COOPERATION AS A WORLD ORDER

Address by Professor Bruno-Marie Béchard,
Rector of the Université de Sherbrooke (Canada),
on the occasion of the Xth International Seminar
of the Network of the Universities of the Americas
in Studies on Cooperatives and Associations

Copán Ruinas, Honduras

November 2, 2006

Dear cooperative members,

I would first like to thank the organising committee for having invited me to share my vision of cooperatism with the participants at this seminar held during this year of the 130th anniversary of the Sociedad de Ladinos de Marcala.1

The cooperative approach is, I believe, the best way to unite people around common visions, and to satisfy their needs for subsistence and growth. By supporting one another in this way, as workers, producers and consumers, we better understand and take control of our destiny rather than being subjected to it.

Among the values that most characterise the cooperative culture, the ideals of the person, of teamwork, participation, responsible leadership, equitable distribution of wealth and democratic management are absolutely vital to who and what we strive to become.

The «diagnosis», published in the uniRcoop Review in 2003, highlights the unstoppable march of the cooperative movement in the Americas since the end of the 19th century and the tremendous need for educating both its members and leaders on the cooperative way itself.

In Honduras in particular, the cooperative movement «has historic roots and a human, civilising and educational profile in the sense that it is closely linked with the culture of saving.»2 From 1990 to 2004, the number of cooperatives recognised by the State more than doubled, moving from 1091 to 2333, and their membership more than quadrupled, growing from 183,400 to over 800,000. This strong record of progression only partially reveals the formidable potential that the cooperative way charts in its path to enrich and empower Honduran society as a whole.

By integrating the three components of sustainable development (social, economic and environmental), the cooperative formula ensures the lasting effect of enterprises born in the community. These distinct entities take root and flourish throughout the country and reinforce local decision-making power while increasing the collective heritage.

A project for all of society

The cooperative is a form of enterprise, while cooperation is a societal approach for all to embrace: the cooperative obviously requires cooperation, but the activities of cooperation carry far beyond the legal framework of the cooperative itself. Cooperatism, therefore, is first and foremost humanistic, taking fully into account human beings and their development within the communities in which they reside.

Cooperatives and mutual societies together create a richer, more equitable and convivial society. More than simply a way to manage, cooperation is in fact a way of life and a way to organise in the best interests of the communities that are being served. While continuing to develop the most efficient management tools possible in our areas of competence, I would like to see the cooperative movement mobilise to become an influential player in transforming all of society, and become a major social alternative.

In my home province of Québec, Canada, for example, in the context of questioning the general interest to which the state model corresponds, we now have an opportunity to re-direct activities toward the collective interest based on the cooperative model, instead of those of individual interests proposed by the capitalist approach. This is the case with activities associated with such basic community needs as water, health and energy. In the area of health care for instance, cooperation is increasingly becoming a promising solution to the problems of accessibility to health care and of financing the system itself, as a result of the participation of users in the management, development and delivery of services.

The World Order

The development of cooperatism requires the training of cooperators, the development of collective organisational structures, inter-cooperation and linkage with private and state sectors, to form a triad of sorts. To that end, the Université de Sherbrooke established cooperatism as one of its «important orientations,» when it created the Institute of Research and Education for Cooperatives and Mutual Societies – the IRECUS – in 1976, involving the entire institution in the process. In creating this institute, Sherbrooke defined the multi-disciplinary character of the COOP sector, and bolstered its contribution to the progress of the movement across Québec, as well as internationally.

For its part, the uniRcoop network draws its strength from the dynamism of national cooperatives and inter-cooperation to meet the challenges raised by globalisation, more specifically, the reduction of inequalities, a more equitable distribution and sharing of wealth, and sustainable development. The basic objective consists in placing the development of communities in the hands of citizens who work together locally to address the needs of their communities, using the means at their disposal.

In all our countries, four elements of cooperatism exist: the cooperator or cooperative member, the cooperative, the cooperative movement, and the mobilisation of cooperative forces into a national societal project. Based on the achievements of uniRcoop, I would add a fifth: the international cooperative order. Let us briefly examine these five links of the cooperative chain:

  1. First of all, it is vitally important to train individuals who support an ethical position and who consciously adopt cooperatism as a way of life, because members are the essential capital for social change;
  2. Secondly, cooperative members can structure the organisational models and the management of their cooperatives in light of their philosophy and particular aims;
  3. Thirdly, cooperative movements are recognised as among the most important forces for social and economic change in our respective societies. Their level of integration, however, is uneven and, in many instances, too weak;
  4. The mobilisation of cooperative movements must then be able to influence the political process. Presently focused on offering services to members, and justifiably so, we must also work toward building projects beneficial to society as a whole;
  5. Finally, I ask you to consider, as the fifth element, a new World order, more humane and just, where fairness replaces exploitation. Therein lies the hope of improving our respective societies.

By extending themselves to include international relations, cooperatism and cooperatives could become powerful forces, able to take up new challenges in the area of peace and social justice within and between nations, providing access to knowledge and practices, and bring new solutions to the inequalities found in many parts of the World. Just as knowledge is power, education about cooperative values and practices would help bring about more equitable forms of production and trade. The prime objective remains merging humankind and society at all levels.

Impact of uniRcoop

For the Université de Sherbrooke, a project of the size and scope of the «Models for inter-cooperation in the Americas» constitutes an important benefit to the leadership exercised by IRECUS over the past 30 years in terms of education and research on the management of cooperatives and mutual societies.

Thanks to the uniRcoop network, Sherbrooke meets international objectives consisting of the development of knowledge and skills, as well as of transnational and intercultural attitudes among students and those who are part of their learning experience.

Moreover, the fact that this network of universities is dedicated to the cooperative ideal provides a continental reach in this area of education and research, by nature dedicated to mutual help and reciprocity, within local communities as well as between nations.

Our professors and researchers share their skills and inter-cooperative experiences, fine-tune long-distance work methodologies and produce joint publications such as the uniRcoop Review. Consequently, students have access to regularly updated course content relevant to local, social and economic realities. An increasing number of cooperators apply this new knowledge in their daily work.

In this way, cooperators not only provide themselves with new tools to improve efficiency within their respective cooperatives, but also add an emerging force for social change through a better balance between the public, private and cooperative sectors, as invited to do so by the International Labour Organisation.3

In this perspective, I am convinced that uniRcoop could attain its full potential by announcing its results to a wider audience. Never before has information sharing been so necessary to consolidate networks of local power. We could also better influence the choices of decision-makers were we to increase our visibility in the public arena.

The wider deployment of the cooperative movement in various countries of the hemisphere is part of the 2005-2008 Strategic Plan of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) for the Americas. It requires that we put all our knowledge, prestige and influence to the fore by combining our strengths and actions.

The harvest to be reaped from that which we have sown also fits into the cooperative movement's continental reinforcement project (PRICA4), a joint initiative of the ICA for the Americas and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Perspectives

By refining the experimented methodologies for distant work, uniRcoop partners could effectively share their accumulated expertise with the entire body of cooperative members of the Americas by elaborating a second cycle joint training program. This program could be offered directly or by distance education methods. It would integrate the cooperative difference in organisational and financial management, and could be accompanied by a bold communications plan to help create important continental expansion possibilities.

The strongest ally of cooperation is the training of those who practise it. This collective competence presupposes attitudes of consciousness, of responsibility (taking charge and initiative), the ability to listen, dialogue and sharing (common application of intelligence, knowledge and effort). In my opinion, the fundamental task is to train and educate cooperative members capable of communicating the advantages of cooperative leadership exercised in the interests of a community of people and not for the personal interests of individual members.

To summarize, cooperation, as a project for Québec society, is part of a continental movement that seeks to give greater local power to a greater number of citizens, thereby allowing them to be masters of their own destiny. The continuity of uniRcoop here can play the role of a precursor for the better positioning and promotion of increased participation by the members of the movement in national debates.

The enormous potential of the cooperative movement reminds me of the energy contained in the atom before its release by a nuclear reaction. Einstein's celebrated formula E=mc2 leads me to believe that creative human energy equals the product of multiplying motivation-cooperation-communication. To liberate the human energy present in cooperatives, I would invite us all to go further, to move toward the cooperative order, an order founded on solidarity, with a philosophy that considers making money simply a means and not the desired end.

We are strong because of our knowledge in the area of local development, which calls us to new and larger horizons, frontiers that require an international focus. I therefore invite our family of international cooperative movements to:

  • Appreciate and enhance existing inter-cooperative experiences;
  • Mobilise to propagate our models to the general public;
  • Create reflection and action groups to stimulate our society to be more cooperative in its composition;
  • Encourage public organisations to improve treaties of cooperation.

We, who have until now possessed the tools for the creation and sharing of our wealth, have remained too passive in the arena of public opinion. Let us unite our strengths around the information and sharing of our values, principles and skills as a united strategy for the development of nations and the betterment of humanity.

Since leadership and cooperation are the best ways for us to achieve great things together, by mobilising to develop a new World order, we will make cooperation both the means and the objective of our actions. We are, dear members of the same international family, the dawn and morning of a new era. As the 18th century was the Century of Lights, let us dare to make this 21st century, the Century of Cooperation. Let us together build the society of the future!

1The first mutual organisation created in Honduras in 1876 to grant loans at an interest rate of only 2%.
2In an opinion entitled «Cooperativismo» published by the Honduras daily El Heraldo on February 28, 2004, Javier Bayardo Brito summarized the vitality and role of the movement in the economy: «tiene raíces históricas, un perfil humano, civilizador y educador, en el sentido de orillarse por la cultura del ahorro.»
3«A balanced society necessitates the existence of strong public and private sectors, as well as a strong cooperative, mutual and the other social and non-governmental sector.» Source: R193 Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 at the following address: http://www.ilo.org/ilolex/english/recdisp1.htm.
4Proceso Regional de Integración Cooperativa de las Américas. See: http://www.aciamericas.coop/spip.php?page=recherche&recherche=PRICA