"Cooperatives are the only enterprise model with globally agreed principles that rest on a foundation of shared ethical values", wrote Bruno Roelants, a cooperative leader. Such common foundations eventually become the procedure to be followed by cooperatives to achieve economic, social, and cultural objectives.
In other words, for co-operatives the ends are just as important as the means used to achieve them. These very bases, common to all co-operatives throughout the world, made it possible for them to come together in The International Cooperative Alliance (I.C.A.), established in 1895. Today, this international body made up of cooperatives and their confederations from over 100 countries represents a large number of people and a great deal of capital. ICA’s website states that more than 12% of humanity belongs to one of the 3 million existing cooperatives and that the 300 largest cooperatives (and mutual associations) in the world had a total turnover of 2,146 billion dollars in 2020, according to the "World Cooperative Monitor" and "provide jobs or employment opportunities for 280 million people throughout the world, i.e., 10% of the world's working population".
The significant role of leading the ICA, with such a large membership, does not imply having the power to make binding decisions for all cooperatives. The leadership exerts influence in the manner of an orientation guide but does not define the direction and main guidelines of the cooperatives. Moreover, rather than being presidential, the leadership of this body is collegial and democratic, with only one vote per representative. This collegiate group represents all the cooperatives in the different continents. In any case, the person who chairs the ICA is the one who represents it and as such can reflect the particularities of the area from which he or she comes, without disrupting the necessary harmony or contradicting the ideas of the group as a whole. The ICA structure is divided into 4 regions: Africa, America, Asia Pacific, and Europe.
The ICA will meet in Seville in a few days, on June 20th, for the election of its next president for a 4-year term. There are three candidates representing the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe. They are:
Ariel Guarco from Argentina, who is standing for re-election after being in office for the last four years at the peak of the pandemic. His grassroots cooperative, which he presides over, distributes electricity to the city of Coronel Pringles in the province of Buenos Aires, chairs the Confederation of Cooperatives of Argentina and sits on behalf of cooperatives on the board of directors of the National Institute of Associativism and Social Economy of Argentina. He has a postgraduate degree in social economy from the Untref Virtual.
Melina Morrison from Australia. She represents the Asia-Pacific region, which includes very different countries in the economic and social development of cooperatives. She is the Executive Director of the largest organisation of cooperatives in Australia. She has worked for access to capital funding of cooperatives, making it possible for cooperatives and mutual associations in Australia to obtain funds without undermining their nature, an aspect that has been much debated and controversial in other parts of the world. For several years she collaborated with the ICA on the 'Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade'.
Jean-Louis Bancel from France. President of the Credit Coopératif Foundation. Former official of the French Ministry of Economy and Finance. General Director of the French federation of mutual health insurance associations. President of the Association of Cooperative Banks and current member of the Board of Directors of the ICA.
As is the case of all international structures, this type of election is not a minor one, especially when the "communication code" is common to all of them, as it is based on the same principles, and this is the framework within which they operate. What is at stake is the new imprint given by the person in charge, whether in terms of the knowledge gained in their own background, their informed preferences, or what they are able to propose for discussion within the highest body of cooperativism at a global level.
In this regard, for those who come from developed countries, the local influence is largely due to the level of integration of cooperativism in those countries and its close link with capitalism. This is mainly the case in Europe, which is, after all, where cooperatives and their first theories were born. The approach in this part of the world is very much that cooperativism works as a complement to capitalism in practical terms and by virtue of its connection with it. There are no rifts because in European countries the level of primary needs is much lower than in Latin America. Therefore, the new cooperatives are not as economically marginal as in poor countries.
To support this argument, it is worth looking at what actually happens within the cooperative movement itself. Cooperation between cooperatives, one of the common principles, is very limited and tends to be very scarce between large cooperatives and those with primary needs, and there is even less solidarity cooperation between large cooperatives in developed countries and small cooperatives in poverty-stricken countries. The same is true for research, where one would expect those with the means to do so to transfer potential technologies to poorer cooperatives. Admittedly, such a strategy does not exist.
In Latin America, cooperativism is growing in critical areas with high unemployment. Therefore, all these starting cooperatives are financially challenged because they are made up of people without any capital, even if they have the know-how to develop and a market to sell their products. The ICA does not have its own fund to assist cooperatives that start out "poor" and have a potential future in poor countries or countries in crisis. Furthermore, from an ideological point of view, in Latin America cooperativism is seen as part of the Social Economy, where an attempt is made to generate an economic subsystem of its own, not as a complementary or alternative project to capitalism, but as an alternative project within capitalism. Since cooperatives are associations of people and each person has one vote, whereas capital companies are associations of capital where the votes are proportional to the amount of capital owned, with this difference alone (and there are others), we would be building a subsystem that operates on the basis of reappraising people as such and not in terms of capital ownership.
Latin America has significantly developed the theory and practice of cooperativism and the social economy, and its quest is directed both towards the construction of large cooperatives, which will continue to be democratically run and towards the solution of the basic problems of its societies with the development of the Popular Economy, which are personal or family undertakings with a small financial scale and virtually subsistence based. This is where cooperativism must play a role to create small structures of solidarity that will gradually be integrated into the social and cooperative economy. This model can only be conceived and developed in countries with a high rate of informal and self-employed economy.
Hence, the next leadership of the ICA may have a representation with different orientations: that of developed countries and that of Latin America, which will have to look from the bottom up. Should this be achieved, it will indeed be necessary to develop a management approach in line with the mandate received, i.e., to try to influence the global cooperative movement through the practical and effective application of the principle of cooperation at the international level.
This will broaden the social base of cooperatives worldwide, and more cooperative members will be able to influence political decisions within their respective groups of countries.
Jorge Bragulat holds a PhD in Economics. He is the Director of the Online Master’s in Social, Community and Solidarity Economy and Director of the Diploma in Social Economy and Clubs at the UNFREF- Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, former Rector of the Universidad Nacional de La Pampa, former professor at the UBA, and former professor at the Universidad de Barcelona - Spain.