Pandemic means it’s time to bring co-ops together

Balu Iyer, regional director of International Cooperative Alliance – Asia and Pacific, writes in a personal capacity about why now, more than ever, is the time to co-operate

As the apex body representing co-operatives, how could the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) lead the way for its members – who represent national federations, government departments and supranational organisations – during these uncertain times? 

The year 2020 marks 125 years of the ICA. As an agency representing 311 co-operative organisations across 109 countries with 1 billion members, this year should have been marked with joyous celebrations. However, here we are staring ahead at darkening clouds which portend an uncertain and uncharted future.

This is not the first time the ICA has faced such an existential crisis. It has seen through two world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), depression (during the 1930s), Cold War (1946-1991, two phases), and financial crisis (2008). Even though the coronavirus crisis is projected to be of a larger dimension, there is much we can learn from our history. During times of crisis, the ICA also had to face financial contraction and contend, like its member organisations, with the dislocation of trade and production, brought about not only by wars but also by economic consequences. 

Two books, The International Cooperative Alliance – During War and Peace by Rita Rhodes and The International Cooperative Alliance 1895 to 1970 by W.P. Watkins, provide some direction. Co-operatives were seen as ‘living organisms’ in constant evolution, modifying their original forms and functions according to the circumstances and needs of their members. The co-operative spirit permeating was more important than a set of principles; the focus on self-help and mutual aid, and on undertaking economic activity for service rather than profit; and co-operation among co-operatives a distinct feature of co-operative activity.

Among the reasons for the ICA re-emerging from each crisis were: its ability to evolve and change while retaining a strong moral tone; the constitution which remained remarkably constant; internationalisation of national co-operative movements which had the belief that, in economic and social activities,
co-operation was superior to competition; getting members to equitably share their common interests – at once adding to the stock of positive knowledge about co-operation throughout the world and clarifying ideas; and mission-minded leadership from the Central and Executive Committees and the Secretariat.

Co-operatives step up!

During the coronavirus crisis, co-operatives have stepped up to support their members and communities. In Australia, apex body the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals (BCCM) is providing information to its members on government assistance for coronavirus-impacted businesses and what it means. In India, the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative (Iffco) is leading efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 by organising social awareness campaigns to highlight the preventive and precautionary measures like social distancing, sanitisation, healthy diet and prevention through face masks. In Iran, the Iranian Women Co-operators’ Think
Tank, comprising, among others, the Tehran Handicraft Cooperative Union, Iran Chamber of Cooperatives, the Iranian Cooperators’ Association, and Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative School has been running projects in different provinces to produce masks and isolation gowns.

Related: How can co-op help the world’s refugees?

In Korea, more than 25 members co-ops from iCOOP donated goods to health centres, hospitals, and low-income groups.  In Nepal, to mark the 63rd National Cooperative Day, the Cooperatives’ Coronavirus Control Center has been set up at Manmohan Memorial Hospital in coordination with the National Cooperative Federation. The Palestine Agriculture Cooperative Union is supporting the community by collecting fresh vegetables from members as grants and distributing them to the closed governorates affected by the virus. In the Philippines, co-operatives have launched a nationwide campaign of donations to combat the virus and help the elderly, who are the most vulnerable. These include washable face masks, vitamins, and other kits.  

Daegu Corona Emergency Assistance

ICA has launched a forum on Loomio for its members to participate in coordinating a global co-operative response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Members are encouraged to open an account here, join the platform and contribute to the ongoing discussion.    

Rally around the co-operative identity

While the above are responses on the part of co-operatives to address immediate challenges, there is a need for the ICA and its members to look ahead as a movement. 

After the destruction of the First World War, co-operators came back to the 1913 Glasgow Resolution of Peace as a rallying point around which to muster their movements and chart their own contribution to a better and more peaceful world order. This was because the response of governments at the time was one of economic nationalism, closing borders, locking down and trying to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. The response to Covid-19, given its transmission across borders, is eerily familiar. During those ICA meetings and Congresses, delegates thought of themselves as co-operators first and by nationality second – remarkably free of chauvinism.

This is the time for ICA and its members to  again unite and rally under the common banner of Co-operative Identity. Indeed, the theme of the 33rd World Congress to celebrate the ICA’s 125th ICA anniversary, ‘Deepening our Cooperative Identity,’ provides the rallying cry! The Statement on the Cooperative Identity, which includes definitions of the principles and co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity, have never been truer. As are the four ethical values: honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. However it is not the words, but the deeds which matter. As has been seen in the history of the ICA, it is the adherence to the actions that has enabled co-operatives to stand the test of time. 

Superiority of the co-operative system is demonstrated by exercising the utmost vigilance and economy in purchasing and handling stock; by distributing all commodities to members at the most equitable prices; by resisting all attempts of capitalist enterprise to exploit the situation for private profit; and to employ every means to mitigate the evils and distress attendant upon the increasing unemployment of workers across the world.

Now is the time to rally co-operatives around the co-operative identity!

Spotlight on the International Day of Cooperatives

The first International Day of Cooperatives (IDC) was celebrated in 1923. Since then, it has been celebrated every year, in every country on the same day (the first Saturday of July), in order to attract the attention and interest of the whole world and communicate the message of ‘each for all, and all for each’. Its impact to strengthen the unity of co-operatives has been incalculable. Since 1995, the United Nations, through the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (Copac), a multi-stakeholder partnership of global public and private institutions that champions and supports co-operative enterprises as leaders in sustainable development, has also been celebrating the day of co-operatives.

The 2020 edition will be the 26th United Nations International Day of Cooperatives and the 98th International Cooperative Day: its theme is Cooperatives for Climate Action. Given the ravages of Covid-19, the focus on climate action is more critical than ever. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are likely a major consequence of climate change. Rising temperatures can create favourable conditions for the spread of certain infectious diseases, while disappearing habitats may force various animal species to migrate, increasing the chances of spillover pathogens between them. Whether it’s in terms of health, economic or any other type of shock, the people most affected are the poorest and the most vulnerable. When health disasters hit – and in a business-as-usual scenario they will do so increasingly – global inequality is sustained and reinforced, and paid for with the lives of the poor and marginalised.

Similar to the spirit in celebrating IDC in 2012, the International Year of Cooperatives, this year co-operatives need to ‘shout out loud’ or ‘spread far and wide’ the message that our methods of production and consumption are constantly attacking the environment and cannot go on. We need to ensure production does not take a toll on the very soil it depends, reduce the demands we place on nature by optimising consumption, build direct supply chains between the producer and consumer, substitute animal proteins with plant proteins, and decrease pollution.  

Left in the lurch: migrant workers, the gig-economy, the informal economy

The millions of migrant workers streaming out of cities in India; six million claiming unemployment in a week in the United States; a quarter of a million garment workers in Bangladesh out of a job. Each day brings with it more daunting numbers. Gig workers, independent contractors, and freelancers are experiencing income losses without the support of severance or benefits and many are finding out they don’t qualify under stimulus packages. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Covid-19 crisis is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. The impact of the pandemic will affect more women than men as they are more vulnerable to economic shocks.  

This is an opportunity for the ICA and its members to rally once again for workers. This is not something new to the ICA. In its early years it was a body whose affiliated membership was predominantly made up of wage-earners, who subscribed to working-class culture, and whose goal was improvement of co-operative members’ living standards. The First Article of the ICA’s original constitution included the objective of the amelioration of the lot of working classes (wording later dropped) – hence its association from the early days with the ILO and trade unions. The crisis has shown the importance of having service and social co-operatives to meet the needs of informal workers and address issues around health and ageing. During these times, even in the worst affected countries like Italy, co-operatives are stepping up to the task. 

The works: stimulus, bailouts and everything in between

Governments are scrambling to enact stimulus packages in the billions and trillions. Unlike the stimulus packages of 2008 where companies used it for themselves (stock buyback and top honchos payment), this time around the effort is to ensure workers get their fair share. Given what we have seen in regard to the plight of migrant workers, farmers and artisans, governments are going to look for the support and good will of these groups. Apex organisations and federations need to get out of their shells and ensure that co-operatives are not left out of the process. The BCCM and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) in the USA are doing just that, making sure the interests of co-operatives and mutuals continue to be represented in a challenging business landscape.

It is apt to quote what Henry May, secretary of the ICA (1913-1939) who upheld the dignity and increased the prestige of the ICA all over the world, wrote in the Review of International Cooperation: “United and common action on the part of Co-operators is necessary. The organisations of capitalism, private trade and industry will not remain meekly in the background to accept the crumbs that fall from the conference table. Neither should we, but rather take all actions to present the claims of the organised consumers and the superlative value of the co-operative economic system as an equitable means of sharing the world’s resources and guaranteeing good relations between all people. It is ours to formulate the co-operative point of view and to educate public opinion to accept it.” 

Co-operation among co-ops

This is the time to enhance Principle 6: Co-operation among Co-operatives. It was done on a global scale in earlier times through the Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Co-operative Trading Agency. The latter was based on identified consumer needs; therefore production it called forth was not speculative, ensured economic use of resources and enabled economies of scale. This time we can leverage technologies and emerging platforms to ensure trade on scale happens.

Co-operatives, as people-centred businesses, can look at member needs and ascertain support requirements. For example, some credit co-operatives are already deferring loan repayments; while this could impact their business in the short-term they are keeping their member interests at the centre. Credit and insurance co-operatives can step up and provide assistance to many of the worker and services co-operatives, which have had to shutter their operations, defer payments and lay off their workers. 

Some co-operatives are using their Co-operative Development Fund meant for education to provide medical and other supplies. This short-term measure can, in the medium and long term, extend to enhance and long-term to  enhance co-operation among co-operatives. Members themselves need to ensure they adhere to measures put in place by the government and support their co-operatives rather than look for short-term gains outside.

A stark future for youth

Surprisingly, in the history of ICA’s emergence and re-emergence, there is little mentioned in terms of involving and engaging the youth. This time it has to be different because of the magnitude and the degree of impact on younger people. Many millennials have had to weather two economic crises – one, the 2008 global financial crisis, near the beginning of their careers; and now, midway in their career, Covid-19. In the US, 62% of millennials reported living paycheck to paycheck in 2019, and even those who feel they have a secure job are wondering if it’s just a matter of time before they don’t. The current downturn stands to derail millennials during a phase of life considered crucial for earning potential and major life choices.   

ICA president Ariel Guarco, while inaugurating the ICA Global Youth Forum in Malaysia, said: “Young people are not the future of the movement. They must be the present, because the urgent problems of today mean the future of our movement and our civilisation is at stake.”

Look to our leaders  

Among the reasons for the ICA’s continuity and re-emergence despite all odds were the adherence to ICA’s Constitution, which provided equity and legitimacy; Congress, which overcame nationalistic chauvinism to unite under a common banner (ICA); Central and Executive Committees, which provided visionary leadership and ensured ICA’s place around global tables (ILO, UN); and the Secretariat, which provided continuity. 

Today, the ICA is not just central, but with regional and sectoral branches; its governance is not just global, but across all regions; its composition is not just Eurocentric, but diverse in gender and culture. It is up to this global and diverse leadership to step up, provide the vision and direction, and unite co-operatives under the banner of the ICA. 

In conclusion: all in it  

The ICA and its member co-operatives have united to overcome perilous circumstances by constant evolution, modifying their original forms and functions according to the circumstances and needs of their members. During these times, they have had to contend with financial stringency as a consequence of dislocation of trade and production, compounded by economic consequences – but they stuck together, knowing that international collaboration between national co-operative movements, in economic and social activities, was superior to competition. We are all in it, let us do it!