President's Message

President's  Message


Dear Co-operative Friends,

Last year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first modern consumer
co-operative, the one in Rochdale, just outside Manchester in the North of
England. A new era started this year and  Manchester will offer the venue
of the Centennial Congress of our International Co-operative Alliance
(ICA), when I will step down after having had the honour of serving as your
President for the last eleven years.

During the last two decades the number of co-operators united in the ICA
has almost doubled: today it already exceeds 750 million individual members
at grass-roots level. Besides traditional co-operatives of consumers,
farmers and workers, we now experience growth in many service areas such as
energy, health and tourism.

To all its members the ICA offers a network of contacts and know-how, but
also takes on part of the responsibility for coordinating co-operative
growth in the developing world.

Recent data have clearly shown our contribution to the world economy. These
prove the global expansion and important role of our movement, but also
indicate areas where setbacks have taken place. To understand this process
you have to interpret the general trends in the global economy as well as
political changes at the national level.

I will not touch upon the growth of multinational markets and the problems
they cause to co-operatives, which by nature are local and national. I
prefer to limit myself to the situation of co-operatives facing political
changes, often in an environment which is hostile to the ideology of mutual
aid and solidarity among ordinary people in economic affairs.

A recent example is offered by the Italian movement. Of course we all know
of the economic corruption and political decay which exists in Italy. And
we are not hypocrites. We know that the same type of corruption can exist
in any socioeconomic system, in some countries more, in others less.

Lega Nationale delle Cooperative e Mutue (LEGA)  is an apex organisation of
several sectorial co-operatives. Some of them specialize in construction
and their leaders evidently fell for the temptation to pay bribes in order
to secure work from the public sector. Investigations are being carried on.

In a country where it is almost a tradition for corrupt politicians to take
bribes, this unfortunate fact has been ruthlessly used for political
purposes. First of all, the general picture of co-operatives as honest
enterprises has been sullied. Secondly, this is used to hide much more
discriminating facts about the building industry and thirdly, a process of
joining forces between Lega and the other co-operative apex organisation
Confederazione Cooperative Italiane is obviously perhaps seriously
disturbed.

Italy, so long divided between the left and socialist forces on one side
and Christian Democrats on the other, has at present been put under a rule
where the extreme right and the populist voice of the media mogul
Berlusconi look upon co-operatives as a suitable target for discriminating
actions. To me it seems that this coalition presents a grave danger as long
as the voters are not able to identify an attractive democratic
alternative, and co-operatives as a part of an economic democracy are
likely to suffer if they do not fight back.

A situation like this is not uncommon in the ICA membership. It is easy to
compare  this situation with what happened in Eastern and Central Europe,
although there the situation was reversed; co-operatives which existed
before the era of communism were not allowed a return to democratic forms.
Member property was regarded as public property and in some cases sold to
speculators.

This situation is also well known in Africa; take Kenya, long regarded as a
democratic and market-oriented alternative on a continent where one-party
systems, military governments and tribal complications followed upon each
other. Co-operatives in Kenya  have also been looked upon as a part of the
economy that belongs to the Government power structure.

This is also well known in Latin America as long as a country is under
military rule.

In many cases, ICA members turn to the Alliance for help as a last resort.
So far, our Italian friends have not done this. They have some hope and
they are building alliances with other democratic elements in Italy. This
is in the true co-operative spirit. Self-aid is self-aid, but it should be
added that the ICA has been able to assist and represent movements under
threats. We have some political means at our disposal because all
governments understand that their reputation will suffer if the  alliance
members turn against them at international fora.


Lars Marcus