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A foundation for the future: International Cooperative Alliance celebrates 125 years

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“During times of crises, cooperatives take action without hesitation,” ICA President Ariel Guarco says in a new video message, making them essential businesses. [photo: ICA]
The International Cooperative Alliance last week celebrated its 125th anniversary, demonstrating the strength and sustainability that few international organizations can claim. The milestone marked the first international Cooperative Congress held in London in August of 1895, making the ICA one of the oldest non-governmental organizations in the world and—with 1.2 billion cooperators worldwide—one of the largest.

The cooperative movement and the ICA have not only survived, but continued to grow through the Great Depression, fascist regimes, two world wars, heightened tensions during the Cold War and the arms race, crimes against humanity, pressures to conform to for-profit models and so much more.

Today, ICA represents 313 member organizations across 110 countries—more than at any time during its 125-year history. As a member, NCBA CLUSA is proud to represent the U.S. cooperative movement before this global body.

In a video address marking the milestone, ICA President Ariel Guarco thanked cooperators for responding with solidarity, innovation and resilience in the face of a global pandemic, racial unrest, climate change and other “tremendous challenges.”

“I am proud to see [an] organization that was born 125 years ago continue to be home for all organizations that practice an economy rooted in democracy and solidarity,” Guarco said. “During times of crises, cooperatives take action without hesitation. That is why this year, cooperatives [have been] essential for millions of people around the world.”

Another video released by ICA traces the legacy and current impact of the global body in the words of four cooperators: Rita Rhodes, ICA historian; Martin Lowery, ICA Cooperative Identity Committee Chair; Vina Vida Rempillo, training coordinator and youth co-operator from the Philippines’ National Confederation of Cooperatives; and Gillian Lonergan, retired UK National Cooperative Archive Librarian.

Several national cooperators and historians of the cooperative movement from countries that sent delegates at the very first international Cooperative Congress shared their reflections on the occasion, including what 125 years of support from ICA has meant for their national cooperative movements.

Bruno Roelants, ICA Director General, noted the scope of the global cooperative movement in terms of membership, jobs created and overall economic impact. “The international cooperative movement as we know it today would probably not have survived, had the ICA not been established in the first place,” he said.

In her think piece, Gillian Lonergan explains the rise of the cooperative model during the years preceding the ICA’s formation in 1895. In 1844, a group of 28 artisans working in the cotton mills in Rochdale, England established the first modern cooperative business. Hundreds of British cooperatives soon followed, adhering to a set of rules that later became the 7 Cooperative Principles.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. Emeritus Ann Hoyt and Prof. Daniel Plotinsky (director of Argentina’s Idelcoop) explained how cooperators from the Americas made study visits to England and other European countries. Early cooperators often crossed borders—and even continents—to exchange ideas, knowledge and principles.

“They saw the value of developing a strong international voice and custodian for these values,” Hoyt said. “ICA… provides the platform for the world’s cooperatives to discuss the common and fundamental core of our identity, our current value and how our principles can and should be adapted over time.”

During the cooperative movement’s early period of incubation and networking, French and British cooperators developed a positive dialogue around consumer and producer cooperatives, said Prof. Jean-François Draperi. But there were gaps in collaboration. When the ICA conducted its first review of the cooperative principles in the 1930s, the German, Austrian and Italian cooperative movements were subject to fascist regimes and could not participate. After World War II, as Prof. Rita Rhodes explains, a second revision of the cooperative principles in 1966 was driven partly by the changing international landscape.

The 1966 review of the cooperative principles, as well as the one in 1995, considered the sensitive issues of political neutrality, autonomy and independence. During the time, decolonization was spurring the formation of new regional organizations unaffiliated with European cooperatives, gradually making ICA the truly global body that it is today. These organizations laid the foundation for the rise of the ICA Regions.

In his think piece on the cooperative identity and the future of the cooperative movement, Martin Lowery discusses the important contribution of cooperatives to the fields of human rights and equal opportunity. The addition of the 7th cooperative principle, “Concern for Community,” anticipated the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that would be developed decades later.

Lowery also suggests that the “enormous challenges” cooperators are facing today require “new, innovative thinking,” including the potential modification of or addition to the 7 Cooperative Principles to better reflect today’s economic and social climate.

“It is appropriate to ask, 25 years after the adoption of the Statement on Cooperative Identity by the General Assembly… whether the principles are sufficient to address the state of the globe in 2020,” Lowery write. “Some would say they are not.”

Read more about ICA’s 125th anniversary.

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