ILO COOP 100 Interview with Iain Macdonald, former Director General of the International Cooperative Alliance
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.
Could you tell us about your background? How did you get started working with cooperatives?
Having gained an arts degree at the University of Edinburgh in 1972, I moved to London to work for local government and at that time joined the Co-operative Party (uniquely British!) following my involvement with the Labour Party. I soon discovered that I shared many of the values of the cooperative movement and when the opportunity arose, I was appointed by the Cooperative Union (now Cooperatives UK) in Scotland as their education officer. My philosophy at that time was essentially anti-capitalist and cooperative ideas fitted that very well. I was also elected as a Labour/Cooperative local politician and later as the Parliamentary candidate for Argyll. However, a job offer from the cooperative headquarters in Manchester proved too hard to resist and I took up the offer and moved there in 1996. I was appointed as Head of Cooperative Strategy for the Cooperative Group, trying to ensure that cooperative values and principles were observed by my colleagues in management positions. This coincided with the publication of Making Membership Meaningful by the International Joint Project for Cooperative Democracy which I had been involved with since 1994. It was launched at the Centenary Congress of the ICA which in effect was the beginning of my international career within the cooperative movement. I was appointed as Director General of the International Cooperative Alliance in Geneva in 2002.
You were the Director General of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) from 2002 to 2010. What were your priorities throughout your mandate?
My main priority at the ICA was to raise the profile of cooperatives worldwide. Indeed, this still remains as the main priority in my view. Despite being perhaps the largest business sector in the world, cooperatives are not recognised for the success they are, especially in a world economy dominated by neoliberal capitalism and investor owned businesses. Early on we established the Global 300 project which has proved hugely successful in highlighting the sheer size and scale of the cooperative movement worldwide and has now evolved into the World Cooperative Monitor. The immediate task that needed to be undertaken however was to bring the ICA into a situation of financial stability. Careful forward planning and the restructuring of membership slowly brought this about. A five-year strategic plan was developed which still operates in a similar capacity today. I particularly emphasised work with the UN and the ILO especially through COPAC.
What do you think are the challenges facing the cooperative movement today?
The challenges facing the cooperative movement are much the same today. It seems glaringly obvious to me that the world would be in a much better place if cooperative principles were observed, particularly in the business sector. Why democracy should be reserved purely for the political process is a mystery to me. All the evidence suggests that if management, workers and consumers join in the decision-making process, enterprises tend to be more successful both commercially and socially. And at the root of this is the question of ownership. The cooperative form of ownership Is surely a more successful format and is naturally diverse, encouraging involvement of women and minority communities. The ICA‘s membership of the B20 is evidence of progress in this area, offering the world a way forward in considering most of the issues troubling us today.
In the face of the mega trends changing the world, environment (climate crisis), demographic (forced displacement of people) and public health (pandemic), what do you think could cooperatives do?
This applies particularly to the issue of climate change where the cooperative movement can show how working together with values and principles can lead to securing the agreements that are necessary. Our global strength can be used to bring pressure on international organisations, governments and businesses. Our progressive policies mean that our global strength can be very influential in persuading governments to change course.
What do you think is the role of United Nations organizations in general and the International Labour Organization in particular with respect to cooperative development?
The United Nations is crucial to our success in all fields whether it be climate change, decent work or world peace. However, it is only as strong as its membership allows it to be. The ILO and the ICA are natural partners in all these fields as 100 years of history has proved. I arrived at the ICA just when Recommendation 193 had been approved and this has been used to great effect by the ICA over the years. It is just a shame that some governments do not seem to feel obliged to follow through on their agreements, so perhaps the time has come to change the Recommendation into a Convention?