Monday, 22 October 2012


 Last week I had the privilege of attending the World Summit on Co-operatives in Quebec representing Co-operatives UK. It was amazing to be amongst 2,800 delegates from 91 countries - including a number from the very healthy co-operative sector in Quebec. The Canadian cooperative sector as hosts did us proud and played a huge role in the success of the event especially key sponsors and facilitators the Quebec financial co-operative Desjardins.

As well as the main summit there was a 'future co-operative leaders' programme which ran alongside the official event with participation from young British co-operators, and the summit was preceded by a pre-conference academic event ‘Imagine 2012’ on co-operative economics supported by St Mary’s University of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Sobey School of management are world leaders in co-operative management education..

There was a very strong emphasis on understanding the range and scope of the global co-operative experience and part of this included the launch of nine studies – some of which added more value than others - produced in partnership with leading private sector professional service firms - some of whom, like McKinsey’s, lets face it are a bit of a surprise as they are not known for their advocacy of the co-operative model.

Former Labour MEP now President of the International Co-operative Alliance, Pauline Green, played an important role in holding the show together and there where other significant UK contributions, from Peter Marks of the Co-op Group, Ben Read of Midcounties Co-op, Vivian Woodell from Co-operative Phone & Broadband as well as Ed Mayo from Co-operatives UK.

’Imagine 2012’ with its theme of co-operative economics looked at traditional and current theory in understanding co-operative enterprise, but also looked the flaws in wider neo-liberal economics that seemed to dismiss or exclude co-operative solutions. The work of Nobel Prize winning Elinor Ostrom was celebrated and a major issue was the role of co-operatives in tackling the challenge of environmental sustainability.

What emerged from the official conference was a strong sense of relevance and confidence in the co-operative model.  For me reading that the top 300 Co-op businesses have a turnover of US$1.6 trillion then seeing them represented in a room made an abstract idea into a reality and was very uplifting. Seeing the reality of the size and scope of the global co-operative movement in the flesh was amazing.  At times, the mood felt a little self-indulgent, as many of the outside speakers seemed to have come to curry favour rather than to offer grounded support and advice.

Some of the challenges articulated at the conference are ones we know well, given the speed of market change, are co-operative businesses, agile enough and innovative enough? Are we bold enough in positioning ourselves as an alternative to shareholder companies? ... or is it the case that what fires us up doesn't necessarily work in the wider world beyond our members, where people just need to know who we are and what we do well.

It was great to meet with and listen to the examples of how co-operatives where facing up to their business challenges, the Texas Energy Co-op that was outperforming its private competitors by going back to the members, the Danish farmer cooperative that felt it could not operate in a dozen countries on the back of membership from just one and so is exploring minority external capital; and the delegation from Cuba, trying to plan for a new role for autonomous co-operatives in a more open but still socialist economy.

I had the pleasure of joining a group of Brits, Canadians and Cubans for a very lively dinner. We discussed everything from how committed Raul Castro was to co-op development, to all the practical issues of starting and managing co-ops, to the philosophical issue of could you have a non capitalist market economy?

This was a substantial Cuban delegation, typically boxing above their weight, including ordinary Cuban farmers, as well as government officials; but if there was one person who held our attention it was Professor Camila Pineriro Harnecker from the University of Havana who has edited a new book, Co-operatives and Socialism, A view from Cuba. The book a collection of essays makes the case for co-operatives as part of the solution to building a more equitable society.

Working with the Ministry of Light Industry she and her colleagues are making the case for the co-operative economy to be a viable alternative to the neo-liberal capitalist and the authoritarian socialist models currently in use around the world. Thanks to support from Canadian co-operators the book has been translated into English and Co-operatives and Socialism will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in December.

So far the United Nations Year of Co-operatives 2012 has been a tremendous opportunity to bring co-operators together as there is indeed much we can learn from one another and if we work together and support one another there is a great deal we can achieve. It is very important that this momentum is not dissipated and that the Co-op Year becomes the decade of co-operative development.

The next stop for this international Co-operative caravan will be at Co-operatives United, the World festival and ICA Expo in Manchester from the 29thOct -2nd Nov. I very much hope as members of Co-operatives UK, the Peoples Press Printing Society and its members will be there amongst the 10,000 visitors. For more information go to:


Ian McCarthy said...

You should have come over to the west coast for a beer

ADmin said...

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