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Q&A: Cooperatives: “Meeting Human Need, Not Just Human Greed”

José Domingo Guariglia interviews PAULINE GREEN, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, on the International Year of Cooperatives

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 3 2011 (IPS) - Different countries may celebrate Oct. 31 in a variety of ways, but this year, the 193 member states of the United Nations (U.N.) launched the International Year of Cooperatives 2012 to raise awareness about the impact of cooperatives on the development of communities where they operate.

Pauline Green, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, speaking during the launch of the International Year of Cooperatives Credit:  Rousbeh Legatis/IPS

Pauline Green, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, speaking during the launch of the International Year of Cooperatives Credit: Rousbeh Legatis/IPS

“Cooperative enterprises build a better world” is the theme for the first International Year of Cooperatives (IYC). The cooperative sector has 800 million members in more than 100 countries throughout the world.

Global discussions about the impact of cooperatives will take place at a local level among the U.N.’s 193 member states, members of media, sponsors and international organisations.

One of those organisations is the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), founded in 1895 as an independent non-governmental group that unites and represents cooperatives around the world. Its members are 260 cooperatives operating in 96 countries.

ICA focuses on the promotion and protection of the cooperative identity in order to guarantee that cooperatives will be able to compete in the market as legitimate forms of enterprise. At the same time, it pushes for changes in legislation and policy to foster cooperatives’ growth.

ICA President Pauline Green has worked with the cooperative movement for the past 35 years. She was chief executive and general secretary of Co-operatives UK from 2000 to October 2009 and co-president of Cooperatives Europe and ICA vice-president for Europe until she was elected ICA president in November 2009.

IPS correspondent José Domingo Guariglia interviewed Green about her expectations for the IYC and on the importance of cooperatives.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: The 2012 International Year theme is “Cooperative enterprises build a better world”. Do you agree with that statement? A: Cooperatives teach good democratic practices, help to build solidarity and cohesion in local communities, develop leadership potential among local people and support training and education.

Cooperatives are about meeting human needs, not just human greed, and they do this by creating member-owned businesses that allow local people to support the development of their own community. By returning profits from the business to their members, they keep the wealth within local communities and allow it to grow further.

It is about allowing people to pull themselves out of poverty through their own endeavours and with dignity. In this way cooperatives have diminish conflict, created more cohesive societies, enhanced skills and supported the evolution of well-informed, empowered citizens.

That is how cooperatives build a better world.

Q: Who is financing the IYC? A: So far the ICA is funding its activities for the IYC directly from its own resources and from its member contributions, and we have an appeal out for that purpose. Occasionally we ask for sponsorship for specific events or publications.

The more we can raise, the more we can do to lift the visibility and profile of our model of business across the world, lobby governments and global bodies to improve cooperative access to the market, and show to the world that we have a model of business that is not business as usual.

Q: Why did the ICA get involved in the organisation of the IYC? A: The ICA has been working for this outcome for a considerable time – probably five years in a serious way. Much is owed to the government of Mongolia who finally took the resolution to the floor of the General Assembly of the U.N. seeking a mandate for the IYC.

In the final analysis, the resolution at the U.N. was supported by nearly double the number of governments than usually sign the resolutions on an International Year – so it was very gratifying and a clear sign that in many countries, governments regard the cooperative input to their national economy to be important in their nations.

Q: Do cooperatives have a role in the achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals? A: Cooperatives are active in a whole range of sectors of the economy, from agriculture to insurance, from retailing to health, from banking to renewable energy, from housing to education.

From a commercial perspective, they support the lives and livelihoods of both their members and their employed staff who, incidentally, are often members as well.

Cooperatives can help in achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. In fact, I would argue that over our 170-year history we have done more than any other single organisation to take people out of poverty.

Q: What else should the U.N. do to promote the work of the cooperative sector? A: The different organs of the U.N. have supported the growth of various sectors of the cooperative economy – in agriculture, credit unions and microfinance, for instance. And the ILO (International Labour Organisation) has, of course, worked hard over the years to support good cooperative legislation across the world that subscribes to the worldwide values and principles of the movement.

As to what more the U.N. could do, we are about to launch the U.N.’s latest great gift to cooperatives worldwide and that is the International Year of Cooperatives.

It might look extremely ungracious to be asking for more. However, at a moment when so many people are suffering as a direct result of the collapse of the investor-led financial sector of the economy, and the resultant recession, it is vital that the cooperative movement is reinforced and strengthened to do its job for those people whose lives could and should be better.

That is something for which cooperators around the world will work very hard.

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