ILO COOP Story: a century-long journey in the cooperative world of work (continued) / Igor Vokatch

Comité international des Relations intercoopératives, 9-10 février 1931

ILO COOP Story: a century-long journey in the cooperative world of work (continued) / Igor Vokatch

The 1960-1980s: New responsibilities, new international tools and new challenges

The ILO decided in 1961 that a survey of the current state, and likely development of cooperation throughout the world and the collection of such in a survey of up-to-date world-wide information on the cooperative movement, would be of the greatest value to cooperators and potential cooperators everywhere. The ILO Cooperative Expert Meeting in Geneva, (3-8 December 1962) examined the trends and developments of the cooperative movement throughout the world and made recommendations on future policy. The Revised working paper “Developments and trends in the world cooperative movement” was discussed. The meeting was attended by 13 experts from 13 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and the Near and Middle East.

Since the reorganisation of the Office, which took effect as from the beginning of November 1964, the functions of the Cooperative, Rural and Related Institutions Branch of the Social Institutions Development Department have included questions related to agrarian reform, land settlement, agricultural organisations, government services related to the social and occupational protection of rural populations, indigenous and tribal populations including nomads and semi-nomads, and the institutional aspects of over-all rural development, including community development.

Two years later the 50th session of the General Conference of the ILO adopted Recommendation No 127 concerning the Role of Cooperatives in the Economic and Social Development of Developing Countries on 21 June 1966 by 317 votes to 0, with six abstentions. The ILO Recommendation No 127 mirrored the development concerns of the 1960s, especially in the approach to the role of governments and cooperatives in the development process. The ILO Recommendation No 127 called for Governments to develop a comprehensive and planned cooperative development strategy in which one central body would be the instrument for implementing a policy of aid and encouragement to cooperatives. Government involvement and tutelage were seen as a temporary, but necessary measure. It overemphasized the role of government in cooperative development and weakened the autonomous character of cooperative identity. ILO Recommendation No 127 had set the tone in its observation that cooperatives were powerful instruments for social and economic development and from that time on, the United Nations considered the cooperative sector as an important element of the strategy for the Second United Nations Development Decade.

In addition, the Conference adopted two resolutions on the subject of cooperation. The first drew attention to the need for international cooperative banking to increase the availability of financial aid from international sources for cooperative development. The second invited the international bodies concerned to collaborate to the greatest extent possible amongst themselves and with member States to aid and encourage the cooperative movement of developing countries.

The year 1966 was of special importance to the cooperative movement: the ILO adopted its Cooperatives (Developing Countries) Rec 127, and the 23rd Congress of the ICA held at Vienna, amended the fundamental principles of the movement in the interests of efficiency. Continuing attention was given to cooperatives in developing countries.

Non-conventional forms of cooperation, the reasons underlying the establishment of cooperative enterprise development centres in the developing countries and the influence of Recommendation 127 were discussed by a panel of Experts on Cooperatives who met in Geneva, 28 October-1 November 1968. The experts came to the conclusion that it was too early to assess the consequences of such a far reaching recommendation. However, the framework for the cooperative development policy of the ILO itself was established. In the following period, which lasted 25 years, no further meetings of experts were organized by the ILO on this subject. The Cooperative Branch of the ILO concentrated its efforts on the implementation of technical cooperation projects for cooperative development.

The UN General Assembly adopted on 20 December 1968 a resolution recognizing the important role of the cooperative movement in the development of production and distribution. The resolution asked the ILO, other interested agencies and the ICA to increase their assistance as much as possible in order to reach the desired goal.

In line with the UN General Assembly above-mentioned resolution the ILO through its Cooperative, Rural and Related Institutions Branch was dedicated to assisting cooperatives in all countries in every possible way. About 15 per cent of UNDP funds allocated to the ILO have been spent for assistance to cooperative projects. Cooperative Enterprise Development Centres – independent high-level institutions largely under the control of the cooperative movement – were set up in developing countries (Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Tunisia) with the financial support of the United Nations Special Fund. Regional counsellors have been named for Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Near and Middle East. In addition to the four regional counselors, about 60 experts were working in the field. Since 1952 more than 125 experts in cooperation have worked on projects in nearly 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Near and Middle East.

The 1970s and 1980s: years of further transformation, active international presence and recognition

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ILO assisted a large number of Member states in particular in Africa, to establish cooperatives.

To recuperate the afore documented information, during 50th- 70th the ILO was concerned with virtually all questions that were related to cooperative development, such as cooperative legislation, the promotion of cooperatives by national authorities and other institutions, cooperative education and training, the organisation, financing, management and administration of cooperatives, their unions and federations, inter-cooperative collaboration, relations between cooperatives and their members and staff, the economic and social significance of cooperation in the various branches of a national economy, the role of cooperation in an over-all development plan, the relation between the State and cooperatives, etc.

This cooperative work was facilitated by a panel of international consultants on cooperation comprising 36 members from all parts of the world who placed their experience at the disposal of the ILO in meetings or by correspondence.

In 1971 the Joint Committee for the Promotion of Agricultural Cooperatives was established by FAO, ICA, International Federation of agricultural Producers (IFAP), International Federation of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers (IFPAAW) and ILO. The initiating organizations were soon joined by WOCCU and the UN, and the name changed to the Committee for the Promotion of Aid to Cooperatives (COPAC). The name was again changed in 1988 to its present title-the Committee for the Promotion and advancement of Cooperatives.

In 1974 the FAO held the first World Food Conference in Rome. The Conference noted the importance of cooperatives in food production, and called on governments to promote their development. The collaboration between the FAO and the ILO in the cooperative field was very much facilitated by the existence of a MoU, supplementing the general agreement between these two organizations, which spells out in some detail the respective responsibilities of the two bodies in the cooperative field and describes the modalities of collaboration.  As a concrete follow up of this conference in 1978 was launched ACOPAM “Cooperative and Organizational Support to Grassroots Initiatives” in Western Africa. The project consisted of five phases from 1978 through 1999.

In the 1970s a number of donors massively invested in cooperative training and education. A huge cooperative training project, Materials and Techniques for Cooperative Management (MATCOM), initiated by the ILO with funding from SIDA in 1978. The first year MATCOM was located in the ILO Turin Center. MATCOM consisted of over 40 trainers’ manuals and 60 learning elements targeting different types of cooperatives, economic sectors and management levels, and many of them were translated to over 40 languages. MATCOM project remained active until 1988.

COOPTRADE, sub-regional project in 12 countries of Asia, was designed to assist national cooperative movements with the specific aim of developing international inter-cooperative trading relations between cooperatives in industrialized and developing countries. Its duration was from 1982 to 1984.

All these ILO cooperative programmes and projects were precious laboratories for collecting, analysing and assessing the information available and supplying it to member countries in the form of specialised publications and training materials.

The Seventh African Regional Conference of the ILO in Harare (November-December 1988) deliberated on a report by the ILO DG on “Cooperatives in Africa”. The report examined the experience of the Africa cooperative movement and ILO’s experience in working with cooperatives on the continent, and contemplated the prospects for cooperatives in Africa in the future. The Conference admitted that the state has to withdrew from interventions in cooperatives.

The 1990s: a changing cooperatives’ paradigm

It is possible to say that the “Era of Cooperativism” was over by the beginning of 1990s. The technical cooperation projects led to a rapid growth in number of cooperatives and greatly contributed to the efficiency and the structuring of cooperatives in different sectors. In some developing countries (very often of socialist orientation, but not only) where the role of the governments and political parties focused on the interference in the internal cooperative life and the strong control, cooperatives degenerated into parastatals or mass organizations with social control functions. This very common phenomenon discredited the term “cooperative” in many developing countries and spoiled the image of “state-owned” cooperative.

In 1991 and 1992, the World Bank and the International Cooperative Alliance conducted a regional studies on cooperatives and other rural organizations in Africa. The studies concluded that the policy framework for cooperative development was characterized by government control and state interventionism, thereby compromising the formation and operations of genuine and autonomous self-help organizations. The authors of the studies recommended to free cooperatives from government control and to withdraw excessive state support. These measures were implemented within the context of market liberalization and political democratization as well as of structural adjustment programmes in Africa. The core idea of the structural adjustment programmes was a shift from public to private initiative, financing, management and responsibility.

Because of the new liberal policies of the structural adjustment period, the “unified cooperative model” lost ground and gave way to more diverse and less structured movements.

The donor community-including the cooperative development agencies- concluded that, unlike before, far more attention should be given to cooperative development outside existing and formal cooperative structures. The consequence was that it was not only governments who withdrew from the cooperative scene, but also the donor community. The direct support projects at the grassroots level were abandoned. The few technical cooperation projects were more concentrated on the legislative, policy and institutional reforms as well as on the capacity-building programs.  Some of the technical cooperation projects were reoriented from the traditional assistance to the partnerships and other innovative approaches more in line with a new cooperative landscape.

The above mentioned changes affected the ILO policy towards cooperatives, including technical cooperation issues. After 1966 the year of adoption of the Recommendation 127 in the following period which lasted 25 years no further meetings of cooperative experts were organized by the ILO on this subject. Only in 1993 the ILO convened another worldwide meeting of experts on cooperatives. The role of such expert meetings was to advise the DG of the Office in the preparation of subjects relevant to the International Labour Conference. The experts were of the opinion that Rec. 127 had contributed significantly to cooperative development in the countries concerned. The text of the Recommendation, however, should be revised in the light of changes in the democratization, structural adjustment etc…

At the same time new huge ILO cooperative programs like INDISCO program (the program contributed to the Global Employment Agenda to include indigenous and tribal peoples as special target groups for job creation programs) and COOPNET program (which deals with cooperative human resource development, management and networking with cooperative organizations and institutions) funded by DANIDA started in 1993. INTERCOOP (International network of cooperative trade partners) was one of the first cooperative projects in Africa aimed at the promotion of fair trade between African and European countries.

All along its history, the Cooperative Branch has assisted the constituents of the ILO and cooperative organizations to improve cooperative policy and law. In the 1950s cooperative law started to be an integral part of numerous technical cooperation projects. The cooperative policy and legislation establishing the framework for the cooperative development policy of the ILO was another very important aspect of the ILO cooperative activities. As mentioned above the adoption of the ILO Cooperatives (Developing Countries) Recommendation 127 marked a decisive step for cooperative policy and law. A large COOPREFORM program (Structural reform through improvement of cooperative development policies and legislation) focused the reform of cooperative policies and laws and started to systematize its work on cooperative law. This led to complementing the already existing tools of the Cooperative Branch with two tools, one on how to elaborate a cooperative policy, the other one on cooperative legislation. In parallel with the technical cooperation the ILO provided advisory services on cooperative legislation which was one of the issues Recommendation 127 focused on.

ICA President Lars Marcus addressed the ILO at its 75th anniversary conference in 1994. He discussed the close collaboration of the two organizations and commented the ILO for its support of cooperatives.

In May 1995 the ILO convened another worldwide Meeting of Experts on Cooperative Law at ILO headquarters in Geneva, at which the impact of Recommendation No. 127 was further discussed. The meeting was mainly focused on cooperative legislation.

The first Saturday of July 1995 was declared for the first time the International Cooperative Day for the UN system. The ILO continues to this day as the only specialized agency of the United Nations with an explicit mandate on cooperatives.

In March 1999, at its 274th Session, the Governing Body decided to include in the agenda of the 89th Session (2001) of the International Labour Conference the question of the promotion of cooperatives, with a view to adopting a revised standard in the year 2002.

In October 1999, ILO sponsored an International symposium on Trade Unions and the Informal Sector in Geneva at which cooperative-trade union joint strategies in the informal sector were prominently featured. Out of discussions the frame of the SYNDICOOP (Poverty Alleviation for Unprotected Informal Economy Workers through Trade Union-Cooperative Joint Action) project was elaborated. Its aim was to improve the working and living conditions of unprotected informal economy workers through pilot projects designed to create decent work and incomes by strengthening the capacity of trade unions and cooperatives so that can work together in the informal economy.

ILO COOP in the 21st century: new legal basis and new perspectives

The COOP Branch developed in January 2001 a one page “vision statement” that since has been useful in guiding the work of the branch. It was stipulated in this document that “Five years from now the cooperative image will have been rejuvenated, and the cooperative brand will be synonymous with high ethical standards and human dignity”

The 90th Session of the ILC adopted the Recommendation No 193 concerning the promotion of cooperatives. The new Recommendation was adopted on 22 June 2002.

The new Recommendation revised and replaced the Cooperatives (Developing Countries) Recommendation, 1966. The new Recommendation reflected all significant changes in the social-economic environment in which cooperatives have to operate. Recommendation 193 is the first and only instrument of universal applicability on cooperative policy and law adopted by an international governmental organization. It is universal in its scope and application. Recommendation 193 is the nucleus of the public international cooperative law. All subjects of public international law, and especially the addressees of the Recommendation, namely the governments of the ILO Member States, the Employers’ and Workers’ organizations, as well as the Cooperative organizations have to respect the content of the Recommendation.

Since 2002, the ILO has been disseminating the Recommendation in partnership with the ICA in order to promote a better understanding of cooperatives and provide guidance on appropriate policy. The text of the Recommendation was sent out to all ICA member organizations. The Recommendation was translated into 34 languages. The ILO organized briefing visits to FAO, IFAD, the European Commission, bilateral donors and many UNDP country offices. 7 global meetings and conferences were organized by ILO and its partners. 20 Regional and 28 National conferences and meetings were organized. Advisory services based on the new Recommendation were provided to 23 countries. A training pack Promoting Cooperatives: A practical campaign guide to ILO Recommendation 193 was launched at the UK’s Parliament in July 2004. The promotional process goes together with concrete applications of the Recommendation.

In the context of an increasing interest to the cooperative legislation the Office commissioned the second edition of the Guidelines for Cooperative Legislation in2005. The current version of the Guidelines for Cooperative Legislation (third revised edition) translated into French, Spanish and Russian, centers even more than the previous one on ILO Recommendation 193 whose juridical value has since increased through the adoption of a series of national, regional and international instruments, like the Uniform Cooperative Act on Cooperative Societies of OHADA, the Organization for the harmonization in Africa of business law, the EU Regulation on the Statute for a European Cooperative Society (SCE) 1435/2003, the Mercosur Common Cooperative Statute and the Framework law for the cooperatives in Latin America (Ley marco par alas cooperativas de America Latina).

The new Recommendation introduced a number of significant changes which affected the work of the office. Since the ILO Cooperative Branch adopted a more balanced approach as far as regions and types of cooperatives. The work focused on core issues like legal and policy advisory services, research and publications. The Branch worked also on cross-cutting issues in relation to cooperatives and other technical points on the ILO Decent Work Agenda.

This period is characterized by the close collaboration between the ILO and the ICA. In 2003 the ILO Director-General participated in the ICA General Assembly in Oslo. The ILO and the ICA signed a MoU on the 10th February 2004 to implement a “Common Cooperative Agenda aimed at creating decent jobs and reducing poverty. The MoU in question was extended in 2013. Another memorable event was the launch by ILO and ICA of a Global Campaign against Poverty in 2005. The ultimate goal of this campaign was to make a significant contribution to poverty reduction by using the full potential of cooperatives in MDG achievement particularly with regard to reducing poverty by half by the year 2015.

Technical cooperation is still an important element, but its volume has considerably diminished in the last years. Technical cooperation has moved from direct technical support to the development of new tools and approaches that effectively combine business efficiency with different innovative trends.

The Cooperative Facility for Africa (COOPAfrica) an innovative technical cooperation programme of the ILO, principally financed by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) from end 2007 to mid-2012   reflected very well the progress and new tendencies of the cooperative approaches in the field. As a regional programme, CoopAfrica focused on nine countries Sub-Sahara Africa. It anchored its approach within national and regional development priorities tailoring its activities to feed into national frameworks, as well as within the ONE UN reform. It embraced a multi partner approach with the aim of optimizing its results by working with the African Union Secretariat, the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC), the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), the International Organization of Employers (IOE) and its Pan-African Employers Confederation (PEC), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa) and the UK Cooperative College.

In 2010 a report of the Committee of Experts on the application of Convention and Recommendations included a review of Recommendation 193. The report, “General survey concerning employment instruments”, was submitted to and adopted by the 99th session of the International Labour Conference. It provided a first appreciation of the application and implementation of Recommendation 193.

New contacts were established with the universities and research institutions involved in the cooperative promotion. A number of talented students were recommended by these institutions for the internship in COOP.

Since 2010 the ILO Cooperative Branch came up with a challenging initiative to revive the once but never accomplished work on the development of the system of cooperative statistics. This work was supported by the ILO Department of Statistics and the issue of statistics on cooperatives was included as the item for discussion at the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians which was held in Geneva in 2013. Delegates expressed the need to have more comprehensive and internationally comparable statistics on cooperatives, and encouraged the ILO to introduce the topic for more in-depth discussion at the 20th ICLS planned to take place in October 2018.

The year 2012 was proclaimed by the United Nations the International Year of Cooperatives. The IYC has generated great momentum on issues related to cooperatives around the world. The ILO with its Cooperative Branch played a key role in the celebration of the International Year of Cooperatives as a member of the Coordinating Committee and the only UN specialized agency with an explicit mandate on cooperatives.  The ILO Director-General issued statements throughout the year highlighting the links between cooperative businesses and decent work. The ILO also ensured high-level participation in International Years of Cooperatives events.

In our days in compliance with the overall goals of the ILO the activities of Cooperative Unit consist mainly in providing the advisory services and assistance in cooperative policy, legislation, training and education, research and publications, international meetings, business development, networking and coordinating regional and interregional technical cooperation programs and projects in the frame of the implementation of the 2002 ILO Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation No 193.

Many more interesting facts, dramatic and enjoyable events reflecting the fascinating history of the ILO COOP could be recalled and documented. However, the author of this article would humbly like to stop here and give the privilege to continue to his young colleagues who will take over and continue the ILO COOP story…


Le coopérateur Albert Thomas : E.Poisson, 1933

Historical Dictionary of the cooperative movement. Jack Shaffer 1999

La république cooperative. Théories et pratiques cooperatives au XIX et XXe siècles : Jean-François Draperi 2012

Un coopérateur réaliste:Jeorges Fauquet, Annecy 1969

Different articles on cooperation in the “International Labour Review”

Reports and Documents on cooperation of the ILO Conferences and Meetings.



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