ILO COOP 100 Interview

Interview with Edgar Parnell, Cooperative Practitioner

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marks its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series features past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO's work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). The interviews reflect on their experience and contributions in the past and shares their thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work.

Article | 27 May 2020

How did you get interested and involved in cooperatives?

Discovering how I became involved in cooperatives means going back to a time before I was born. My father, as soon as he could ride a bicycle, got an after-school job delivering orders from the local consumer cooperative. The manager recognized his work ethic and told him that when he left school, he could have a full-time job in the cooperative shop. Sadly, my grandfather died when my father was only 12 years old. As a consequence, he was forced to leave school immediately and take a job in the steelworks to help out with the family finances. He always vowed that no son of his would work in heavy industry. So, when it came to the time when I left school, at the age of 15, while most of my classmates found employment in the steel or the chemical industries, I took a job in our local retail cooperative.

When I started work, in 1953, UK retail cooperatives were still dominant in most towns and had a strong presence in most cities. At that time, they had a national education system and local cooperatives had education committees. This system provided me with induction training, local evening classes and distance learning courses for four years. After which I gained a scholarship as a full-time student at the Cooperative College in the UK. This was probably the most significant experience of my life.

My year at the Cooperative College gave me not only an overall understanding of how to run cooperatives, but in addition a unique social and cultural education. This primarily because at the College there was a mixture of UK and overseas students from around 20 different countries. We had communal rooms, and, in each room, there were both local and international students. From that time onwards, I understood the international nature of cooperative enterprise.

You have worked with cooperatives and other Self-Help Enterprises (SHEs) in different countries and in different capacities. Could you share with us highlights of your work with cooperatives and SHEs?

My work with cooperatives and other types of self-help enterprises (SHEs) has been in three main phases, in each I have focussed on particular types and activities of this form of enterprise. Although, I have often found myself involved with a wider variety of cooperative activities even when working in specific roles.

The first phase of my working life was in cooperative retailing. I first managed individual shops when I was a 17-year-old. Following my two-year national service in the Royal Airforce and my year at the Cooperative College, I moved into senior management. First as the personnel manager for a large retail Cooperative and managing groups of shops and department stores. All in England, where my main role was to help turnaround cooperatives that were failing to adapt to a rapidly changing market.

It was in my capacity as a cooperative retailer, that in 1966, I went to Bechuanaland, which became the Republic of Botswana a few months after I got there. This new state came into existence at an exceedingly difficult time for its people. They were experiencing a prolonged period of drought, most people lived in poverty, and their neighbour apartheid riven South Africa was coveting their potential mineral wealth. British retail cooperatives were approached to help support cooperative development in the new republic, in response they raised money to assist the start-up of cooperative shops. My main task was to create a cooperative development trust and to help set up at least one cooperative shop in each of the ten tribal capitals. In addition, the Trust helped cattle marketing societies, credit and savings societies and handicrafts cooperatives.

Trevor Bottomley, as the nation’s first registrar of cooperatives (later to become head of education at the ICA) initiated the country’s first cooperative law, and launched an impressive national cooperative education programme. Within two years cooperative shops, with the support of a cooperative wholesale operation, became the nation’s main retailer.

At the time, I was aware of the ILO Recommendation 127 on Co-operatives (Developing Countries), which was adopted in 1966. Shortly after I left Botswana the ILO established a national cooperative development centre.

On my return to the UK, I became a retail consultant, first working with independent footwear retailers, in effect setting-up a management services and information sharing cooperative. Then I worked as a consultant for English retail cooperatives employed by the central wholesale cooperative (CWS). Later, when many retail cooperatives in Scotland were in difficulties, they were merged into the Scottish CWS, I was given the task of running cooperative shops and department stores throughout Scotland.

I resumed international development work when I went as an advisor in Jamaica for the British government's Overseas Development Department. This with the intention that I help revive their consumer cooperatives. It transpired that by the time I got to Jamaica their government had first nationalised the main sugar estates and then committed to turning them into worker cooperatives. So, I found myself working with the Jamaican Cooperative Department on developing the necessary rules, structures, systems and helping to training directors and managers for the new sugar cooperatives.

On my return from Jamaica, I worked with a charity that encouraged the development of handicraft producer groups in developing countries, helping them to improve their products and find markets for them. Among the new markets was a new international handicrafts retail store in the centre of London.

Next, I was assigned by the ILO to work with consumer cooperatives in India, on a project designed to help build a consultancy capacity to support their retailing and wholesale operations. This project, administered from New Delhi, had a regional presence in Chennai (formally known as Madras) and Kolkata (formally known as Calcutta). I, along with a Swedish colleague, was based in Kolkata, West Bengal state, but also worked in a number of other states in India.

When I came back to the UK, I started the second phase of my involvement with cooperatives, working for the Oxford based Plunkett Foundation, where I focused on agricultural cooperatives. My work involved supplying training, advisory and representational services for UK farmers’ cooperatives, as well a supporting cooperative development internationally. Much of the work involved capacity building for cooperative directors and managers. The scope of the work was wide and varied, it included managing cooperative development projects in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Later, as many state agricultural marketing boards were abolished, not only in the UK but also other countries such as Australia and New Zealand; here my work involved helping cooperatives to respond to this change. When communist states in central and eastern Europe began to collapse, much of our project work switched to these countries. Most of my own work took place in Poland and Russia.

When I relinquished my role as CEO of the Plunkett Foundation in 1998, I continued to work as a consultant for the Foundation, but also did work in an individual capacity on behalf of the ICA and ILO; I will say more about this later.

In 2003, I stopped accepting paid consultancy work and spent eight months as a volunteer in the Department of Agrarian Reform of the government of the Philippines. After which, I entered the third phase of my work relating to cooperatives, when I began reviewing my life’s work in an attempt to discover why cooperatives, and many other types of self-help enterprise, reach a peak and then decline. For example, consumer cooperatives in Europe (and in many other countries outside of Europe too) reached their peak in the 1930’s and declined close to extinction by the 1970’s. A similar pattern can be observed in credit unions over a comparable period of years but in a different timeframe. As a practitioner, as distinct from an academic, I have sought to bring my conclusions to the attention of other practitioners, making use of publications, websites and, more recently, videos.

Could you tell us more about your cooperation with the ILO on cooperative development across the years?

My first direct involvement with the ILO was through my assignment in India, as mentioned earlier. It was when I was representing the Plunkett Foundation at meetings of the ICA, when it too was based in Geneva, that I made more regular contact with the ILO COOP team. This especially in 1998 and 1999, while I was working on an organizational review of the ICA, preparing an outline strategy for the 21st century.

In 2000, I worked on the preparation of a study and report on The Role of Cooperatives and Other Self-Help Organizations in Crisis Resolution and Socio-Economic Recovery. Interestingly, this report may prove to have a new relevance as cooperatives respond to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

In 2001, I again worked with the ILO on a joint project with the ICA, drafting a study with concrete proposals for an international virtual cooperative learning centre. Also, in 2001, I worked with the ILO, on the preparation of a report on the proposed ‘Recommendation’ concerning the promotion of cooperatives for the General Conference of the International Labour Organization, which led to the adoption of the ILO Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193) that replaced the ILO Co-operatives (Developing Countries) Recommendation, 1966 (No. 127).

What do you think is the value added of the ILO in promoting and advancing cooperatives?

I know that it is important to understand that ILO COOPworks within the framework set by the principles guiding ILO’s broader remit. As a member of the UN family, the ILO has a status that allows it to speak to its tripartite membership and is in a unique position to advocate standards for cooperatives and other self-help enterprises (SHEs) worldwide. Clearly, this is most useful in the realms of legislation and guidance on broad public policy issues. Encouraging governments to adopt a positive public policy framework for cooperatives is a most useful function. For example, by encouraging the practical application of Recommendation 193, and setting minimum standards in terms of legislation for cooperatives, standardisation in collecting statistical data and getting proper recognition of cooperatives as an important form of enterprise within any economy, in particular in the national educational curriculum.

A major advancement achieved in R193, when compared with R127, was the fact that it is intended that it applies equally in in all countries not just those regarded as being in development.

Unfortunately, decision-makers in many of the so-called advanced adopting economies still have a degree of arrogance when it comes to recommendations. A good example is to be found in the UK where there is no proper protection for the term ‘cooperative’, as a result, the British ‘Cooperative Bank’ continues to use the name ‘cooperative’, despite the fact that it is now owned by international investors.

In my view, there is much to be done by all those working in and supporting cooperative enterprises to give much wider recognition to the importance of the ILO’s role in setting international standards. Including some new areas, for example, international accounting standards which are specific to cooperatives and other SHEs.

The world of work is changing rapidly. In addition to technology, climate and demographic changes, there is the current public health crisis that has dramatic implications for the world of work. What role do you think cooperatives and the wider social work solidarity economy have to play in responding to these changes?

Throughout the world, the changes now facing current and future generations are likely to be more fundamental than those in any previous century. The main danger is that the changes driven by technological advances, in particular the misuse of artificial intelligence (AI), the demographic changes and climate change, are all most likely to adversely affect the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. The combined result of all the changes mentioned are likely to destroy livelihoods, worsen living conditions and hasten the further concentration of wealth into fewer hands. The current health crisis is going to accelerate the negative result of the impending changes, that is unless the crisis provokes a response from large numbers of people who are ready to take greater control over their lives.

Significant intervention by enterprises, owned and controlled by ordinary people, that truly serve the interest of their members, offer the best hope of lessening the adverse outcomes forecast. Cooperatives will need to clearly demonstrate that they really do get a better deal for their members, that they will always act in the best interest of their members and they actually do improve the future prospects off their members. This means that the people leading cooperatives, and all other SHEs, have to understand that they need to operate enterprises that make use of a completely different economic system, which most significantly is managed to achieve resource optimisation - not profit maximisation, where finance is the servant not the master of the enterprise and is committed to locating where the members need its services (not in the location that maximises profit.

The most challenging task is to re-educate the mass of people about the true nature of SHEs. And, where SHEs have been captured by cliques, managers or politicians, to give people the tools they need to take back control of their enterprises. The members of SHEs need a legal framework that guarantees their rights as members, and that places SHEs within the mainstream of the economic system. We must never forget SHEs are rooted in self-help and mutual action, they are not at all the same as enterprises that are based on the concept of benevolence; nor are they enterprises that make money to be used to support somebody else’s ‘cause’, no matter how worthy that may be.