way when it comes to partnering with small and medium enterprises (SMEs), he thinks. UN Global Compact is to launch a pilot project encouraging partnerships between some of the larger multinationals and SMEs.

The event ended with a Q&A session, where Matthieu Cognac, senior multilateral co-operation specialist at the New York office of the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), said co-operatives are important because of their role in decent work and supply chains, and the way they “promote democratic values at the local level and at the country level”.

In 2002 ,the ILO adopted Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives, which has been used by 117 countries to revise their co-operative policies.

Lucas Tavares, senior liaison officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), pointed out that rural areas are home to more than 80% of the world’s extreme poor – many of them family farmers who lack access to loans, inputs or markets, “Co-operatives are a means to grant them this access,” he said.

The FAO is working with the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino), a regional, permanent organisation representing the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, to create a draft model law for the region’s agri food co-ops.

Access to land is another issue. Dr Ify Ofong of Women in Development and Environment (Nigeria), convenor of the Women and Habitat Africa working group, which forms part of the Habitat International Coalition, argued that co-operatives could enable women’s access to land in countries where this is an issue.

“With the right legal framework we do create the conditions for co-operatives to grow, to bridge co-ops and corporations, and achieve the benefits we are looking for,” she said.

In her concluding remarks, Daniela Bas said the meeting would be followed by specific thematic workshops to further explore the issues raised during the meeting.