ICA Survey on the Cooperative Identity: Key findings and next steps for the movement

The ICA Advisory Board on the Cooperative Identity will continue to examine the findings of the survey

Over 200 co-operators joined the ICA’s webinar on 14 December to explore the findings of the survey on the Statement on the Cooperative Identity. The survey formed part of a wider consultation to examine whether the statement is still fit for purpose.

A total of 2,290 respondents took part in the survey between April and October (42% from the Americas, 26% from Asia-Pacific, 19% from Europe and 13% from Africa). The questionnaire was available in three versions, one for organisations, one for individuals and one for experts. The majority of the responses received came from individuals (951) with 717 from experts and 622 from organisations.

But what were some of the key findings and how will these inform the conversation around the Statement on the Cooperative Identity?

According to the survey, respondents are more familiar with the seven co-operative principles than the statement as a whole – with even fewer respondents familiar with the ICA Guidance Notes on the Cooperative Principles. The majority of respondents also confirmed the importance of all principles but named principle two on democratic member control as the most important for their co-operatives.

As expected, opinions varied with regards to the relevance of the principles, with some viewing them as an indivisible whole, some saying that they should be updated and others arguing that they should not be changed at all. The ICA has not revealed any details on the percentages for each category.

Related: Full reports from the World Co-op Congress, which looked at the identity

Similarly, respondents had different takes on the identity statement. The majority agreed that the Statement on the Cooperative Identity has an impact on their co-operative and remains relevant in expressing the distinct purpose and nature of co-operatives and in capturing their responsibility to society at large and to future generations. 

Summarising the findings, the chair of the ICA Advisory Board on the Cooperative Identity, Alexandra Wilson, said three main views were expressed. Some respondents said the identity statement works well as an ideal and in reality; some argued that it works well as an ideal but there is a gap between this and the reality on the ground; and some said the statement is not in itself effective and may not work well in practice.

This also meant that respondents had different opinions on what should be done going forward. Four views were expressed in this respect: some respondents said the current statement is good enough; some said it needs to be updated to strengthen their contribution to addressing societal problems and the environmental crisis; some called for a more balanced approach to fulfil the original mission of co-operatives – and some argued that the statement is hypocritical.

Those arguing that the current statement is good enough said that the principles need to be fully practised; the statement needs to be better known; and tools should be developed to help co-operatives fully live their co-operative identity.

Meanwhile, those in favour of updating the statement said co-operatives needed to “catch up to a changing world”. 

They argued that the main points that need to be considered are environmental sustainability, treatment of employees, diversity and inclusion (gender, race, ethnicity, and different age groups. They also think that the Statement needs to be more specific and practical and use plainer language.

The respondents that said a more balanced approach is needed to fulfil the original mission of co-operatives called for a better balance between the economic and social dimensions and between the interests of members and the interests of the community at large. They pointed out that the role of co-operatives is to advance economic equality and justice but that the responsibility for other societal problems belongs with other actors.

Respondents who believe the current identity statement is hypocritical argued that it is used “only as a marketing tool without being really practised” and bring up the issue of false co-operatives. They added that members and employees are not interested in the co-operative identity and the UN Sustainable Development Goals are unrealistic.

Are co-operatives losing ground to other ethical business actors?

Another issue explored by the survey was whether co-operatives are losing ground to other organisations, such as Bcorps. The majority of respondents did not think this is the case, with the exception of expert respondents. One thing most respondents agreed on was the fact that the Statement on the Cooperative Identity has not been promoted sufficiently.

According to Hyungsik Eum, the ICA’s director of research, opinions varied depending on the country respondents came from. For example, those in Nigeria, the Philippines, Korea, Argentina and Finland disagree with the claim that co-operatives are losing ground, while those in the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, Mexico, Italy and Japan expressed strong concerns regarding co-operatives losing ground to other actors.

What happens next?

The ICA Advisory Board on the Cooperative Identity will continue to examine the findings of the survey while the ICA itself intends to collect and review existing materials of the co-operative identity and run educational webinars and virtual consultation sessions. Based on this, the Cooperative Identity Advisory Group will make deliberations and suggest recommendations to the ICA Board to be discussed at the next two ICA General Assemblies. The process is expected to take up to two years.