ILO COOP 100 Interview

Djankou Ndjonkou, former ILO Specialist on Cooperative Education and Training

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.

Artículo | 26 de febrero de 2020

1. Prior to joining the ILO, what was the nature of your involvement in cooperatives?

My involvement with cooperatives started with my university studies in Marburg (Germany). I graduated in Cooperative Economics in 1976.

I had completed high school in Cameroon with a technological baccalaureate (G2 series) specialized in quantitative management techniques and therefore started university with a good understanding of the world of enterprises. Studying cooperatives was a natural extension of what I had done in high school.

2. When and where did you start your career at the ILO?

Cooperative Training at the Turin Centre
I started in 1979 as a faculty member of the cooperative training programme at the ILO Training Centre in Turin. Back then, it was called ILO International Centre for Advanced Vocational Training. I was offered the job during a seminar at my post-graduate university in Kassel, Germany. The facilitator of the seminar happened to be the deputy director of the Turin Centre and he was looking for a cooperative expert to join a team of two who were already active running courses in Turin.

3. What are some highlights of your work at the ILO on cooperative development?

In my long involvement with cooperatives at the ILO, I would mention cooperative education and training as the first major highlight. Back then, cooperative training was thriving in Turin. We had several courses (with an average of 30 participants each) running at the same time. Participants came from all over the world. The average duration of a training programme was three months, during which we had a three-week study visit to cooperatives, not only in Italy but also to other European countries. The training programme at the Centre collaborated with many cooperative institutions, including the Lega delle Cooperative, the Loughborough Cooperative College, the Plunkett Foundation among others.

Cooperative training for a Swiss-funded programme in Indonesia
When I moved to Geneva in 1983, it was as Cooperative Education and Training Specialist. My focus remained on education and training. However, this focus shifted to policy advise when I became Cooperative Regional Adviser for West and North Africa in 1988.

In my opinion, there was clearly a lot of enthusiasm for cooperatives back in the time I started my ILO career. This could be seen in the number of major programmes and projects which were launched back then. This changed somehow around the 1990's when support started dwindling, coincidentally with Structural Adjustment Programmes.

4. How do you see the role of cooperatives in the future of work?

This is a very broad topic and I believe those who think and write about such subjects have already done a great job exploring cooperatives ‘role in the future of work. I can think of the Position Paper of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) of April 2018 on this topic, which is both very comprehensive and to the point. One sentence taken from that document sums it up quite accurately: "cooperatives are both one of the largest world actors in work and employment and a significant laboratory of future trends". In a nutshell, cooperatives are already playing a very crucial role in the world of work today. I don't think that I need to go into the details of the number of people involved in cooperatives (as members, employees, business partners or other stakeholders), or some of the other important statistics on the impact of cooperatives in the world economy.

We also know that cooperatives are increasingly moving into areas which have been identified as critical for the future of our planet, such as renewable energy, recycling, adaptation to climate change, etc. Cooperatives play an economic and social role in rural communities (income generation, job creation, capacity building, social cohesion) which no other form of organization can match. The values and principles enshrined in the cooperative identity are becoming mainstream and are being embraced by other forms of organizations. All this indicate that just as is the case today, cooperatives will be an important part of the future of work.

However, having said that, it would be incomplete not to mention that today, cooperatives achievements are unequally distributed throughout the world. In some regions, cooperatives are still struggling and are far from reaching their potential in terms of all the positive results mentioned earlier. Cooperatives will have to address their own internal and external challenges if they are to remain relevant globally and contribute to the future of work.

5. How do you understand the growing momentum around the social and solidarity economy?

The concept of the social and solidarity economy (SSE) is not new. It is simply coming back with force not only into the development debate but also in the way people are producing, exchanging and consuming today or more generally, leading their lives. The reasons for this resurgence have been attributed to the severe crisis that have shaken our world in the past decades and the resulting awareness of the dead end towards which the prevailing economic models seem to be leading us. If this is a lasting revival, it is more than welcome because it is all about people gaining greater control over processes that affect their lives.

However, at this stage, it seems to me that the entire concept of the SSE is not yet clearly understood and there is still a lot of research which should go into understanding it better and most importantly, making it work. Having experienced the over-enthusiasm about cooperatives being the solution to all development problems in the early 70's and the resulting disappointment, I am wary that if this growing momentum is not followed by global, concerted and directed action, there may be a lot of disappointment ahead of us. So far, what we have is a list of institutions or organizations which make up the SSE (of which cooperatives are the best known, the most studied and the only one with a track record). How do these organizations make up an "economy”? How do cooperatives maintain their identity? How does the SSE interact with the other parts of the economy? These and many more seem to me to be areas in which a lot of research should go. In summary: yes, it is a great development, but it still needs a lot of groundwork.

6. What are some thoughts or advice you would like to impart with colleagues working on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy in the ILO and beyond?

I am not sure I am qualified to give advice to colleagues who are certainly more up to date on these issues that I can ever be, having left the stage ten years ago!

My first thought would be to ensure that the ILO's cooperative legacy is preserved, continued and improved upon. Over the last century, the ILO has raised expectations and created hope for a better future through cooperatives for millions of people. Even as we celebrate this century of recognized efforts and undeniable successes, we also know that we are not there yet. We should keep this as our focus and not dilute our message.

Clearly, the broader issue of the SSE is very relevant today and should be explored further. The environment for doing this is more favourable today as it has ever been. At the end of the 80's, the concept of the social economy was very advanced in France and the Co-operative Branch was collaborating with Prof. Henri Desroche's Université coopérative internationale. The "Revue internationale de l'économie sociale", published since 1921 (first as Revue des études coopératives) was a leading (and almost unique) publication on the social economy. If the ILO was to play a major role in the SSE, it would have to rethink its organizational set-up or take the lead in something which is system-wide and not necessarily attached to a single organization.

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). This article does not constitute an endorsement by the International Labour Office of the opinions expressed in it.