ILO COOP 100 Interview
ILO COOP 100 Interview with Martin Lowery, cooperative leader in the US and ICA Board Member
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?In the late 1960s as a university student, I helped to organize a worker cooperative that published an independent university newspaper of which I became editor-in-chief in its second year. I also was familiar in those days with the very successful Hyde Park grocery cooperative on Chicago’s southside.
I completed a Ph.D. in philosophy; and in thinking back, I suppose I was always interested in ethics, human values and collaborative behavior. Perhaps that explains my interest in the cooperative principles and values.
My first employment after finishing graduate school was with a consulting firm doing business with the U.S. Department of Energy. This was during the administration of President Jimmy Carter and the 1979 Arab oil embargo. Major emphasis was being placed on residential energy conservation by U.S. utilities. It was in this context that I learned of the importance of electric cooperatives in the U.S., particularly in providing electric service to rural areas.
You have worked with America’s Electric Cooperatives (NRECA) for over three decades. What is the role of electricity cooperatives in rural development and energy security in rural areas?I recently retired from NRECA after 36 years. For most of those years I worked directly with CEOs, board members and employees of electric cooperatives. Without their presence in rural areas, many parts of the United States would be seriously disadvantaged today. Electric cooperatives have been critically important to rural economic development by identifying grant and loan opportunities for local businesses, by providing at-cost electric service to commercial and industrial members and by ensuring quality electric service to farmers for irrigation and other essential agricultural applications.
Regarding energy security, it was clear as far back as the 1930s that investor-owned companies were not willing to serve sparsely populated areas of the country. Cooperatives were, and still are today, the only way that rural areas can be assured of reliable electric service. In addition, many electric cooperatives are now providing or facilitating high speed telecommunications services that have become so essential to economic growth.
What do you think is the role of cooperatives in contributing toward advancing the SDGs? Which SDGs are of priority in your work with electric cooperatives?The SDGs are very much interrelated to one another, and I believe that cooperatives have a central role to play in advancing all of them. Take, for example, the sustainable development goals on decent work, reduced inequalities and gender equality. There is strong evidence that cooperatives as member-driven organizations contribute to an economy in which diversity, equity and inclusion are fully achieved. On that basis, one could argue that creating and expanding cooperatives around the world would go a long way to meeting those three sustainable development goals.
In my work with electric cooperatives, renewable energy and climate action are, of course, top priorities and are completely interrelated. Electric cooperatives have been in the forefront in installing wind and solar power generation and are playing a leading role in the research and development of energy storage technology. Globally, and especially in Europe, we are seeing significant growth in renewable energy cooperatives.