This document has been made available in electronic format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
Usefulness of Co-op Statistics at the International Level (1997)

June, 1997
(Source: ICA Review, Vol. 90 No. 3, 1997, pp. 67-73)

Usefulness of Co-op Statistics at the International Level
by Arsenio Invernizzi *

The presentation at the end of 1995, and the launching in March 1997, of EU-ICA project 96/014: “Statistics and Information on European Co-operatives” with the financial participation of DG XXIII of the European Commission, sparked the revival of a discussion - more explicit than in previous years - on the strategies and methods to be adopted to provide the ICA with more reliable and comprehensive co-operative statistics at European and, subsequently, at world level in what is hoped will be the near future.

Today the question of the uses of statistics on co-operatives may appear rhetorical. Nevertheless, it is in the author’s view essential to give thought, within both the ICA and individual co-operative movements, to the kinds of data needed at the different geographical or sectoral levels, the methods of obtaining information and, lastly, the role each of the partners should play in future years in order to attain those objectives.

A new programme of collection and compilation of statistics at regional and world levels must obviously be based on an analysis of the present situation. The principal feature of the latter is the heterogeneous nature of the data available. Adequate statistics exist in certain sectors: for example, in the insurance sector, thanks to the work of the International Co-operative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF); in the banking and consumer sectors, especially within the EU, thanks to the data provided by the International Co-operative Banking Association, the European Association of Co-operative Banks and Euro Coop.  A database was recently established by the International Co-operative Fisheries Organization in Japan), whereas in other sectors - and in particular at national levels - statistics are inadequate or non-existent.

In addition, the data available within the numerous centres for the collection and dissemination of information differ according to the source on account of the different methods of collection and processing of the data, the samples selected and the definitions of sectors. Thus until the end of 1996 the ICA was unable to do more than publish estimates of the total numbers of co-operatives in the different countries and continents in which member co-operative movements exist. For instance, it is still difficult to estimate the numbers of co-operatives existing throughout the world by sector of activity.

Moreover, even where partial data does exist, it is hard to come by: for it is not easy to discover where the data is available or how to obtain it; in addition, it is usually contained in publications which are not covered by databases. It is impossible to gain access to it from a distance.

However, certain new developments may enable the ICA and its members to devise a more efficient information and communication strategy programme, one of the basic elements in which would be co-operative statistics. The ICA is experiencing a growing demand from members and from various institutions for data and information on co-operatives throughout the world. In addition, the executive bodies of the ICA and ICA Europe have decided to strengthen this sector of activity, and to that end propose to work more closely with their sectoral organizations and their members. Lastly, new technologies and the regional and world-wide electronic information highways are speeding up the transmission and exchange of information and rendering the process less costly than in the past.

These are the origins of the idea of establishing within the ICA a world-wide “data bank” to which all users concerned will eventually have access.

When speaking of co-operative statistics it should be borne in mind that ultimately all the data comes from co-operative enterprises, which make up the “universe” and are the primary source of all the information. There are several hundred thousand co-operative enterprises (it is impossible at present to calculate the exact number) throughout the world; comprised of hundreds of millions of members (the ICA estimates the number at 750 million, or some 13% of the world population, which was estimated at 5,700 million persons by the UN in 1996); they employ several million persons (it is not known exactly how many, in what sectors they are employed, or whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing); and their aggregate turnover amounts to billions of dollars, even though most of them fall within the category of “small and medium-scale enterprises”.

One might speak of “one big family” comprising several generations: the oldest members are now over 150 years old and include founders of world-wide renown: and all share common values and principles. But this widespread and diversified family has only an approximate knowledge of itself; it is unable to quantify the world-wide weight of the economic and social affairs being carried on within it; and consequently it is sometimes unable to reap maximum advantage from its strength and potential vis-à-vis other, “capitalist” or “public”, forms of management of the world economy and society.

However, the procurement - and even more, the updating - of co-operative statistics on a world-wide basis is not an easy task achievable in the short term.

But the achievement of that aim is precisely what the objective of a large-scale programme should be. It will require a joint effort in which the ICA, its specialized organizations and their respective members will all take part. It presupposes a sound methodological and technological basis for the collection and processing of data; it calls for delegation of responsibilities, equitable allocation of costs and a return in the form of benefits available to the different co-operative movements and the institutions which work with and for them.

All the foregoing is essential for the efficient functioning of a database containing reliable and up-to-date information and statistics which can easily be consulted at any time.

Against this background it appears desirable to instigate joint reflection. I shall confine myself here to outlining the principles and methods which the ICA’s statistical programme should broadly follow, at the same time endeavouring to answer the question put at the outset: “What are the uses of  co-operative statistics today”?

The nature and quantities of statistical data and information which it would be worthwhile having at the geographical and sectoral levels naturally differ in quality and quantity according to the nature and level of the different co-operative  organizations concerned at the geographical level (local, regional, national, continental, world-wide) or the sectoral level (agriculture, industry, services, banking and credit, etc.) within the “co-operative world-wide network”. As was seen earlier, that network consists at its base of thousands of co-operative enterprises, which constitute the primary source of information.

Notwithstanding the great diversity of their size, and of the sectors they cover, the co-operatives existing throughout the world, even though they take different forms deriving from tradition and national legislation, all have control of the management parameters which enable them to function. These items form the subject of daily compilation (ratios and indicators), analysis and verification for the purposes of the decisions to be taken within each enterprise.

Which of the data concerning planning, management and control within an enterprise1 would it be useful to transfer to a higher level (either geographical or sectoral)? The answer will depend, firstly, on the institutional functions (representation, image, political dialogue, lobbying, economic role, etc.) delegated by co-operatives to higher-level bodies2, and secondly, on the national legislation governing co-operatives.

Thus these data and items of information are requested and transmitted upwards through a wide variety of channels:

- to public bodies such as supervisory ministries, statistical offices or research institutions;

- to the different sectoral federations existing within the country concerned, inter-sectoral confederations and continental and world-wide organizations (including the ICA); and in a great variety of forms, by a wide range of methods and for a great diversity of purposes, as there are no standardized information systems in the co-operative sector.

Thus when one attempts to globalize the data available from the different sources the results are rarely reliable or consistent with one another.

These considerations are essential as an introduction to the problem of the type and quality of the statistical data on co-operatives it would be desirable to include in the future ICA database and subsequently to be made available to its members, its specialized organizations and institutions with an interest in the co-operative movement at the national or international levels.

Apart from a small number of corporate co-operatives3 which have the same management data as the enterprises forming part of their group, most of the members of the ICA are federations or confederations with a membership consisting of associated co-operative enterprises ranging in numbers from a few hundred to several thousands.

The problem of having available adequate and reliable co-operative statistics is primarily one of concern to most members of the ICA, even more than to the ICA itself4.  The first consequence is that the ICA will have difficulty in obtaining from its partners statistics which are identical in quality and quantity. In particular, it cannot expect to obtain data which they do not themselves possess, or which they can gather only at unjustifiable effort and expense: for example, the share capital or the reserves or assets of all the member co-operatives of national federations or confederations5.

Thus the task facing the ICA (and also its specialized organizations, even if the data obtainable in an individual sector is more voluminous) is one of selecting the items of information and statistical data essential for the performance of its institutional functions.

These items, which might be deemed “compulsory”, might constitute the “lowest common denominator” for all co-operative movements throughout the world.

Experience seems to confirm that initially the items in question might be the following (by country and sector of activity):

- the number of co-operative enterprises, or of enterprises owned by co-operatives;
- the numbers of their members, individual (by sex if possible) or collective;
- the numbers of employees (by sex if possible) in those enterprises.

Other “optional” data would consist of the economic and social indicators which the co-operative movements consider significant as reflecting the state of the different sectors:

- turnover or market share;
- net premium inflows in the insurance sector;
- for the banking and credit sector, deposits and loans;
- for the housing sector, the numbers of dwellings built or managed; etc.

With regard to these last-mentioned “optional” indicators, no restriction should be placed on the evaluations of co-operative movements; all economic and social data they consider significant should be accepted for inclusion.

In fact, many of these indicators are already available within the sectoral organizations of the ICA and can be verified with their assistance. These organizations obviously need more detailed sectoral data on account of the particular institutional functions assigned to them by their members. For instance, in the insurance sector ICMIF has data concerning the different lines of insurance products offered by its members, distribution networks, consolidated income and balance sheets, operational ratios, etc., for purposes of its activities, in particular those relating to reinsurance products or programmes for exchanges of know-how. In the banking sector ICBA, its regional committees and the European Association of Co-operative Banks have data concerning their associated banks indicating the numbers of counters and giving information on their clientele as well as on deposits and credits. CICOPA and CECOP will need, for the coverage of production and workers’ co-operatives, fairly detailed classifications by sub-sector and technology if they wish to promote exchanges of know-how and cross-frontier co-operation between co-operatives on a world-wide or continental basis. The consumer co-operatives’  organizations (ICCO, Intercoop or Euro Coop) have data on sales areas, the numbers and types of sales points, figures on sales in the food and non-food sectors, etc. One could mention many more examples of data already available which can apparently be exploited only in a close relationship with the institutional functions delegated to higher-level bodies.

Furthermore, if we return to the “institutional mission” underlying the ICA’s information and communication strategy, we arrive at the same result by a different path. It seems to me that the data which is most useful to the ICA in relation to its tasks - co-operative promotion, the defence of co-operative values and principles, the “facilitation” of contacts between co-operatives, the promotion of the co-operative image throughout the world - are precisely and primarily the “compulsory” types of co-operative statistics listed earlier.

Another subject which will give cause for thought at the time of establishment of the ICA’s database is the fact that the data it will contain (received from its members or its specialized organizations) will cover only part - albeit a major part - of the co-operative  organizations existing at national and world-wide levels. In Europe alone there are some 60 co-operative federations or “corporates” which are not members of either the ICA or its specialized organizations. Some of them are members of the organizations representing the sector vis-à-vis the EU in Brussels. But there are many co-operatives, in all parts of the world, which are not members of any higher-level body and are not counted as forming part of the organized co-operative movement, even though they are sometimes included in the statistics produced by the ministries or public bodies responsible for the supervision and control of co-operatives.

What steps must we take to secure the inclusion of the essential data concerning these co-operatives in the international statistics, even classified separately? This problem can be overcome only through closer co-operation between national and/or sectoral co-operative associations and the public institutions responsible for statistics in the different countries of the world.

In any case, the collection and updating of statistics on co-operatives might be considered as a “public utility function” forming a separate element in socio-economic statistics on national or continental economies. This function could be discharged through co-operation between the public bodies and the  organizations representing the co-operative movement. Only by accepting this public utility function - rather than confining themselves to the system’s own internal statistics - can the ICA, its sectoral organizations and its members hope to obtain support and financial assistance for the  organization and management of co-operative databases at the national and international levels.

The financial participation of DG XXIII of the European Commission is a first example. It is to be hoped that similar co-operation can be developed in other regions in the near future.

I will conclude with two observations on the value and limitations of co-operative statistics.

Statistics do not speak for themselves. They must be interpreted - not an easy task when data series comparable in time are not available. To obtain these the closest possible co-operation between the ICA, its specialized organizations and their respective members will be needed. The first sets of complete and reliable statistics - which it is hoped will soon be available - will serve initially to quantify and evaluate the overall weight of the co-operative movement at continental and world-wide levels. Only then, once homogeneous (and thus comparable) data series are available will it be possible simultaneously :

- to demonstrate or confirm trends in the co-operative movement at sectoral or geographical levels throughout the world - sectors expanding, in a state of crisis, undergoing restructuring; new sectors; etc.; and
- to begin making comparisons with developments in other types of enterprises of similar sectors and dimensions.

The ICA will always need to rely on the analyses and comments “emerging” from within co-operative movements at sectoral or national levels so as to be able to identify at the earliest possible moment and to formulate rapidly in summary terms the principal trends developing world-wide.

The second observation relates to the fact that statistics and information on co-operatives in no way detract from the importance of the personal, direct and irreplaceable contacts between co-operators at national and international levels. On the contrary, they may constitute an “initial information base” and promote personal contacts which will be more speedily focused and directed to operational ends and will thereby become more useful to all co-operators wishing to face up to the challenges of the future.


1. I have deliberately used the word “enterprise” instead of “co-operative”, since the analytical techniques are in substance the same for enterprises of similar dimensions and in the same sectors, irrespective of their legal status. However, co-operatives have, or should introduce, auditing systems and indicators of specific “social” follow-up activities deriving from the particular objectives of organizations of individuals established on a popular social basis.

2. The optimum level of delegation in terms of economic and social costs and benefits will be that at which the data transferred matches most closely the functions and responsibilities delegated. If the volume of data transferred is excessive, it will be under-utilized and give rise to unjustified costs; if too little data is provided, there is a danger that the functions assigned to a higher-level body may be discharged in an unsatisfactory manner and that insufficiently well-thought-out decision-making may result.

3. They represent less than 25% of the European members of the ICA.

4. The problem may be overcome by recourse to more advanced statistical methods - for instance, the selection of a restricted but representative sample of enterprises which will enable estimates valid at the national or sectoral level to be made.

5. However, this information becomes available in a much more satisfactory manner where statutory provisions exist requiring co-operative enterprises to communicate such data for tax or balance-sheet audit purposes.

* Mr. Invernizzi is Senior Project Advisor at ICA Headquarters in Geneva.