UK movement set to launch International Co-op Development Fund

The fund is set to be launched by the UK’s International Co-operative Working Group in December

A new International Co-operative Development Fund (ICDF) to support co-operation worldwide is set to be launched in the UK later this year.

Announced at the UK’s Co-op Congress in Birmingham on Friday 14 June, the fund is the result of work by the UK’s International Co-operative Working Group (ICWG), a subcommittee convened by apex body Co-operatives UK to share knowledge and collaborate on international activities. The group comprises representatives from different sectors (including retail, housing and the worker co-op movement), and support organisations the Co-operative Heritage Trust, Co-op College and Co-op News. 

The ambition of the ICDF is “rooted in the ideal that international co-operation and mutual aid are the cornerstones of a resilient and just international community,” says Dr Sarah Alldred, head of international partnerships at the Co-op College, who chairs the fund’s task and finish group.

“The new fund aims to act as a catalyst for change, empowering communities to not only survive crises, but thrive in their aftermath, through international solidarity efforts rooted in rebuilding and sustaining local co-operative economies.”

She says that while many individual co-operatives have their own strategies, in the UK there is not yet a unified approach to either raise funds or create a unified call to the UK movement “to work together in solidarity to support co-operatives around the world”.

Work is now being done on the structure of the ICDF, she adds, and this “will reflect the collaborative lens of the working group”. The official launch is set for December – which will align with the beginning of the UN 2025 International Year of Co-operatives and its theme: Co-operatives Build a Better World.

An International Co-operative Development Fund has been discussed by the ICWG since its inception in late 2020, and builds on the history and experience of the movement’s contribution to disaster relief efforts. Following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, for example, UK co-operatives raised over £1m, which was channelled through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). More recently, over £110,000 was raised during the Covid-19 pandemic to support women’s co-operatives in India, through the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

SEWA played a key part in the co-op response to Covid-19 in India, with support from the ICWG

“At times of crisis, the international co-operative community often reaches out to the UK for support – as we saw in India during the Covid crisis,” says Rose Marley, chair of the ICWG and CEO of Co-operatives UK.

“By their very nature, these are short notice requests and the response has to be swift. Alongside working with the DEC, we need to formalise and plan for how support from the UK movement can be as effective as possible.

“The core objective of principle six [co-operation among co-operatives] sits directly in line with supporting co-ops internationally and at the same time helping develop trade. The incredible work in Malawi, championed by Central Co-op, is a wonderful example. So the task and finish group of the ICWG is looking at all the details as we seek to maximise our impact – both short-term and long-term – on the international stage.”

Central Co-op CEO Debbie Robinson also highlights the power of co-op-to-co-op action, as demonstrated by the work with SEWA during the pandemic: “This kind of direct, impactful support underscores the potential of the ICDF to make a meaningful difference. As a collective, we are currently working on the governance and income structure to support the fund, with plans to launch this year, then expand its reach across Europe and globally in recognition of the UN International Year of Co-operatives in 2025.”

Details of the new fund were presented to delegates attending the Co-op Congress International Supper, where, says Robinson, “it was brilliant to hear the overwhelming approval of the ICDF vision”.

“The working group has diligently worked on this initiative for the past few years, recognising the unique position of the co-operative movement in addressing many of the world’s pressing issues. The ICDF will focus on three main areas: providing humanitarian aid to specific co-ops or co-op bodies; supporting co-op development post-conflict or natural disaster; and fostering co-op development to grow co-op economies. This aligns perfectly with our co-operative ideas of internationalism, solidarity and access to all.”

But, Robinson stresses, the success of the ICDF “relies on the support of the wider co-operative movement”.

“This fund represents a collective effort to cement and grow the future of the co-operative economy on a global scale. I was particularly inspired by Pete Westall, chief values officer at Midcounties Co-operative, who spoke passionately at Congress about the importance of this fund. We fully support this initiative and look forward to working together to create a more equitable and sustainable world through co-operative solutions.

Westall, speaking as a member of the ICWG, adds: “The opportunity for the movement to work together and provide resources to other co-ops across the world for humanitarian support, for rebuilding post-conflict or disaster and to grow co-op economies is one that is needed – and one that is so timely given that 2024 is the 180th anniversary of Rochdale Pioneers and the 30th anniversary of Fairtrade – and that 2025 is the UN International Year of Co-operatives. 

“The ICWG though, will need help from all co-operators to make the vision a reality – whether by support in boardrooms; by support in governance and administration of the fund; or by support through financial resources. It’s that help that we called for at Co-op Congress – and that I’d reiterate here.”

Further information on the fund – and how to get involved – will be shared later in 2024 around the date of launch.