Could you please tell us about yourself? How did you get interested and involved in working on/with cooperatives?Before joining ILO in 2018, I worked for EU-funded projects for 10 years in different areas such as youth employment, women’s economic empowerment, and social dialogue, mostly aimed at vulnerable groups. When I started to work with the ILO Office for Turkey under the Refugee Response Programme, I became acquainted with a new vulnerable group, refugees. The ILO Office for Turkey has been implementing the Refugee Response Program since 2015 to support refugees and host communities gain a living in decent working conditions.
The work of ILO Office for Turkey on forced displacement has different focus areas. One of the projects was related to empowering women through cooperatives. At the time, I was working for another project for refugees under international protection. We were looking for means to achieve sustainability in our interventions. Cooperatives were identified as an option to ensure sustainability. We visited a women’s cooperative to learn more about their experiences along with our project stakeholders. This was the first connection that I made between ILO’s work and cooperatives.
This cooperative was the first women’s cooperative in Turkey that had women members from both host communities and refugee groups. After this visit the project team continued to learn more about cooperatives as a component of the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). In our learning journey, we benefitted a great deal from ILO COOP materials and tools. We initiated our project in 2020 where a specific activity focused on facilitating the establishment of women’s cooperatives and strengthening the existing ones. Currently, I oversee interventions for cooperatives and for people under international protection as a Livelihoods Officer in this project.
Could you share some highlights of your work on cooperatives and other SSE enterprises at ILO Office for Turkey?Our work with cooperatives under the Support to Refugees and Host Communities Program aims to facilitate the social integration and economic empowerment of women from host communities and refugee groups. First, we aim to raise awareness and knowledge on cooperatives among the beneficiaries. To that end, we produced infographics and brochures in four languages (Turkish, English, Arabic and Persian) elaborating on the nature of cooperatives and underlining their relevance in refugee contexts.
Refugeeing such contexts, dissemination of information and knowledge is key. Hence, we undertook various initiatives to provide access to information and encourage cooperation between cooperatives, with reference to universal principles. Among them was the webinar series “Increasing the Governance and Sustainability Capacities of Cooperatives in Turkey”. We aimed to explore the relationship between: members and members, members and cooperatives, cooperatives and public institutions, and cooperatives and market relations. We identified problematic areas for cooperatives via online surveys, focus group discussions, and information sharing with relevant public institutions. Thereby, the cooperative partners were able to learn from the most authoritative persons and build a solid knowledge base. We also published a webinar series report capturing the highlights from the process.
We provided support for the translation of the contents of the “koopdestek.com” website that was available in Turkish into Arabic to enable refugee groups to access the information, so no one is left behind. Making this database, which has about 500 questions and answers on different themes, accessible to refugee groups as well as host communities was our goal to ensure equity.
To increase vulnerable women’s access to livelihoods opportunities, we supported the establishment of two women’s cooperatives with refugee members. We provided technical and financial support such as equipment and consultancy services. We strengthened the capacities of the cooperatives and their members via training courses using ILO COOP tools such as Think.Coop and Start.Coop. In addition, we provided a range of other educational and vocational training services including language education and occupational health and safety (OSH) training. One of these cooperatives has 37 members: with a total of 135 beneficiaries from the host community and refugee groups including Iranians, Afghans, and Syrians, working in different fields such as agriculture, mask manufacturing, and fruit drying. The latter has 29 members from host communities and refugee groups mainly working in the textile industry.
We are expanding the range of support provided by the program, updating it in line with our new experiences, evolving views, and the feedback received from the beneficiaries. As an example of our holistic approach, we provided a set of equipment to a cooperative in the professional cleaning industry to support their integration in the labour market. In addition, they also benefited from another programme providing support for work permit fees and social security premiums for refugees and host community members.
Moreover, like all businesses, the cooperatives have had difficulties in generating income during the pandemic, leading us to develop a programme to increase capacities of managers, staff and members of six cooperatives in hard and soft skills to use in online sales platforms. The programme was enriched with capacity building and individual mentoring services for digital transformation, B2B/B2C matchmaking, and business development services. Furthermore, the cooperatives could open an online store in Turkey's largest online sales platform to increase their marketing volume as a response to the pandemic. The interventions designed take into consideration both supply and demand sides of the labour market. Then we will consequently produce an advocacy report on social procurement, especially at local level to incorporate the cooperatives in supply chains.
Our goal is not only to support the establishment of new cooperatives, but also to increase the capacities of existing ones to enable the integration of refugees as cooperative members. With this in mind, we facilitated the establishment of the “Cooperative Incubator” in Istanbul, which will serve as a training centre for all cooperatives in the city to increase their capacity with its pool of experts. The training courses will be conducted by experts in many different fields including marketing, financial literacy, accounting, agriculture, and e-commerce. They will enable cooperatives and end beneficiaries to become better integrated into the labour market.
We recently completed another webinar series, where we identified about 15 areas where cooperatives with refugee members were having difficulties, based on our field observations. We provided an online environment to share experiences and knowledge on certain subjects. Our aim was to strengthen cooperation between cooperatives, aligned with cooperative principle six and to contribute to their capacities through sharing information.
We will continue our support to strengthen the cooperative landscape in Turkey in the future based on the needs of the changing world of work.
How do you see the future of cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) in Turkey?Cooperatives are key components of the wider SSE landscape. They can help recover from the crises by responding to social problems based on principles of mutualism and solidarity. In terms of establishing a balance between competition and public interest, cooperatives can be an essential instrument.
The number of recently established social cooperatives and social enterprises that include social benefits in their activities is increasing day by day in Turkey. More importantly, they are achieving positive results in terms of the effectiveness of services that they provide. This shows that cooperatives and other SSE units are well positioned to provide services that can meet the most basic human needs in situations where government services have trouble responding and resources are insufficient. Furthermore, newly developed social and solidarity networks, projects, and the recent bill on cooperatives prove that there is a positive momentum at the national level. Based on this growing awareness and multiplying initiatives on the ground, I am confident that the number and impact of SSE enterprises working on local, regional, and humanitarian development will continue to rise in the future.