The International Cooperative Alliance and the Co-operative College UK hosted two online events to mark the 25th anniversary of the revised Statement on the Cooperative Identity. Delivered under the banner “Cooperative Conversations”, this event featured live discussions with cooperators from across the globe, many of whom worked behind the scenes to define the Statement on the Cooperative Identity, its cooperative and ethical values, and its seven cooperative principles.
Looking Back for a Stronger, Brighter Future
During the first event held on September 21, participants engaged in a spirited discussion about the significant role the cooperative identity plays in today’s world, the importance of adapting to changing needs, and how critical it is to ensure inclusion and diversity remains a priority.
The 1995 statement was drafted by a group of contributors guided by the late Professor Ian MacPherson and revised by the ICA board, with input from cooperative movements from all over the world. A process that took many years.
ICA President Ariel Guarco launched the event with a video message to audience.
Ana Aguirre, founder and worker-owner of Basque cooperative Tazebaez, stressed that talking about the cooperative identity and values is not enough; the movement must also present examples of how cooperatives put those values into action.
“The main reason why co-ops are not as widespread as they should be is they are not taught in schools or universities,” she said. “We are missing so many people of so many backgrounds – racial, generational. The first step for us to be capable of integrating other collectives is to become a known model.”
For Mary Nirlungayuk from the Arctic Co-op in Canada, staying true to the cooperative values and principles required involving different cultures, encouraging independent thinking and maintaining independence and autonomy.
This was followed by similar sentiments regarding the youth movement. Hilda Ojall, a member of the ICA Africa Youth Network stressed the importance to encourage young people to participate by following education with tangible actions.
In a written message Sir Graham Melmoth, former President of the ICA said, “The statement itself is an encapsulation of cooperative aims and principles and it is good to have it in such manageable form, giving us all a workable definition of a cooperative.”
During the conversation, Dr Cilla Ross, Principal of the UK Co-operative College, reminded panelists and attendees that cooperators should be flexible and fluid when interpreting the cooperative identity – to reflect the events of recent years and attract new members from outside the movement.
Akira Kurimoto, chair of the ICA Asia and Pacific Research Committee, said that 1995 was a tipping point for the cooperative movement. He explained that while in the 1980s cooperatives were not seen as a viable option for development, the United Nations changed its attitude after the identity statement was formalised, and eventually adopted in the UN Guidelines for Cooperatives and ILO Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives.
This was made apparent when Alessia Bellino from Gulliver Cooperative in northern Italy, described her cooperative’s 2019 Social Balance Sheet, which demonstrates the measurable value of the cooperative identity and the seven cooperative principles.
Jean-Louis Bancel, president of French cooperative Crédit Cooperatif and ICA Vice President for Europe, offered that the issues of climate action, digitisation and members’ capital should also be taken into account.
“Universal doesn’t mean uniform. So we need to accept the debate, the controversy, to nurture things,” he said, adding that the principle of neutrality should not leave the movement indifferent to injustice.”
Likewise, Martin Lowery, Chair of the ICA’s Cooperative Identity Committee, believes the principles need to change with the times, and making sure the language of the principles is as inclusive as possible.
“The identity statement is an attempt to create global inclusion but at the same time we need to reflect the diversity between us,” he said.
But Mervyn Wilson, chair of the Cooperative Heritage Trust in the UK, who helped draft the statement, believes it provides a “crystal-clear shared cooperative identity” and warned against “tinkering” with it. Its language is already inclusive and leaves room for interpretation, he argued – but added that flexibility can come from the guidance notes adopted in 2015.
“As we lead up to the 2021 World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, we can continue to have this dialogue and it needs to reach beyond the formal structure of the ICA,” added Martin Lowery.
The impact of the Cooperative Identity and regulation
During the second event held on September 22, panelists explored the impact of the Statement on regulation and legislation, with a focus on the ILO Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives in 2002.
ICA Director General Bruno Roelants spent two years coordinating the cooperative negotiating group for the ILO Recommendation 193. An earlier 1966 ILO Recommendation (R127) had focused on the role of cooperatives only from the perspective of developing countries.
“The identity statement is a fundamental source of legislation and regulation because it is a set of operational standards,” he said, adding that the statement could also help legislators differentiate between various types of cooperatives.
“The ILO Recommendation helped to change the perception of cooperatives and is still a very modern document. It contributed to the revival of cooperative ideas throughout the UN system” said Hagen Henry, former ILO COOP Chief, and Adjunct Professor of comparative law at the University of Helsinki.
Panelists also emphasised to the need to put cooperatives on education curricula in schools and universities around the world.
Dante Cracogna, Professor of Commercial Law at the University of Buenos Aires and Chair of ICA Americas’ Cooperative Law Committee, sees the statement as a valuable reference document for legislators. Cooperative Principle #4 – on autonomy and independence – put an end to state interference in cooperatives, he argued.
Anna Biondi, Deputy Director of the Bureau for Workers’ Activities at the ILO, believes the ILO Recommendation was “extremely progressive”, bringing together a set of labour standards along with the democratic dimension of ownership and representation.
She would, however, welcome an expansion of the reference to gender. “We need to expand it even more or at least do a reality check in terms of equal participation in decision making processes,” she said.
Going forward, Prof Henry said cooperatives must continue to put pressure on legislators to pass legislation that follows up the identity statement and the ILO Recommendation with national cooperative laws.
“We are not there yet but we are moving in the right direction,” he said.