Doug O’Brien: ‘It is time to re-examine our values and recommit to our principles’

The Co-op Impact Conference is looking at how co-ops can deepen their co-operative identity

Hundreds of delegates from the USA and around the world have signed up for NCBA CLUSA’s Co-op Impact Conference, which is looking to expand the conversation on the co-operative identity.

Running from 4-8 October, the conference explores shared values and principles of the co-operative community while connecting domestic and international co-operative ideas and innovations.

Yesterday’s opening session featured Karl Fickenscher, acting assistant administrator of the Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation (DDI) at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Mr Fickenscher highlighted the impact USAID co-operative projects were having in Uganda, Mexico and Guatemala.

“Co-ops and credit unions are ideal partners for the agency, not only because their businesses would represent their communities, but also because they exist solely to benefit those communities,” he said.

One of the organisations working with USAID is the Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC). Executive director Paul Hazen said the ability to reach size and scale is part of the co-operative advantage. He referred to a recent OCFC study, which measured the difference co-operatives have made for members in Kenya, Poland, Philippines in Peru. “We now have data that shows that co-operative members are better off financially than non co-operative members. This is true in all four countries and across all sectors,” he said.

The president of the International Cooperative Alliance, Ariel Guarco, addressed the conference via a video message, highlighting the potential of co-ops to rebuild a fairer and more sustainable world post Covid-19. He invited delegates to the ICA’s World Cooperative Congress in December 2021 to continue the conversation around the co-operative identity.

Doug O’Brien, president and CEO of NCBA CLUSA, echoed the other speakers, pointing out the importance of the co-operative identity and arguing that “without a deeper understanding of the co-operative identity, neither those inside nor outside the co-operative community will capture the potential of co-operative enterprise”.

Mr O’Brien argued that to deepen the co-operative identity, the movement must first understand what the identity means in today’s context.

“Co-operatives should be the natural leader, when people are looking to build more inclusive businesses and communities,” he said. “And NCBA CLUSA has accepted this invitation to embrace our co-operative identity so that we can make a greater impact. In today’s context, for this to occur, co-operatives must understand our co-operative identity, share our co-operative identity and act on our co-operative identity.”

He called on co-ops to expand education efforts and engage with policymakers and warned that while there were pockets of educational excellence throughout the co-operative community, more needed to be done.

“Sharing the message of the co-operative difference is effective only when we act on our co-operative identity as co-operators. We must live up to our shared values and principles, if we expect to deepen the impact of our co-operatives in our communities,” he said.

NCBA CLUSA has recently launched an initiative to identify and scale local, regional and national opportunities for co-operatives to work together across sectors, acting on the 6th Co-operative Principle – co-operation among co-operatives.

“It is time for co-ops to ask themselves, is there more we can do to help create a truly inclusive and equitable economy, how can we work together to gauge success and failure, and hold each other accountable. How can we learn from each other quickly to accelerate progress?” said Mr O’Brien.

“It is time to re-examine our values and recommit to our principles. It’s time for co-operators everywhere to embrace our identity so that together we can make a greater impact.”