Co-operatives add their voice to discussion of international challenges

Research data shows that there are 2.6 million co-operatives worldwide, with 1 billion members and 250 million jobs. Within G20 nations alone, co-operatives account for 12 per cent of all jobs and an annual revenue of $3-trillion (U.S.). This demonstrated economic impact has increasingly enabled members of the co-operative movement to find a seat at the decision-makers’ table for discussing pressing present and future international challenges.

The co-op model is by nature very focused in creating long-term sustainability – it is also based on the concept of shared value among multiple stakeholders.
— Monique F. Leroux is chair of the board, president and CEO of Desjardins Group

“In 2012, there was virtually no involvement of co-ops in the B20 and G20 conversations. Then, in 2014, one representative of an Australian co-operative participated in the G20 meetings in Brisbane,” says Monique F. Leroux, chair of the board, president and CEO of Desjardins Group and co-host of the International Summit of Cooperatives. The outlook for the G20 in Turkey in 2016 is different, says Ms. Leroux, who will personally attend the event and expects to see other representatives of co-operatives at the table.

She credits the rising recognition of the value of the co-operative model, in part, to the International Summit of Cooperatives, a biennial event that was last held in October 2014 in Quebec. “That’s an important area where we were able to make progress – that the co-op voice be listened to in the international arena,” she says.

The next summit, co-hosted by Desjardins and the International Co-operative Alliance and scheduled for October 11 to 13, 2016, has the theme Co-operatives: the power to act.

The co-operative movement has also gained ground in strategically partnering with major international organizations, says Ms. Leroux, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank.

One of the commitments coming out of the 2014 summit was to increase the role of financial co-operatives in financial inclusion on a global scale, especially in light of the resilience these co-operatives demonstrated during the 2007-08 financial crisis, she explains. Some co-operatives and mutuals count among the world’s strongest financial institutions, among them Desjardins Group, which placed fifth in Bloomberg Markets’ 2015 ranking.

For Ms. Leroux, innovation is an important tool that allows Desjardins to adapt to the changing financial landscape by offering new services and utilize technologies.

Ms. Leroux believes that many co-operatives, including Desjardins, started as an innovation designed to address societal needs. “Our business model was the first of its kind in North America,” she says. The inspiration to start the first credit union in 1900 in Lévis, Quebec, came to Alphonse Desjardins – who was then working as a parliamentary stenographer in Ottawa – when he witnessed a debate about unscrupulous money-lending practices.

Also crucial to the success of Desjardins are strategic partnerships, says Ms. Leroux. “We are a major partner for a number of co-operative organizations, including Crédit Mutuel and State Farm. One of our joint initiatives with Crédit Mutuel focuses on card services and payment services. Some of those issues are very demanding in terms of technology and investments,” she explains. “Collaborating allows us to share the costs, the development and ideas. It enables us, in this case, to work together to come up with innovative solutions for merchants and small business owners.”

Sharing insights about innovation, trends and best practices is not only central to Desjardins, it’s also embraced across the co-operative movement, for example by the International Co-operative Alliance and Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada, says Ms. Leroux, who believes that “innovation has to be part of the co-operative agenda.”

In addition to innovation, long-term sustainability and shared value will be among the topics discussed at the 2016 summit, says Ms. Leroux. “We live in a capitalist system, which creates a lot of value but also creates inequality. The co-op model is by nature very focused in creating long-term sustainability – it is also based on the concept of shared value among multiple stakeholders.

“We also have an objective to continue to create good quality jobs – that’s an area where the contribution of co-operatives across the world has been quite significant,” says Ms. Leroux. She explains that 250 million people worldwide work within co-operatives, which constitutes an important contribution to resilient employment and a sustainable economy.

The International Summit of Cooperatives – a biennial global event – brings together leaders of co-operative and mutual enterprises. The inaugural summit was part of the 2012 International Year of Co-operatives, proclaimed by the United Nations. Following the great success of the 2012 and 2014 summits, Desjardins and the International Co-operative Alliance have announced a third edition for 2016.
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