The ICA - What it is and What it has done

This document has been made available in electronic format
     by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                     January 1996

         The ICA - What it is and What it has done

by Lars Marcus*

Some of us have had the opportunity to be active within the ICA for
decades. I myself recall how I joined as a Swedish member of the Central
Committee. It was in 1976, at the Paris Congress.

My major memory is from a dinner in Epernay, where lots of champagne was
served, and where I had a talk with a Japanese delegate who was by himself.
He was very old. He had attended his first ICA Congress some 50 years
earlier, and that evening he shared his experiences with me while other
delegates shared their bottles.

He helped me into the ICA work, which is not easy to understand when you
are new to the job and agendas mainly seem to deal with endless reports on
economics and past activities.

In 1976 I also had a few things for free. As Chairman of the Swedish
Co-operative Centre and with a national background of importance to the ICA
economy, I was immediately made a member of its newly elected committee for
budget and finance, FABUSCOM. The ICA had problems.

Four years later I was elected a member of the Executive, and after another
four years I found myself President. This was in Hamburg in 1984.

Many of you are likely to be in the situation I experienced in 1976. I turn
to you to bring some light upon what the ICA is, and what it has done
during the last few decades. I also turn to those who will take over, as
some of us are now stepping down.

The ICA forms a huge and complex organisation. It encompasses agriculture,
fishing, banking, insurance, savings, housing, health, tourism, energy,
industry and retailing. Some of our 200 members are strong, but most are
weak. We operate in English, French, German, Russian and Spanish. We have
our head office in Geneva, Switzerland, and regional offices in India,
Tanzania, the Ivory Coast and Costa Rica, with a branch office in

Our huge body has a small head. We operate on a budget of roughly 2 million
Swiss Francs of annual subscription income. We have enough to allow us to
operate with a headquarters staff of 11 and four regional directors. For
us, strict priorities are necessary. The ICA cannot be run by events: it
has to have a plan, which must be understood and accepted by all members.

In the years 1976 to 1980 we had some major problems, which were becoming
urgent. The office had always been in London, where we owned a leasehold in
Upper Grosvenor Street. It was impregnated by tradition, but not
appropriate for our needs. Too often among OECD members it was said that
the ICA was old fashioned, dusty and sleepy, and had turned away from them
to the Third World.

And our development programme during this period, with support from mainly
one country, was not under economic control. The ICA started to bleed
during the 1980s.

In the years from 1980 to 1984 we finally sold the leasehold and moved to
Geneva. Something had to be done, although we temporarily lost both
competence and a certain amount of our members' confidence, not only in the
UK. The staff was reduced by 50%, yet the financial situation remained out
of control. We now survived on the proceeds of the office sale. The threat
of bankruptcy was increasingly present. A worried staff kept members
informed. Unrest among the main financial contributors increased.
In the autumn of 1984 the Executive sat down. We had had a brilliant
document by the Canadian, Alexander Laidlaw, on Co-operatives in the year
2,000 at the Moscow Congress in 1980. We had also received a survey and
evaluation of our problems and structure from another Canadian colleague,
Yvon Daneau, which had been well received by the recent Hamburg Congress.
We had to make ourselves strong again.
We identified four tasks. In order of priority these were:

1.   To function as a network and offer the members a suitable contact
2.   To support development in the South;
3.   To represent members with the UN community or in response to
individual requests; and
4.   To care for the co-operative identity.

The short-term priority plan was, in reality, both short and self-evident:
stop the bleeding.

With a damaged reputation, we did not go to members asking for more money.
We decided that subscription income could not be used for development. We
cut staff. We limited our use of languages to mainly English. We managed to
get two excellent secondments for financial control and membership

We also put pressure on the regional offices. At one stage we even sold our
office building in Delhi, the Bonow House. After staff changes, and with
more responsibility taken by Asian members, the building was later able to
be retained by the ICA as common Asian co-operative property.

Little by little we noticed a turn for the better. Our development efforts
attracted more donors. In Asia, Japan was prepared to play a leading role,
and members and donors in Italy, Canada, the Netherlands and Scandinavia
also found that collaboration with and through the ICA was beneficial.

New members were attracted. A  dele-gation to Latin America in 1986 was of
great help, and the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing
Co-operatives joined the year before. The economy started to be all in
black figures, and we set ourselves another target. The reserves should be
restored to an amount sufficient to cover one year's operating costs.

Now the time had come to tackle tasks three and four.

Contacts with the ILO, our neighbour in Geneva, had improved. The UN
Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar, increased his references to
co-operatives in his yearly reports. He personally addressed our 1988
Congress in Stockholm.

And we gave consideration to the defense of our identity. The board decided
that a discussion on co-operative basic values should take place at the
1988 Congress.

So far, so good. The next four years, however, developed in a way that was
not foreseen.

>From the beginning of the century, the ICA had had members in what, in
1917, became the USSR. After 1945 most Eastern and Central European
co-operatives became part of State-planned economies. Together, they then
formed a strong, united group in the ICA, not always easy to handle, and
particularly loud and outspoken when it introduced political themes on our
agenda. Nevertheless, they were respected: and not only for their financial
strength. They needed us as a remedy against isolation.

After 1987 we noticed how they became more open and started to speak in the
spirit of the perestroika. Also, they had problems.

Then it all happened at once. In Poland, the new Government proclaimed that
co-operative property was State property. In Russia, the economic reformers
said that co-operatives were a part of the past.

The new political leadership in Central and Eastern Europe was not familiar
with the role of co-operatives in the OECD economies they wanted to

So far Centrosoyus of the USSR had been acting as the leader of
co-operatives in COMECON. Now the Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Slovaks,
Hungarians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians made clear that they wanted
to go West.

We at the ICA asked them all, regardless of future orientation, to sit down
together and inform each other and us about what was happening and what
could be done. Three such meetings were held during 1990 and 1991. This at
least meant that the Eastern bloc co-operatives were not deserted at the
most crucial time for them.

At their request we talked to Governments and new political parties in
nearly all the countries of the region. Together with the ILO, we organised
several seminars on co-operative legislation. We also joined forces with
the International Raiffeisen Union for discussions on rural reforms and
co-operatives. Information was given to other members in order to encourage
bilateral action. We contacted the European Bank for Reconstruction and
Development, the World Bank and the European Union, and we also took part
in the Co-op Network, formed to tap these and other sources to finance
projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

For a couple of years we concentrated much of our work on Central and
Eastern Europe. I do not think this led to any misinterpretations. Work
also took place elsewhere.

Through the Moshi office in Africa we had already, in the early 1980s,
started to organize conferences with the participation of co-operative
regional leaders and the responsible Ministers and Commissioners. Their
purpose was, on the one hand, to strengthen the co-operative image and, on
the other, to formulate developmental strategies which could have a
follow-up at the next conference. It worked favourably. Similar Ministerial
Conferences followed in Asia. Good results have been achieved, not least in

We were also able to give thought to the future structure of the ICA, as
decided by the 1988 Congress. The result was presented in 1992, when the
Congress was held in Tokyo. There, we also finalised the discussions on
basic values.

>From Tokyo came the new rules, and the decision to make co-operative
identity and principles our major centennial theme.

I know that some of you had concerns about the new rules. You felt that we
in Europe, still the financially strongest part of the ICA, would move away
from the other regions. I did not share this opinion, and I feel that my
position has proved to be correct.

The regions of Asia-Pacific and the Americas have some very strong members
and also many weak, but fast-progressing ones. Europe will need them, and
they will need collaboration with European co-operatives.

Africa is a problem, it is true, but for different reasons. Africa must not
be neglected. The problems of Africa are not due to its co-operatives, but
rather to an environment of political weakness, corruption stemming from
poverty, lack of human rights, and high rates of illiteracy.

All continents have countries suffering from the same, or similar factors
as Rwanda and Burundi: the crazy warlords in former Yugoslavia; the extreme
poverty and corruption in Bangladesh; the extinction of large indigenous
groups in Central America.

But Africa is an entire continent.  Through the ICA we have, for almost 50
years, tried to assist our colleagues in Africa. Last year an evaluation
was made, and guidelines for a new approach, built on hard experiences,
were established. We have to have patience. A perspective of 50 years is
not too long. It will probably take another 30 - 50 years for the
sustainable development of Africa, based not on aid but on its own

My own country also had a long period of poverty and famines. In the middle
of the 19th Century, 20% of the Swedish population had to emigrate because
of land hunger, and people starved to death. Confronted with the problem of
Africa we should all be humble and try to help.

* Mr. Marcus, ICA President since 1984, retires from the presidency in
1995, to take up full-time personal activities.