The co-op identity should express how inclusive co-ops are, says Doug O’Brien

We caught up with him at the World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, the Republic of Korea

Doug O’Brien has been at the helm of the US National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) since 2018, having previously served in key roles at the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development and the White House Rural Council. We caught up with him at the World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, at the end of last year, to find out more about the NCBA’s priorities for the year ahead. Congress was an opportunity for co-operators from around the world to explore the meaning of the co-operative identity in the context of the global challenges, particularly the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and growing inequalities.

“The identity is as relevant today as it’s ever been,” he says. “As we, as a co-operative community, face the really generational challenges around inequality, around climate change and the nature of work, the co-operative identity, the shared values, the shared principles are more relevant. I think the theme of the World Congress this year [2021] is very timely for the co-operative community to be able to meet today’s challenges. I think we really need to deepen our understanding, and most importantly, we need to act on our co-operative identity and on the values of equity, of solidarity, of democracy. Now’s the time so that more people can be involved in the solutions. 

“Really, the only way that, as a global community, we’re going to be able to conquer many of the challenges we have today is if more people are truly participating in the solution.”

“Really, the only way that, as a global community, we’re going to be able to conquer many of the challenges we have today is if more people are truly participating in the solution.”

Over the last couple of years, the NCBA has been campaigning for revisiting the co-operative identity. “We know that about every 30 years since 1937, the co-operative community has done some type of revision on the identity,” says Mr O’Brien.

“Prof McPherson in 1995 made it clear that he thought the principles were something that that could be revisited while the values are probably something meant to be more permanent. So I think it’s exciting that the co-operative community is looking at the co-operative values and the principles in today’s context. What that will mean – as we spend time [on this] as the ICA community – we’ll find out, as people engage in this really important conversation.”

Mr O’Brien was the rapporteur of one of the World Cooperative Congress sessions on Committing to the Co-operative Identity for the survival of the planet. He also got to observe some of the pre-conference events on co-operative research and co-operative law.

“Right now what I’m seeing is a lot of energy in this moment, for really looking at what the co-operative identity can mean, in terms of how it can inspire us and that’s really important,” he says. “But the most important thing is that we actually act. That we, as a co-operative community, distinguish the way that we treat our members, our workers, the environment, people in the community. So I’m seeing so many amazing examples across the world of innovative co-operatives, filling social and economic needs, like no other type of business could.” 

Read more: Co-op identity: ‘With mission and purpose we can move mountains’ – A conversation with Martin Lowery and Alexandra Wilson

One big challenge for co-operatives remains communicating what the movement describes as “the co-operative difference” to non-members and the public at large. How does he think co-ops can improve on this?

“We have to keep working together on telling our stories,” he says, adding that some of the campaigns led by the International Cooperative Alliance, such as 25 Voices and the Co-op Cinema, have helped to sharpen the co-operative message so that more people really understand what co-operatives are.

“We have to be innovative in our communication, just as we would in any sector. And so we have to be willing to adapt very quickly. And for certain audiences, we also have to show numbers … we have to show, whether that’s by using the SDGs or other metrics, that co-ops get better outcomes for people, for the environment, for communities.”

Having worked in the US Senate, the US House of Representatives and for two governors, Mr O’Brien is no stranger to advocating with government stakeholders. For the past two years, the NCBA has been busy engaging with legislators and government officials to ensure that co-ops are able to access Covid-19 relief funds, making sure that the sector is expressly eligible for some of the assistance programmes, and ensuring the eligibility of co-ops for small business financing. Co-ops are also are part of a programme to help socially disadvantaged farmers.

“I think we’re in a moment where many in government are really looking for businesses to do more, to get better social outcomes. There are a lot of people in the US government that understand that co-operatives have been doing that for generations. But then there are a lot of other people that don’t understand, so that’s our task at NCBA CLUSA. And I think it’s the task of the co-operative community to tell policymakers and government officials that co-op distinction and again, what the co-op identity really means.”

As for 2022, Mr O’Brien says NCBA’s priorities for the year ahead will be to ensure that co-ops have access to the resources available as the government begins to put rules around the legislation, to make sure these rules really make sense for co-ops.

Another priority will be strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion within the co-operative community and working with other stakeholders to promote co-operatives as people-centred businesses that can build more inclusive economies.

“On that note, we were very interested in the conversation around the potential revision of the co-operative identity and in October 2019, our board adopted a resolution that diversity, equity and inclusion should be more expressed and understood within the co-operative identity,” he said.

“We feel like we have a moment and I’m engaged in a lot of interesting conversations on what that might mean. I think we don’t know that yet but there are a lot of people in the international co-operative community that are interested in making sure that the co-op identity is very expressive about how inclusive co-ops really are.”