125 years: International Cooperative Alliance reaches important milestone

Celebrations of the milestone will continue into next year when the ICA holds the 33rd World Cooperative Congress in Seoul

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As the International Cooperative Alliance reaches its 125th anniversary today, we look at its long history and explore the reasons for its creation…

This year marks an important milestone for the International Cooperative Alliance, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary with a series of online events. The celebration will continue through to 2021, culminating in the World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, the Republic of Korea. The anniversary congress was due to take place in December this year but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event will be an opportunity for the global movement to explore the meaning of co-operative identity and celebrate the organisation’s long history.

Delegates will an opportunity to look back and validate the cooperative movement’s resilience, leadership and solidarity during times of crisis. This event will serve as an important forum to:

  • Discuss why the cooperative identity, including definition, principles and values, is needed now more than ever;
  • Show cooperative resilience by sharing experiences and testimonies; and
  • Discuss how cooperatives can significantly contribute to the global economic, social and environmental reconstruction.

The ICA’s story began in June 1985 at a national Co-operative Congress in London when British co-operator George Jacob Holyoake introduced a motion to appoint a committee for the purpose of establishing an International Co-operative Alliance. The motion was adopted unanimously.

Although the ICA only came to fruition in 1895, co-operators had thought of the idea as early as 1892 – when the Rochdale Congress agreed to form an international alliance of the friends of co-operative production and co-partnership.

A report by Aneurin Williams, published in September 1895 in the Economic Journal, noted that the Co-operative Congress of 1869, which was the first annual congress for the British movement, had “a distinctly international character”. He mentioned in his report that a number of foreign delegates took part in congresses that followed with British delegates also attending events held in continental Europe.

“There has not, however, been any permanent organisation specially designed to keep the co-operators of one country in touch with those of another,” he wrote.

He added that, while other types of co-operatives were developing in countries like Germany, France, Italy or Denmark, little was known about these in Britain and trading relationships between co-ops in these countries were limited.

The implementation was delayed after Edward Vansittart Neale, one of the key drivers behind the move to set up an international co-operative alliance, died in 1892. E. 0. Greenin and Henry W. Wolff carried on the project after his death.

The provisional committee set up at the June Congress hosted its first International Co-operative Congress on 19-23 August 1985 – also in London. In a note promoting the International Congress published in Co-operative News at the time, the convenors pointed out that while the British public was well aware of the success of co-ops in their country, little was known about people’s banks in Germany, Austria and Italy, “the great co-operative workshops in France” or the combines system of self-employing labourers of Italy.

Earl Grey chaired the Congress as president of the newly formed International Co-operative Alliance. In his inaugural address he talked about the need to bring together the interests of workers and those owning capital through the co-operative business model. His speech was fallowed by presentations on co-operative movements in various countries across the world.

The Congress passed a resolution officially creating the Alliance, and a new provisional central committee was appointed. The delegates also considered the question introduced by Mr. H. W. Wolff on the trading relations between the co-operators of different countries, and appointed a further committee to consult with the former on this issue.

Delegates agreed that the objectives of the Alliance were to be to “make known the co-operators of each land and their work to the co-operators of all the lands, to elucidate the true principles of co-operation and to establish international commercial relations.”

In addition to taking part in the International Congress, the delegates also attended the Labour Association’s annual exhibition of the products of copartnership workshop. Here, co-ops from across Europe and Britain showcased their products, which included, according to Williams, “a small international exhibition, where gloves and majolica and ornamental iron work from Italy, wine and corks and honey from France, eggs from Denmark-all of co-operative origin-were to be seen, as well as literature and photographs bearing upon co-operative production abroad.”

The new central committee of the Alliance included Earl Grey (president), Miss Tournier, and Messrs J. C. Gray; E. 0. Greening; Aneurin Williams, and H. W. Wolff (Great Britain); E. de Boyve, Kergall, and Charles Robert (France); Dr Criiger (Germany); Enea Cavalieri and Luigi Luzzatti (Italy); d’Andrimont and Micha (Belgium); and N. 0. Nelson (United States).

In July 1896 the newly formed Alliance held its own congress in Paris. Subsequent congresses were held in Delft (1897), Paris (1900), Manchester (1902), Budapest (1904), Cremona (1907) and Hamburg (1910) during which the ICA worked on writing a constitution and rules.

In time the Alliance expanded membership beyond the original Anglo-French core. At its 1913 Congress in Glasgow the Alliance passed a peace resolution and agreed that the executive committee should include members from more than just one country.

The Alliance also helped the movement engage with the newly formed League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation, whose first director was French co-operator Albert Thomas.

Nowadays, the Alliance includes around 310 organisations from 109 countries, representing around one billion co-operative members worldwide.

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