Today is July 2. It is the International Day of Co-operatives – the 100th one in fact. It is a day of celebration – to show people in the UK and across the world about the unique contribution of co-operatives to our vision to ‘build a better world through co-operation'.
Now that’s a big ambition… to build a better world. But that’s our vision, and that’s what we empower co-operatives to do, business better through co-operation. Co-operatives have people at their heart. They serve their members’ needs. They’re built on a bedrock of values and principles. They give people ownership and control; people who are close to the business and not distant shareholders in it purely for profit.
Housing, community pubs, major high street retailers... All sorts of businesses across all sorts of sectors, all positively impacting on lives. And that’s just in the UK.
This year, I was honoured to be appointed the Chair of the International Co-operative Working Group (ICWG). It's a group comprising figures from leading UK co-ops and infrastructure bodies, including the Co-operative College tasked with delivering impact across the world. The ICWG supports the successful alignment and planning of international activity across the UK movement – and ensures value for our members in line with co‑operative principles.
As we celebrate the 100th International Day of Co-operatives I want to highlight the impact the UK’s co-operatives beyond these shores, with a focus on a few distinct areas. They range from disaster relief projects which help those in desperate need to uplifting international projects which improve people’s livelihoods each and every day.
One of our biggest members, Central England Co-operative, has launched a new initiative today which promises to be a real game-changer in Malawi. It’s a programme to directly support co-operatives in the African nation – one of the world’s poorest – with co-op members in Malawi playing a leading role.
Investment in Malawi will be generated from a unique fund with a percentage of all Central England’s Fairtrade product sales will fund the investment in what will be a five-year pilot. This life-changing initiative which also involves the Co-operative College and other partners has a very clear vision, spear-headed by CEO Debbie Robinson, which is quite simply, but very ambitiously ‘to take Malawi out of poverty’. Now that’s a plan to build a better world through co-operation! Even if they get halfway there, the impact from this ambition will be significant.
As part of the ICWG our role has been to co-ordinate the immediate emergency aid relief in Ukraine more than £1 million has been raised by co-op members going directly to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. It’s an incredible amount raised by customers and used to provide on the ground support. We’ve also been establishing contact with co-operatives in both Ukraine and Poland to provide direct support to re-build their business, when they are in a position to do so.
I was totally inspired by the strength of the international co-operative movement as demonstrated through our work in India last year - providing funds for emergency supplies and to help co-operatives rebuild during the Covid crisis. More than £100,000 was donated via SEWA, the Co-operative Federation in India, which works with 106 women’s co-ops. At incredibly short notice funds reached co-ops on the ground, providing essential supplies including masks, paracetamol, and oxygen. Funds also directly helped these female-led Indian co-ops rebuild in a sustainable way.
The ICWG has also worked to support the local economy in Mexico. Migration, trafficking, lack of economic opportunities, climate change – all huge issues in Mexico which we’re helping combat through the ‘resilienca cooperative, Mexico’ project. In the heart of the Lacandona jungle, the project is enabling tourism routes in a sustainable and proficient way. Promoting fair trade coffee production is another way the project is helping transform ways of working.
Those are just some of the highlights of what the UK co-operative movement is doing to promote co-operation in tackling big issues; big problems and big solutions. You can’t help but be moved by our impact; the stories which emerge from international co-operation.
For me, as Chair of the ICWG, we have to enable, amplify and report this impact. We're still in our early days, but a more co-ordinated approach will multiply our impact.
So let’s celebrate co-operative impact on the International Day of Co-operatives – but also let’s commit to placing even more focus on what we can achieve, at home and on the international stage, by working together more effectively and building a better world through co-operation.