Meet … Bahman Abdollahi, president of the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives

‘We need to address the general challenges facing the world’ – Covid-19, climate change and the need for decent work

Mr Abdollahi has been involved in co-operatives for 32 years. He was initially involved in housing co-operatives as a director of a public sector body working with housing co-ops, and is now the president of the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC) which represents all co-ops in the country. We interviewed him to find out more about the co-operative sector in Iran. ICC is a member of the International Cooperative Alliance.

What is the contribution of co-ops to Iran’s economy?

The status of the co-op sector as the second pillar of the economy is specified in the constitution of Iran. Also, the co-op movement has a separate and independent legal identity. Iran’s co-operative sector, with 95,000 active co-operatives, 11 million individual members and about 1.8 million workers, accounts for about 7-8 % of the GDP.

What is the role of the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC)?

ICC was established in 1994. As the apex organisation of co-operatives, it is responsible for representing, serving, promoting and developing the co-operative sector in Iran; as a member of national and international supreme decision-making and consulting councils, it plays an important role in protecting and promoting the rights of the co-operators.

For example, it has been an active member of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) since 2000. Also, as a member of the board of ICA Asia and Pacific (ICA-AP) since 2016, ICC has a much closer relationship with the global and regional co-operative movement and implemented various events to empower and strengthen the co-operative movement of Iran, of which the most prominent case was the hosting and holding of 13th ICA-AP Regional Assembly in 2018.

Other promotional activities include holding events such as celebrating the International Day of Cooperatives; thematic conferences in the field of entrepreneurship and women; training courses to transfer international experiences as well as holding B2B meetings for business empowerment.

At national level, ICC has 14 specialised committees which play the role of the think tank of the Iranian co-operative sector in supporting co-operatives in various economic fields. For example, we have the women and knowledge-based committees, which strengthen the role of women and support the development of platform co-operatives. In addition, ICC provides a variety of services to co-ops – such as specialised training, dispute resolution, exhibitions, and business consulting.

Which sectors have strong co-op involvement?

Iranian co-ops are present in all areas and economic fields of activity. According to the official statistics (2020), the largest number of co-operatives in Iran belong to services, agriculture and industry. There are about 37,000 co-ops in the service sector, about 28,000 co-ops in the agricultural sector and about 18,000 co-ops in industry and mining. The rest work in areas such as housing and construction, as well as handicrafts and handmade carpets.

How did co-operation start in Iran?

Articles about co-operatives were included in the Commercial Code in 1924, but in terms of registration and actual activity, the year 1935, when the first rural co-operative enterprise was established, can be considered as the beginning of the official activity of co-operatives in Iran.

How has the pandemic affected co-ops?

Many co-ops faced declining sales and revenue, reduced labour force presence, and reduced productivity, but they have responded well to this crisis, changing their production lines and sales methods as well as related services. They also tried to minimise the downsizing of their workforce by adhering to the co-operative identity. They came out to support the community and through their actions, helped the needy sections of the society. Meanwhile, the role of women’s co-operatives has been very prominent along with other co-operatives.

What are the greatest challenges?

First we need to address the general challenges facing the world and the global co-operative movement – first and foremost, the Covid-19 pandemic. The global co-operative movement must continue to adapt and deal with this crisis, as in the past, by promoting solidarity at the national and international levels.

Another challenge is climate change. We in the global co-operative movement need to adapt and take measures to curb its negative effects on co-operative businesses and their members, especially agricultural co-operatives.

The third global challenge is the issue of job creation and decent work. This is an issue that I have repeatedly emphasised at various ICA events. In 2020, more than 219 million people were unemployed and 1.4 billion workers were in vulnerable employment – we are still along way from meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal No 8 on decent work.

Related: Co-ops are a valuable tool in tackling climate change, argues new ICA report

From my point of view, developing the co-op business model is the best option to overcome this challenge. On the one hand, it can provide a unique platform for the development of collective entrepreneurship and reducing the unemployment rate, and on the other, since it is based on ethical principles and values, job creation through co-operatives brings the international community closer to SDG8. Furthermore, in the face of crises and technological changes, co-ops have the capacity to quickly and easily adapt to new environmental changes as well as maintaining decent work in communities by adhering to their principles.

The global co-operative movement, including the Iranian co-operative sector, also faces specific challenges: the ageing of co-operators, poor enforcement and oversight of co-operative law, poor collection of macroeconomic statistics on co-operatives, lack of networking among co-operatives nationally and internationally, poor promotion of co-operatives, weak competitiveness in the economy, and an inappropriate business environment.

What are the ICC’s priorities?

The priority of the ICC is to try to overcome these challenges and strengthen and empower the co-op movement in Iran. Networking among co-ops at national and international level; promoting and deepening the co-operative identity in the country; strengthening the position of women in the co-op sector; promoting youth and professionalism; strengthening the co-op brand and promoting and strengthening environmental protection approaches, are all among the strategic priorities of ICC. 

Regarding the presence of youth, in addition to holding promotional events in the co-op sector, we at ICC have taken the initiative, and in recent years we have employed professional youth, so that now, 70% of ICC’s managers and experts are in the average age group of 35 years. 

In addition to establishing a special committee for women, with the co-operation of South Africa, South Korea and Japan, we have organised several promotional events for the empowerment of women’s co-ops in our country. 

On the subject of branding, we have focused on consumer co-ops, in the form of capacity building projects, trying to transfer successful experiences from countries such as Japan. 

Around the environment issue, while accompanying the campaigns of the ICA and holding a prominent International Day of Cooperatives 2020 with the theme Cooperatives for Climate Action, we always strive to promote the environment in the Iranian co-op movement. Fortunately, Iranian co-ops welcome this issue. For example, we can refer to Pishgaman Cooperative Union (PCU), also a member of the ICA. This co-operative has been able to produce paper from stone with a knowledge-based and environment-friendly approach, helping preserve trees and the environment. This is just one example of the actions of the Iranian co-operatives to protect the environment.