Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Paul Hazen, the Executive Director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with cooperative and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) policy makers, researchers and practitioners from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work. On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Paul Hazen, the Executive Director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council.

Article | 17 January 2022

Could you tell us a bit about your background?

I am from a rural community in Wisconsin, a state in the northern Midwest of the United States. Cooperatives, ranging from agriculture producer to savings and credit to consumer-owned electricity, telephone, food and insurance, play a central role in rural America.

In 1978, I graduated with a degree in business and economics from the University of Wisconsin and began working for the U.S. Congressman who represented our area. His political base included cooperatives of the region and I accompanied him to many meetings with cooperative members. I came to learn the positive impacts cooperatives had on their members and communities and became intrigued with this business model that operated with a social purpose.

I spent the next decade involved with local government, focusing on community and economic development through cooperatives. In 1987, I joined the staff of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) in Washington, D.C. as the director of Consumer Cooperatives. NCBA is a national apex body, but also has been involved with cooperative development in the developing world since the 1950s. I worked on many domestic and international cooperative development initiatives from Congressional legislation providing funding for rural cooperative development to initiatives promoting cooperative trade from the developing world.

In 1999, I became president and CEO of NCBA, championing cooperation among cooperatives. I worked closely with the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) as a board member on establishing Dot Co-op and the 2012 United Nations International Year of Cooperatives.

After 25 years at NCBA, I became executive director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) in 2012.

What is OCDC? When and how was it born? Who are the members? What are its objectives?

OCDC is a non-profit membership organization organized under U.S. law and regulation. It’s the common table for U.S. cooperatives involved with cooperatives in developing countries to come together so we can speak with one voice to policymakers in the U.S. and around the world.

Prior to the 2012 International Year of Cooperatives, the United Nations identified the lack of cooperative research as a constraint to the effectiveness of cooperatives. OCDC is committed to equitable development, which gave us the impetus to establish the Research Group. OCDC’s International Cooperative Research Group designs, directly undertakes and partners with academic and practitioner partners to carry out rigorous research that helps bridge the gap between theory and practice. It also fosters a learning community, providing resources and information related to cooperative development to OCDC members and the broader international cooperative and development community.

In 1961, the U.S. Congress passed President Kennedy’s Foreign Assistance Act. This legislation created the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to coordinate the country’s foreign economic and humanitarian assistance. Senator and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey offered an amendment supported by Democrats and Republicans that highlighted the role cooperatives could play in developing economies around the world. Sen. Humphrey and other farm state legislators knew the role cooperatives played in developing rural America, and they believed cooperatives could play a similar role in developing countries. Cooperative development then became one of the pillars of U.S. foreign assistance.

To meet this Congressional directive, USAID called on the U.S. cooperative movement for help in developing policy, education, training and technical assistance. In the beginning, an informal advisory committee was formed from each of the sectors: agriculture, savings and credit, insurance, utility and housing. From this emerged cooperative development organizations (CDOs) representing each sector.

Since these organizations had the needed cooperative development expertise, USAID began providing funds for development projects. Eventually, the advisory committee was formalized to become the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council.

Today OCDC has 10 members — ACDI VOCA, Equal Exchange, Frontier Co-op, GENEX, Global Communities, HealthPartners, Land O’Lakes Venture37, NCBA CLUSA, NRECA International, and World Council of Credit Unions. Members include CDOs and cooperative businesses.

OCDC is committed to building a more prosperous world through cooperatives. Its 10 U.S.-based members champion, advocate and promote effective international cooperative development. Together, they promote sustainability and self-sufficiency through local ownership.

What do you think is the role of cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) in improving lives and livelihoods in local communities?

Cooperatives are uniquely suited to address today’s global development challenges. Through a democratic and inclusive business model, and by virtue of their underlying social justice principles, concern for community and dedication to equitable economic growth, cooperatives make an important contribution to building stable economies and societies in today’s most difficult development settings. Amidst challenges to “build back better” post COVID-19, there has never been a better time to increase investment in cooperative development.

Cooperatives are a dynamic force for self-determination, and they contribute to creating communities where all people including women, youth and the most vulnerable have an opportunity to improve their livelihoods. Cooperatives go where for-profit business will not, they provide economic opportunities and services in places that others find unprofitable or too risky. For many poor and isolated people, joining a cooperative is the best option to help them find their way out of poverty and isolation.

In the current context of the changing world, and unfolding crises (natural disasters, conflicts, technological changes), what is the value proposition that cooperatives and other SSE organizations offer?

At a time when democracy is under assault, it’s important to remember the significant role cooperatives play in building and sustaining democracy around the world. Cooperatives offer broad grassroots involvement, local control and ownership to address unfolding crises, as well as the potential to nurture the capacities of individuals and groups to drive the development of their own economies. Cooperative members demonstrate higher trust, which builds strong, healthy democratic communities.

As we search for ways to preserve democracy, it’s important to remember that sustainable democracies grow from within as the people in developing countries gain the capacity to govern for themselves. Cooperatives are an important “learning lab” where members experience democratic governance as they engage in economic development. Local cooperative members learn to vote in cooperative elections, work democratically to achieve change at all levels of their cooperative organization, and advocate at the national level for modernization of laws that govern their cooperatives. As we look for ways to strengthen democracies around the world, the power of the cooperative model to demonstrate and reinforce democratic governance shouldn’t be overlooked.

The recent What Difference Do Cooperatives Make? research initiative across four countries by the OCDC Research Group discovered the following value propositions:
  • Cooperatives were found to provide members with measurable economic benefits, providing members in each country higher average earnings than the national averages.
  • The economic status of women improves considerably by belonging to a cooperative.
  • The cooperative model contributes to the growth of strong and healthy democratic communities.
  • Cooperatives have strong potential to serve as the backbone for post-COVID-19 recovery plans.

What are OCDC’s future plans for improving the recognition, visibility and understanding of cooperatives and wider SSE in the U.S. and globally?

OCDC will ask the Biden Administration and the U.S. Congress for a major increase in funding for the Cooperative Development Program (CDP). USAID’s CDP is a global initiative that strengthens cooperative business and credit unions across multiple sectors throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. The program partners with U.S.-based cooperatives and CDOs for five-year action projects. This quote from a USAID official supports our position:

Partnerships with cooperatives and credit unions are essential to maximize the impact of foreign assistance. Cooperatives are a force for sustainable and inclusive development and are well positioned to address violence, poverty, migration and other long-standing problems in the region."

Mileydi Guilarte, Deputy Assistant Administrator Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean U.S. Agency for International Development
OCDC’s priorities are:
  • Expanding the role of cooperatives through community economic development. Engaging in development work that lays the groundwork for collaboration with local organizations.
  • Expanding the role for agriculture cooperatives to address climate change by promoting Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA).
  • Empowering women through their participation in cooperatives. Research shows that cooperatives are viewed as an economically empowering opportunity for women.
  • Engaging with additional partners locally and globally. Creating a Local Partners program to empower and enhance the capacity of local cooperatives and organizations in developing countries.

Could you tell us about the recognition you received recently?

I recently learned that I’ll be inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame on October 6. Established in 1974 by the NCBA and administered by the Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF), this is the highest honor in the U.S. cooperative movement. Nominations are received annually from the cooperative community. Those selected are inducted to the Cooperative Hall of Fame through a ceremony. While I am humbled and honored to receive this recognition, I know that in cooperatives, it’s our work together that achieves the greatest results.

You can reach OCDC's 2022 policy paper on Cooperatives: Building a More Prosperous, Democratic and Inclusive World here.