Does the ICA Statement on the Co-operative Identity need revisiting?

‘The identity statement is an attempt to create global inclusion but at the same time we need to reflect the diversity between us’

Twenty-five years from the adoption of the revised Statement on the Co-operative Identity, the global movement is continuing to explore what co-operative identity means.

Since being adopted in 1995, the statement, which contains the definition of a co-operative, the values of co-operatives, and the seven co-operative principles, has served as a common denominator for co-ops all over the world. It also helped to position co-ops as a key development actor within the UN and paved the way for the UN Guidelines of Co-operatives and the ILO recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Co-operatives.

But with the 33rd ICA congress coming up in December 2021, some co-operators think the time might be right to revisit the statement to include provisions that reflect some of the current global issues.

Due to be held in Seoul, South Korea, the congress will be focused on deepening, strengthening and revisiting the co-operative identity. The topic was also explored during a webinar organised by the International Cooperative Alliance to mark the 25th anniversary of the statement. Held on 21 September, it featured co-operators from different regions and sectors, some of whom were involved in drafting the revised statement, which was adopted at the ICA’s Centennial Congress in September 1995.

The draft document was prepared by a group of contributors guided by the late Professor Ian MacPherson and revised by the ICA board, with contributors from co-operative movements from all over the world.

Related: Covid-19 means we need the co-op identity more than ever, says NCBA chief

According to Sir Graham Melmoth, former ICA President (1995-1997), the statement had a “significant impact” at the time it was unveiled.

In a message, he recalled: “I spent some time myself with colleagues working on early drafts of the Statement in more or less, glamorous hotspots in the years leading up finally to the 1995 Congress at which it was adopted. At this Congress, as it happens, I ‘inherited’ the gavel wielded so lightly by Lars Marcus of Sweden, learned Co-operative thinker, when he retired as ICA President at the conclusion of the General Meeting or, to put it more precisely, I was elected president of the ICA in the place of Lars Marcus at the conclusion of Congress.

“The Statement itself, as is self evident, is an encapsulation of Co-operative Aims and Principles and as a result it is good to have it in such manageable form, giving us all a workable definition of a Co-operative, together with its underlying values, itemising the seven Principles we have learned to see as inherent in the very nature of Co-operatives world wide.”

Related: Co-op governance and the tensions in the movement

Sir Graham resigned as ICA President in 1997 to focus on preventing a non-co-operative takeover of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), whose CEO he was at the time.

Webinar participants had mixed views about the need to revisit the statement. Dr Cilla Ross, principal of the Co-operative College, argued that co-operators should not be afraid of being flexible and fluid when interpreting co-operative identity in order to take into account the changes that have occurred in recent years.

“I agree that we shouldn’t tinker too much but people’s experiences are different, the statement needs to reflect that. Most human beings have values, they are not co-operative values but they are not a million miles away. We can take the movement forward with all sorts of other emerging co-operators,” she added.

Jean-Louis Bancel, president of French co-op Credit Cooperatif who was the chair of the Alliance’s Principles Committee that oversaw the drafting and publication of these Guidance Notes on the Co-operative Principles, agrees. He thinks the subjects that could be revisited are – climate action, digitisation and members’ capital. Above all, he feels there is a need for a long conversation to be had between co-operators from different parts of the world.

Mr Bancel also referred to the decision to recognise mutuals as co-operatives, which was taken in 1982.

“Universal doesn’t mean uniform,” he said. He explained how the co-operative movement may have different takes on what principle three – members’ economic contribution – might mean. In the UK, he said, there is a focus on members’ contribution capital while in continental Europe credit co-operatives focused more on solidarity.

“So we need to accept the debate, the controversy, to nurture things,” he said. “The statement is a compass to guide us. But other co-operators and other institutions need to be involved,” he added.

For Martin Lowery, the current chair of the ICA’s Identity Committee who is also the executive vice president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in the USA, the principles need to adapt to the time. He said that while he agreed with the concerns about changing these too much, the movement needed to be open to looking at language to decide whether there are ways to interpret the principles so that they are as inclusive as they have to be.

“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. Mr Lowery believes there is room for improvement when it comes to internalising the
co-operative values.

“We know what they are because we live them but we don’t necessarily discuss them. We can take those values and really make use of them in relation to how we are perceived by the world at large,” he argued.

He also talked about the danger of losing sight of the co-operative identity, which, he said, tends to happen to some larger co-operatives: “There are many large co-operatives around the works that don’t internalise values and principles.”

He explained how some co-operative executives might begin to envy compensation levels or the sense of competitiveness in other enterprises. “We have a job to do here based on simply making sure the values and principles are internalised in the individual co-operatives themselves as well equal to making the larger world of enterprise understand how to identify with the values.”

Yet for Ana Aguirre, a worker owner of Basque co-operative Tazebaez, talking about the co-operative identity and the values is not enough. She thinks the movement needs to also focus on providing practical examples of how co-operatives are putting these values into action. This, she says, would make more people resonate with the movement.

Other co-operators think the statement is already reflective of a diverse co-operative sector and does not need to be amended. Mervyn Wilson, a former principal of the College who amongst the co-operators was involved in drafting the statement, believes it provides a “crystal-clear shared co-op identity”. During the same webinar, he warned against “tinkering” with the statement, arguing the language used was inclusive and left room for interpretation. However, he thinks the flexibility can come from the guidance notes on the statement adopted
in 2015.

While opinions varied in terms of revisiting the statement, participants agreed on the need to continue the conversations around how co-operative identity is relevant for the future.

“As we lead up to the congress – we can continue to have this dialogue and it needs to reach beyond the formal structure of the ICA,” said Martin Lowery.

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