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Bringing Cooperatives together: individually vulnerable, more than ever urgent to cooperate



Picture credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension



As the apex body representing cooperatives, how could the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) lead the way for its members who represent national federations, government departments and supranational organizations during these uncertain times?


2020 year marks 125 years of the ICA. As an agency representing 311 cooperative organizations across 109 countries with 1 billion members, this year should have been marked with joyous celebrations. However, here we are staring ahead at darkening clouds which portends an uncertain and unchartered future.


This is not the first time the ICA is going through such an existential crisis. It has seen through two World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), Depression (during the 1930s), Cold War (1946-1991, two phases), and Financial crisis (2008). Even though, the Coronavirus crisis is projected to be of a much larger dimension, there is much we can learn from our history. During times of crisis, the ICA also had to face financial contraction and contend, like its member organizations with the dislocation of trade and production, brought not only by the war but by economic consequences.


Two books, The International Cooperative Alliance – During War and Peace by Rita Rhodes and The International Cooperative Alliance 1895 to 1970 by W.P. Watkins provide some direction. Cooperatives were seen as ‘living organisms’ in constant evolution, modifying their original forms and functions according to circumstances and needs of their members. The cooperative spirit permeating was more important than a set of Principles; the focus on self-help and mutual aid, and on undertaking economic activity for service rather than profit;  and cooperation among cooperatives a distinct feature of cooperative activity.  Among the reasons for ICA re-emerging from each crisis were its ability to evolve and change, but always one with a strong moral tone; the Constitution which remained remarkably constant; internationalization of national cooperative movements who had the belief that in economic and social activities, cooperation was superior to competition; get members to equitably share their common interests at once adding to the stock of positive knowledge about cooperation throughout the world and clarifying ideas; mission-minded leadership from the Central and Executive Committees and the Secretariat.


Cooperatives step up!

During the current coronavirus crisis, cooperatives have stepped up to support their members and communities. In Australia, the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals, the apex body, is providing information to its members on government assistance for coronavirus impacted businesses and what it means. In India, the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Limited is leading efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 by organizing social awareness campaigns to highlight the preventive and precautionary measures like social distancing, sanitization, healthy diet and prevention through face masks. In Iran, the Iranian Women Co-operators' Think Tank, comprising among others the Tehran Handicraft Cooperative Union, Iran Chamber of Cooperatives, the Iranian Cooperators' Association, and Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative School has been running projects in different provinces to produce masks and isolation gowns. In Korea, more that 25 members coops from iCOOP donated goods to health centers, hospitals, and low-income groups.  In Nepal, to mark the 63rd National Cooperative Day, the Cooperatives Coronavirus Contril Center has been set up at Manmohan Memorial Hospital in coordination with the National Cooperative Federation. The Palestine Agriculture Cooperative Union is supporting the community by collecting fresh vegetables from members as grants and distributing them to the closed governorates affected by the virus. In the Philippines, cooperatives have launched a nationwide campaign of donations to combat the virus and help the elderly, who are the most vulnerable. These include washable face masks, vitamins, and other kits. 


ICA has launched a Loomio forum for its members to participate in coordinating a global cooperative response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Members are encouraged to open an account here, join the platform and contribute to the ongoing discussion. 


While the above are responses on part of cooperatives to address the immediate challenges, there is need for ICA and members to look ahead as a movement.


Rally around the Cooperative Identity

After the destructions following the first World, cooperators came back to the 1913 Glasgow Resolution of Peace as a rallying point around which to muster their movements and chart out their own contribution to a better and more peaceful world order. This was because the response of governments then was of economic nationalism, closing borders, locking down and trying to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. The response to COVID-19 given its transmission across borders is eerily familiar. During the ICA meetings and Congresses, delegates thought of themselves as cooperators first and secondly, their nationality, remarkably free of chauvinism.


This is the time for ICA and members from 109 countries to unite and rally under the common banner of Cooperative Identity. The theme of the 33 World Congress to celebrate ICA’s 125th ICA anniversary, ‘Deepening our Cooperative Identity,’ provides the rallying cry! The Statement on the Cooperative Identity includes principles and cooperative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity have never been truer. As are the four ethical values: honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. It is not just on paper but the deed that matters. As has been seen in the history of ICA, it is the adherence to the spirit and word that has enabled cooperatives to stand the test of time.


Superiority of the Cooperative System by exercising the utmost vigilance and economy in purchasing and handling their stock; by distributing all commodities to their members at the most equitable prices; by resisting all attempts of capitalist enterprise to exploit the situation for private profit and to employ every means to mitigate the evils and distress attendant upon the increasing unemployment of workers across the world (P183, Watkins)


Now is the time to rally cooperatives around the Cooperative Identity!


Spotlight on International Day of Cooperatives

The first International Day of Cooperatives (IDC) was celebrated in 1923. Since then it has been celebrated every year, in every country on the same date in order to attract the attention and interest of the whole world and communicate the message of, ‘each for all, and all for each.’ Its impact to strengthen unity of cooperatives has been incalculable. Since 1995, the United Nations, through the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC), a multi-stakeholder partnership of global public and private institutions that champions and supports cooperative enterprises as leaders in sustainable development has also been celebrating the day of cooperatives.


The 2020 edition will be the 26th United Nations International Day of Cooperatives and the 98th International Cooperative day and the theme is Cooperatives for Climate Action. Given the ravages of COVID-19, the focus on Climate Action is more critical than ever. According to the WHO, changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change. Rising temperatures can create favorable conditions for the spread of certain infectious, while disappearing habitats may force various animal species to migrate, increasing the chances of spillover pathogens between them.  Be it health, economic or any type of shock, the people most affected are the poorest and the most vulnerable. When health disasters hit – and in a business-as-usual scenario they will do so increasingly – global inequality is sustained and reinforced, and paid for with the lives of the poor and marginalized.


Similar to the spirit in celebrating IDC in 2012, the International Year of Cooperatives, this year cooperatives need to spread aloud the message that our methods of production and consumption that are constantly attacking the environment cannot go on.  We need to ensure production does not take a toll on the very soil it depends, reduce the demands we place on nature by optimizing consumption, build direct supply chains between the producer and consumer, substitute animal proteins with plant proteins, and decrease pollution 


Left in the lurch - migrant workers, gig-economy, informal economy

The millions of migrant workers streaming out of cities in India, six million claiming unemployment in a week in the United States; a quarter or one million garment workers in Bangladesh out of job; each day brings with it more daunting numbers. Gig worker, independent contractors, and freelancers are experiencing income losses without the support of severance or benefits and many are finding out they don’t qualify under stimulus packages. According to the ILO, the COVID-19 crisis is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 - equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. The impact of the pandemic will affect more women than men as they are more vulnerable to economic shocks 


This is an opportunity for ICA and its members to rally once again for workers. This is not something new to the ICA. In its early years the ICA was a body whose affiliated membership was predominantly made up of wage-earners, who subscribed to working-class culture, and whose goal was improvement of cooperative members living standards. The First Article of the Alliance’s original Constitution included the objective of the amelioration of the lot of working classes (wording later dropped) and hence its association from early days with the ILO and Trade Unions. The crisis has shown the importance of having service and social cooperatives to meet the needs of informal workers and address issues around health and aging. During these times, even in the worst affected countries like Italy, cooperatives are stepping up to the task. See Ed Mayo’s article – What has Italy got right?


The works - stimulus, bailouts, and everything in between

Governments are scrambling to enact stimulus packages in the billions and trillions. Unlike the stimulus packages in 2008 where companies used it for themselves (stock buyback and top honchos payment), this time around the effort is to ensure workers get their fair share. Given what we have seen in regard to the plight of migrant workers, farmers and artisans, governments are going to look for the support and good will of these groups. Apex organizations and federations need to get out of their shells and ensure that cooperatives are not left out of the process. The BCCM and the National Cooperative Business Association in the USA are doing just that, making sure the interests of cooperatives and mutuals continue to be represented in a challenging business landscape.


It is apt to quote what Henry May,  Secretary of the ICA (1913-1939) who upheld the dignity and increased the prestige of the ICA all over the world wrote in the Review of International Cooperation, “United and common action on the part of Cooperators is necessary. The organizations of capitalism, private trade and industry will not remain meekly in the background to accept the crumbs that fall from the conference table. Neither should we, but rather take all actions to present the claims of the organized consumers and the superlative value of the Cooperative Economic System as an equitable means of sharing the world’s resources and guaranteeing good relations between all people. It is ours to formulate the Cooperative point of view and to educate public opinion to accept it.”


Cooperation among cooperatives

This is the time to enhance Principle 6: Cooperation among Cooperatives. It was done on a global scale in earlier times through the Cooperative Wholesale Society and the Cooperative Trading Agency. The latter was based on identified consumer needs; therefore production it called forth was not speculative, ensured economic use of resources and enabled economies of scale. This time we can leverage technologies and emerging platforms to ensure trade on scale happens.


Cooperatives, as people-centered business, can look at member needs and ascertain support requirements. For example, some credit cooperatives are already deferring loan repayments; while it could impact their business in the short-term they are keeping their member interests at the center. Credit and insurance cooperatives can step up and provide assistance to many of the worker and services cooperatives which have had to shutter their operations, defer payments and lay-off their workers.


Some cooperatives are using their Cooperative Development Fund meant for education to provide medical and other supplies. From short-term, this can be taken in the medium and long-term to  enhance cooperation among cooperatives. Members themselves need to ensure they adhere to measures put in place by the government and support their cooperatives rather than look for short-term gains outside. 


A stark future for youth

Surprisingly, in the history of ICA’s emergence and re-emergence there is little mentioned in terms of involving and engaging the youth. This time it has to be different because of the magnitude and the degree of impact on the young. Many millennials have to weather two economic crises – one, the 2008 global financial crisis, near the beginning of their career; and now, midway in their career, the COVID-19. In the US,  Sixty-two percent of millennials reported living paycheck to paycheck in 2019, and even those who feel they have a “safe” job are wondering if it’s just a matter of time before they don’t. The current downturn stands to derail millennials during a phase of life considered crucial for earning potential and major life choices.  


ICA President Ariel Guarco while inaugurating the Global Youth Forum in Malaysia said, Young people are not the future of the movement. They must be the present, because the urgent problems of today mean the future of our movement and our civilization is at stake.”


Look to our leaders 

Among the reasons for ICA’s continuity and re-emergence despite all odds were the adherence to ICA’s Constitution which provided equity and legitimacy; Congress which overcame nationalistic chauvinism to unite under a common banner (ICA); Central and Executive Committees which provided visionary leadership and ensured ICA’s place around global tables (ILO, UN) and the Secretariat which provided the continuity.


Today, the ICA is not just central, but with regional and sectoral branches; its governance is not just global, but across all regions; its composition is not just Eurocentric, but diverse in gender and culture. It is up to this global and diverse leadership to step up, provide the vision and direction, and  unite cooperatives under the banner of ICA.


In conclusion - all in it 

The ICA and its member cooperatives in the face of perilous situation have united to overcome these by constant evolution, modifying their original forms and functions according to circumstances and needs of their members. During these time they have had to contend with financial stringency as a consequence of dislocation of trade and production compounded by economic consequences but stuck together as internationalization of national cooperative movements who had the belief that in economic and social activities, cooperation was superior to competition. We are all in it, let us do it!


Views expressed are in a personal capacity and do not reflect that of ICA


*Borrowed from the title for interview given to Erounnet (, an Internet news company in Korea covering stories in the social sector.


Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world


COVID-19 to trigger roughly 195 million job losses: ILO


How our responses to climate change and the coronavirus are linked


Rhodes, Rita. The International Cooperative Alliance – During War and Peace  

Stauffer, Rainesford. Millennials were just starting to feel economically stable. Now we’re being hit with another recession.


Hoffower, Hillary. Millennials came limping out of the Great Recession with massive student debt and crippled finances. Here's what the generation is up against if the coronavirus triggers another recession.


Watkins.W.P. The International Cooperative Alliance 1895 to 1970 

Wallace-Wells, David. The Coronavirus Is a Preview of Our Climate-Change Future, By Daivd Wallace-Wells


What has Italy got right?