Cooperatives and international development: What next?

From the Co-operative News (Quebec City, Canada) Can co-operatives bring added value to international development? This was one of the key topics addressed in a special session in the run-up to the International Summit of Co-operatives in Quebec.

Delegates from across different cooperative apex bodies highlighted what they were already doing to promote the work of cooperatives in development.

In the U.S., the Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) works to promote effective international cooperative development. It comprises nine members, all of them cooperative development organizations, working in over 70 countries with a budget of more than $200 million.

Since 1962, the U.S. Congress has maintained a positive language around the role of cooperative in development. Paul Hazen, executive director of OCDC, explained that co-op members were working in the field of development in agriculture, finance, telecommunications health or social care.

“We were able to demonstrate the size and scale of co-ops and their impact of lifting people out of poverty,” he told participants. OCDC acts as an umbrella body, enabling the nine co-ops to share best practices and conduct research projects. Hazen also pointed out that sometimes cooperative organizations could end up competing for the same funding from donors.

Third parties can add credibility
The facilitator of the session, Dame Pauline Green, talked about the need for cooperative bodies to work together without impinging on each other’s sovereignty, while retaining their areas of expertise, instead of competing with each other. Having a third party recognizing the contribution of co-ops to development also can help make the case for co-ops, argued the panelists.

As an example, Green cited the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), which recently has gained recognition from the European Commission. Earlier this year ICA signed a framework partnership agreement with the Commission for a global development program to benefit and advance the cooperative sector worldwide.

“We have a third party, the EU, saying they believe we are different and are prepared to put in their money,” she said. Cooperatives Europe, ICA’s regional office, has launched a platform that enables co-ops involved in development to provide information about their projects. The platform includes information about 478 projects with a combined budget of more than $265 million.

“Co-ops have a key role to play in supporting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by working in the development sector. Having an international platform will allow us to bring together experts,” said Green.

Collaboration enhances individual development efforts
Another paneli Amy Coughenour Betancourt, COO of NCBA CLUSA, which is an OCDC member, also called for more collaboration within the sector. “One of the things to take out of today’s session is to collaborate. It is much more of an imperative now that we have the SDGs. We need to find the mechanisms to work together more.”

Carlos Ernesto Acero Sánchez is executive president of the Colombian Federation of Cooperatives (CONFECOOP). Referring to his country’s experience, he said that co-ops also can contribute to peace-building. Colombia ranks in the top 10 most unequal countries in the world. By tackling inequality, co-ops help address the roots of conflict, he added. Colombians recently have voted against a peace agreement signed by the president and the leaders of the rebels.

“At this moment we need international solidarity. We have signed a peace act, but democracy created a limbo. Solidarity and cooperation are needed to overcome this obstacle,” Sanchez said.

Redefining co-ops as modern businesses
Another challenge for co-ops working in development is to redefine the model, said Andreas Kappes, head of the department of international relations at Raiffeisen in Germany. He explained how in certain countries, co-ops can be seen as linked to socialism or state-owned models. Co-op bodies can help by redefining cooperatives as modern businesses, he said, adding that having the right governance was important in co-ops.

Florence Raineix, chief executive of France’s National Federation of Credit Unions highlighted that governance had to begin with training members and giving them access to information.

In countries where co-ops are not seen by governments as important development actors, it can be very useful to have examples from successful movements, the panelists added.

Coughenor Betancourt described NCBA CLUSA’s approach for enabling communities to make decisions about their own development path. “We are building capacity and enabling that,” she said. “It’s not just about how the co-ops are being managed and run, how they operate or whether they are being transparent or not. We are part of a new movement – community-led development – that’s all about how to drive decisions at local level,” she said.

Coordinating objectives with each other, donors
Another obstacle is the lack of coordination between cooperative organizations, she said. This often required having a specific person in charge. “We have an imperative from donors to work with each other all the time, but that’s a problem unless you have someone on the team dedicated to coordination and cooperation with other donor projects,” she said.

“It’s very difficult because you’re charged with executing certain donors’ requirements, donors have separate agendas and sometimes they don’t cooperate with each other. It would be much easier if we had the knowledge of what areas of expertise we have within every organization.”

Mully Dor, chair of the board of Ajeec-Nisped, the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation and Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, also encouraged organizations to decide which areas they could work on and which countries they could focus on.

Coughenor Betancourt added that the movement needed to engage more with outside sectors. “We need to have greater impact. What’s important to everyone else? What’s our impact? We have very large projects funded by the U.S. government, not focused on co-ops but on resilience and food security. Nobody wants to talk about co-ops but about development objectives,” she said, adding that cooperative apex organizations need to show how they could meet objectives, such as building peace or achieving resilience.

“What is the added value of co-ops in development? We are the largest organization in the world with a single set of set principles – a billion people. There is not a single government, or entity that can say that. The problem is that we don’t think collectively. We don’t think there is real commonality here. We can tap into those common principles. However, we can’t pretend that the co-op model is a solution to everything. We have to understand that if we do not collaborate with other sectors, then we’re not leveraging our true value.”