This document has been made available in electronic format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
ICA and the Global Dimension (1997)

June, 1997
(Source: ICA Review, Vol. 90 No. 3, 1997, pp.39-42)

ICA and the Global Dimension

On the morning of Tuesday, 16 September, the General Assembly will feature a seminar on the theme of how co–operatives can be more effective in dealing with global perspectives and issues.

Guest speakers from United Nations and various civil society organisations will make presentations and participate in panel discussions.  The texts of their interventions will be published in a subsequent issue of the ICA’s Review of International Co-operation.

The discussion will be led by Dr. Yehudah Paz*, a member of the ICA Board and chairman of the ICA’s Global HRD Committee.  His introductory paper on the concepts and themes to be discussed during this seminar follows:

It is now close to a decade since our Stockholm congress took place in 1988.  There, in Tokyo in 1992, and in Manchester in 1995, our emphasis was on looking inward.  We reshaped our structure to create a regional framework;  we re-examined and redefined our nature, a process which culminated in the statement of co-operative identity.  In these ways we re-established our co-operative body and spirit so as to enable us to respond to the challenges and maximize the possibilities for progress in the new millennium.

However, if we are to truly achieve this goal then a further dimension is required:  the outward-looking compliment to our successful, now essentially completed, inward-looking endeavour.  We have recognised this need by including topics such as “concern for the environment” and “sustainable human development” on previous congress agendas.  Now we should proceed even farther forward.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the ICA and its co-operative members ought to be rooted locally, structured effectively, defined meaningfully and prepared to think and act globally.  This paper deals with an approach to the global issue and the ramifications for the ICA.

Co-ops and the Global Perspective
Three factors make the global perspective significant for co-operatives, their members and their international and regional organisations.

First, a paradox:  our global society is moving simultaneously in both centrifugal and centripetal directions.  Economics, communication, transportation, and information flow move all of us precipitously towards even greater global-village interdependence;  the search for roots, for identity, for cultural, national, ethnic, and religious self-definition all intensify our focus and concern with our community, with “home”.  Co-operatives, rooted locally but linked together at national, regional and global levels can potentially serve as a solution to this paradox.
Secondly, as a result of the above mentioned centrifugal-centripetal paradox and for other reasons as well, we are witnessing a growing power shift, again in two directions.  The nation-state is yielding some of its power and control “up” to international bodies and “down” to local and community-centred ones.  Once again co-operatives are well-placed to act significantly.  The co-operative’s community relevance is apparent;  our global ICA can play a role of growing importance in the world of international institutions.

Lastly, we are witnessing a further realignment of power, namely the emergence of the civil society.  This grouping of voluntary, non-governmental bodies now constitutes the third (albeit shorter and weaker) leg of a triangle of societal power whose two other legs are the institutions of government (national and international) and the economic, financial and business frameworks.  The “civil society” is already a recognised partner when dealing with the environment, with sustainable human development, with the population and the family, and with human rights.  Co-operatives—at home and globally through the ICA—have the potential to be a major component of the civil society, particularly in view of the fact that the ICA is the largest, one of the oldest and probably the most universal of NGOs.
To sum up:

1.  ICA and its co-operative members have virtually completed an effective, inward-looking process of restructuring and redefinition.

2.  The ICA and its co-operative members have the potential to play a significant role in three major societal developments:  the centripetal-centrifugal paradox;  the shift of power “up” from the national level to international bodies and “down” to local and community institutions;  and the emergence and growing significance of the civil society.

3. By “looking outward” the ICA and its co-operative members can enhance the role of co-operatives in their communities and can play an important part in shaping tomorrow’s society.
4. By doing so the ICA and its co-operative constituents gain strength and reorganisation, and will be able to better serve members and respond to their needs and aspirations.

Issues for Thought & Discussion
How can the ICA play a more significant role in its interaction with international bodies? ICA, with its 750,000,000 members, is the world’s largest NGO framework.  Its membership is global.  Co-operatives are important realities in industrial, newly industrial, developing and “in-transition” nations and co-operative activity extends over a wide range of economic, social and cultural concerns.  Yet the presence, weight, and influence of the ICA in the world of international institutions is in no measure proportionate either to its strength or to its potential contribution.  This is true of UN institutions, of the ILO with which the ICA has a special, recognised position, and of important regional formations such as the European Union.

The ICA has already expressed its concern for and desire to be involved in global issues such as environmental well-being, sustainable human development, and peace.

The report of the Secretary General of the United Nations and the UN statement issued on International Co-operative Day clearly express a high evaluation of the role which co-operatives play in regard to these and other global concerns.  High-level UN officials indicated that there exists a readiness, and indeed an interest, in working with the ICA in a number of areas.  We must now develop policies, programmes, and approaches that will help the ICA gain its rightful place and weight in global and regional institutions.  This is important for us as well as for the future of the global society.

How can the ICA become a more active and more effective part of the civil society? We are one of the largest, most extensive, and oldest components of the civil society.  As the civil society advances towards a position of full partner in societal leadership, our potential significance within its ranks grows ever more apparent.  We are global in geographic spread, we are engaged in a broad range of economic and social activities, and we function in virtually every sociopolitical setting.  We are experienced in democratic, participatory organisation and have built up a range of interlocking local-to-global institutions.

We have, from our birth up to our most recent congress, defined ourselves through our value commitment and by principles designed as guidelines that enable us to translate these values into practice.  We are a practical, enterprise-oriented example of how people can be empowered.  Within this new and promising frame of reference we can and should be of greater significance than is presently the case.

One of the keys to achieving this is through forging alliances.  We ought to make an effort to do so with those whom we share a significant degree of affinity.  Such alliances can be more than a mere framework for joint endeavours directed outwards;  they can also involve exchanges of practical experience, ideas, approaches, and even hopes and dreams.
It may be of use to set out a partial list of potential allies within the varied ranks of the civil society.

One would seek to strengthen ties with our “near-relatives”, including people-centred enterprises, pre-co-operatives, worker-owned enterprises, mu-tualities of various kinds, etc.

We might open dialogue with major community-focused organisations, that is with those who seek greater scope for local economic initiatives and wider local control of social services.

The trade unions, who share with us an international scope, could also be important allies in a number of areas.

The women’s groups—which are one of the most effective and most significant of the civil society’s components—can be important allies.  Alliances with them would be a further expression of our own concern with a commitment to gender equality.

Our growing recognition of the importance of drawing young people into our ranks gives added importance to the search for alliances with appropriate youth groups in the civil society.

Of special significance are the potential alliances which grow up out of common economic interest—such as those with farmers’ organisations, consumer-protection frameworks and others.

The growing concern of co-operatives around the world with environmental protection leads naturally to a search for alliances with ecologically-focused groups. We ought to forge alliances within the civil society so as to work together for the realisation of shared values;  so as to develop practical programmes for joint activities;  so as to increase awareness of co-operatives and of their significance today, particularly in terms of people’s empowerment and decentralised governance;  so as to allow us to have greater influence in shaping the areas where civil society will use its growing power.

Two areas of thought and activity ought be considered as important aspects of ICA’s present-day “global dimension”:  one, an enhanced emphasis on ICA interaction with and presence within international and regional institutions, frameworks, and bodies;  two, increasing co-operative influence and activity within the civil society at local, national, regional and international levels.  The forging of alliances with appropriate partners is an important aspect of this approach.

The global dimension is of realistic and immediate concern.  We must never forget that the ultimate aim is to strengthen co-operatives at every level so that they can more effectively fulfil their essential function—service to and for their members.

* Dr. Paz is the former Director and Principal  of the International Institute Histadrut in Israel. He is author of numerous articles and studies in Hebrew and English.