By Kenzie Love
In 1995, the International Co-operative Alliance set out to answer this question by adopting the Statement on the Cooperative Identity. Subsequently recognized by many governments and multilateral organizations, the Statement defines the cooperative business model, makes explicit the cooperative and ethical values on which it is founded, and sets out seven universal operating principles applicable to cooperatives of all kinds.
Now, some 27 years later, the ICA is in the midst of an extensive reflection and consultation intended to deepen the cooperative identity and explore how well the Statement has stood the test of time. Led by the Cooperative Identity Advisory Group, a body struck by the ICA Board of Directors, the consultation will address such questions as, “Is the cooperative identity adequately defined? Is it widely understood? Are cooperatives operating in a manner consistent with it? If not, why not? Are any changes to the formal expression of our identity required? “
Alexandra Wilson, the Group’s Chair, wants the consultation process to be what she describes as both “deep and wide”: one that goes down to the grassroots of the co-operative movement in all of its many sectors and in the many countries in which co-ops operate, and for which a survey is just the starting point.
“I want us to have a real dialogue,” she says. “So it’s not enough to conduct surveys, though we are conducting a survey right now.”
Given the huge variety of co-ops that exist internationally, Wilson acknowledges that this process may be challenging. But the Group, she notes, is going into it fully aware of the differences within the co-op movement.
“It’s really important in looking at the cooperative principles to ask whether they suit the different types of co-operative equally well,” she says. “Are there any particular obstacles? Which principles are more relevant? Are there any that are hard to put into effect for a certain type of cooperative? We ask those questions without knowing the answers.”
The feeling in 1995, as Wilson observes, was that the statement was sufficiently broad to cover every type of co-op, in spite of their great diversity. But today, she notes, there are even more types of co-operatives, such as platform co-ops. Sonja Novkovic of the International Centre for Co-operative Management at Saint Mary’s University, believes that the statement can still be interpreted to fit the modern context, but that it’s insufficient on its own to provide all the guidance a given co-op needs.
“In my personal opinion, the challenge is if you’re trying to put everything under one umbrella, that they’re not granular enough,” she says. “Seven principles are not detailed enough for every context and every type of co-op.”
But just because the Statement cannot address all the issues co-ops face does not make it irrelevant. Novkovic points to Spain’s Mondragon Corporation as an example of an enterprise that has effectively addressed the perceived gaps in the statement by adding three additional principles to the ICA’s original seven. The co-op principles are also one of the inspirations behind the Solidarity Economy Principles, which envision an economy in which co-ops are important but not necessarily dominant.
While some might see this philosophy as a threat, Wilson believes the fact that the Solidarity Economy Principles group felt a need to look beyond co-ops is actually an opportunity to consider whether co-ops have in fact lived up to their stated aims.
“Why don’t we just get down to business and ask ourselves whether we’re really fulfilling our social purpose as cooperatives?” she says.
It’s a question that may not have a clear answer. But when it comes to determining what a co-op is, it seems that the process of the consultation will be as important as the product.