Cooperative identity today - interview with Martin Lowery

28 Sep 2020

What does cooperative identity mean and how is it relevant today? We talked to Martin Lowery, chair of the ICA Identity Committee to explore how embracing the cooperative identity and values can help to tackle some of today’s greatest issues. Dr Lowery has been involved in the movement for over 30 years and serves as the Chair of the National Cooperative Bank (NCB) and Executive Vice President, Emeritus, of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

You’ve been in the cooperative movement for a long time. What does the cooperative identity mean to you?

Just as every human being has an identity, a self-identity, cooperative enterprises do as well. Cooperatives are people driven, or member driven, and as a member, you actually own it and can make a difference in terms of the direction of the business and the services that are provided. Because it is an ownership model, and people centric.

Do you think the cooperative identity can help us solve some of the global issues such as the 2020 pandemic?

I think that there are a number of aspects of the pandemic that make the cooperative enterprise approach much more important to consider. If you look at the values within the Statement on the Cooperative Identity, particularly those of self-help and self-responsibility, a key point that we’re learning from this horrible situation we face globally is that we are all about self-help and self-responsibility, not only in taking care of ourselves, but also the solutions such as the social distance guidelines that are so necessary to minimise transmission of the virus. Cooperative values sit very well there: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Think about those in relationship to getting past the pandemic and beginning to think what a post-pandemic world will look like. Especially with digital platforms being so critical to our ability to communicate with one another.

Why are the cooperative values so important?

They are unique to cooperatives. When we add the ethical values of honesty, openness, caring for others, and social responsibility, those are values that can be shared by everyone on the globe and should be, but the cooperative values themselves are unique to the cooperative enterprise, and actually define our operating system. The values literally drive the principles that guide us in terms of governance and management and membership involvement and engagement in the cooperative.

What can cooperatives do to promote cooperative values to their members?

The fifth cooperative principle is education, training and information. That is intended to apply to each individual cooperative. Cooperatives do that extraordinarily well, in my opinion. One of the great things about a cooperative is that continuing education, and clearly disseminating information is seen as a very high priority. I would argue that the same thing is true of the ICA. Additionally, Principle 6 - Cooperation among cooperatives, combined with Principle 5, becomes a major part of the agenda of the ICA. Looking at the global network of cooperatives, it is happening today with the pandemic – there’s a great deal of transfer of information that’s occurring among cooperatives globally that makes for a better informed constituency, and hopefully, for a true participation in getting past the pandemic as a global body. The seventh principle, concern for community, is what we’re all about. It’s about quality of life in the local community. So when we look at an inclusive economy, one that is for all people in a community, regardless of race, gender, etc. That is something cooperatives can excel at. There’s an expression about thinking locally and acting globally. You can also reverse that: thinking globally and acting locally. If you look at climate change, that’s exactly what climate action is about, you’re thinking about the global consequences of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but you have to act locally to achieve any reduction. So you’re thinking globally about climate action but the activity has to be done at the local level, which is where individual co-ops take on the responsibility. Climate policy is thinking globally. But climate action is acting locally.

How has ICA evolved over the years to meet the needs of cooperative movements?

I was privileged to have developed a friendship with the late Professor Ian MacPherson of the University of Victoria. He was very instrumental in finalising the 1995 Statement on the Cooperative Identity, focusing on how the values defined the principles. And I learned quite a bit from him, in particular, his view was that the principles are changeable. The values themselves are more eternal or perpetual, but the principles can and should be changed. So when we look at what’s happened in the 25 years since the principles and values have been codified, we have added only the seventh principle, and that was at the point where all the principles came together. Since then we have had a number of thoughts to add an eighth principle, or to modify the existing seven principles. That needs to be embraced, as Professor MacPherson would wish it. As the cooperative movement continues to evolve, new issues and ideas will come forward that need to be addressed. There are continued debates to create an 8th  principle for a sustainable environment, or from another side, on diversity, equity and inclusion. These debates will continue over time, but I think as we engage in those debates, we should recognise that the principles themselves are not inviolate, that they can be changed, they can be modified.

What needs to be done to pave the way for the future of the cooperative movement?

Before the ICA created the Cooperative Identity Committee, there was a Principles Committee that issued guidance notes on the cooperative principles. I would suggest that every cooperative leader, whether a board member, a manager or employee, take a look at those guidance notes and ask whether they fully represent the world as we know it today. I think the answer will be: ‘Not quite’. We should also look at some new language that better reflects the cooperative movement and the changes we’re seeing. We’re seeing significant growth in worker cooperatives. Those types of cooperatives are not all of a single sort. In some cases they’re connected to trade unions and in other cases they are platform cooperatives who are owned by artisans or professional groups like attorneys. So, those kinds of new phenomena are a reason to begin to think about the principles as living guidelines. And that will only be successful if the discussion occurs at the local cooperative to make sure they truly understand and embody the cooperative values and principles. A lot of cooperatives around the world are giving more attention to living the values than living the principles. So there’s an interesting dynamic that’s needed here. So many cooperatives will talk very openly about value systems that they believe in, and may not have been paying sufficient attention to how the principles themselves can guide the way they think about business that they’re delivering or the enterprise that they are offering to their members.

Can you share some of the key achievements that the ICA has accomplished over the last few decades?

In regard to the cooperative identity, I think the greatest achievement is that the Statement exists. And the ICA achieved that – without the ICA there would be no Statement on the Cooperative Identity because there would be no global entity that could bring that forward. So I think that is probably the most important achievement. I also am very intrigued by the resolution that was passed by the General Assembly in Kigali, Rwanda, in November 2019 on positive peace. The whole history of the ICA has been very much associated with peace and harmony in the world. That may sound like a very idealistic statement, until you begin to look at specific examples in Colombia, in Nepal, and other places around the world where cooperatives have been a part of not only conflict resolution, but part of achieving what we call positive peace, meaning the absence of structural violence, the absence of structural impediments to improve quality of life for everyone in the community. I think that resolution will be a very important component of cooperative actions in the coming years because we are seeing a significant rise in conflict situations around the world. The ICA successfully navigated through World War I and World War II as well as the Cold War. And now it is looking at continuing issues, in some cases turmoil around the world, and has a definite role to play in bringing that sense of positive peace to communities, for the sake of humanity.

The full interview is available here.