The cooperative movement, a global impact
Is the small cooperative that irrigates the economy of its village still aware of this? It belongs to a much larger network, national, European and even worldwide! It is part of the vast cooperative movement that brings together a billion people around the world who are members of three million cooperatives. An impressive network that holds out the hope of a fairer society where globalisation could go hand in hand with solidarity and cooperation.
This international story began in earnest in 1895 when the International Cooperative Alliance was created in London. This birth had been prepared for about ten years by numerous exchanges in particular between English and French cooperators. Today, the ICA has 318 organisations from 112 countries, from all sectors of the economy. However, the weight of each nation in the global cooperative landscape varies greatly. As a result of its history and the considerable importance of its commercial, agri-food and banking sectors, the French cooperative sector is a global heavyweight. Among the 100 largest cooperative enterprises in the world, France has the lion's share with 25% of their global turnover (and 36.6% of the European top 100). In terms of employment, it comes second with more than 600,000 employees in the world's top 100, just after Germany (850,000 employees).
However, the ICA is not dominated by a few major cooperative powers and aims to represent all cooperatives in all countries. Throughout its history, the ICA has maintained a "neutrality" (now redefined as "political indifference") which has enabled it to bring together cooperatives from both communist and capitalist countries during the Cold War and to be a permanent forum for political consultation and lobbying in the service of this form of entrepreneurship. As early as 1919, it was associated with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose first president, Albert Thomas, was one of its prominent members. In 1945, it was included in the 46 NGOs recognised by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. These are strategic places where it can defend its values, which are summarised in seven principles, revised at the time of its centenary in 1995. Among these, the seventh, "commitment to the community", displays its social and political dimension: "Cooperatives contribute to the sustainable development of their community within the framework of guidelines approved by their members". The local anchorage of cooperatives is thus linked to a larger framework that goes far beyond them but with which they are in solidarity. As the Alliance states in its Guidance Notes for the Cooperative Principles, "cooperatives cannot achieve the goal of sustainable development in their communities on their own; they must enter into agreements and cooperate with other organisations, including governments." This shows the need for their societal engagement at all levels.
In concrete terms, in France, the cooperatives within Coop FR (and before it the GNC, the Groupement National de la Coopération) have always been represented on the ICA's board, which was itself chaired by a Frenchman, Roger Kerinec, from 1975 to 1984. Jean-Louis Bancel's candidacy for the ICA presidency in 2022 is part of this tradition. The multiplication of decision-making and power places means that we have to be present in many places. Thus, the rise in power and the construction of Europe require a continental structuring of the cooperative movement with Cooperatives Europe. In 2012, the UN declared the International Year of Cooperatives under the slogan: "Cooperatives, enterprises for a better world". Around the G20, a B20 was created which brings together several hundred business representatives: here again, cooperatives have their place and can make direct recommendations to the G20 governments.
Watchfulness and vigilance
These presences are essential to defend a model that the financialisation of economies and the steamroller of liberalism would quickly tend to ignore. From 2002 to 2004, a battle was waged at European level to defend the specificity of cooperatives at a time when international accounting standards wanted to transform the capital of these companies into "debt" on the pretext that the freedom of members to enter and leave (cooperative principle No. 1) could result in the withdrawal of their capital! "Who would have imagined that underneath an imposing set of accounting standards (more than 2500 pages), intended for listed companies and financial analysts, there were a few lines that called into question the viability of cooperatives at the global level?" The mobilisation of the international cooperative bodies succeeded in convincing the accountants of their misinterpretation... But the story, told by Jean-Claude Detilleux and Caroline Naett, shows that vigilance is required: "Most of the time, the problems posed for cooperatives by the drafting of texts are not the result of a deliberate intention on the part of the legislator, but of a simple lack of knowledge of the cooperative fact, and therefore of its total absence of consideration during the drafting of the texts." This justifies a quasi-permanent monitoring, surveillance and intervention work that national, European and international organisations are almost alone in being able to do.
The cooperative identity in question
Charles Gide's observation in 1921 ("Neither public opinion, nor the press, nor economists have given the cooperative movement the attention it deserves") remains valid. In the 2000s, Jean-Claude Detilleux, then President of the GNC, still noted "the profound lack of knowledge of the cooperative model and reality", a phenomenon that also concerns research and teaching. He nevertheless concluded by saying that "gathered together, cooperatives can and do make themselves heard. Trivialisation is not inevitable. Affirming one's identity and values and demanding to be able to undertake differently are not demands from another age." 20 years later, the question of cooperative identity is once again at the heart of the ICA's reflections. The cooperative movement has decided to launch an in-depth study on its identity. All cooperatives are invited to participate, from the smallest to the largest, through a survey aimed at gathering the thoughts of cooperators around the world. "Our cooperative identity has never been more important than in times of crisis," says Alexandra Wilson, chair of the ICA's Cooperative Identity Advisory Group. This group will carefully consider the contributions received and determine what steps can be taken to clarify the essential purpose and nature of cooperatives and strengthen their ability to contribute to building a better world. This is quite a challenge at a time when more and more people are aspiring to design a "world after" that is not a rehash of the "world before"...