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.

Article | 06 August 2020

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.

You are on the board of the International Cooperative Alliance. What is the role of the international cooperative movement in getting cooperatives recognized as critical social, economic and environmental actors?

The current ten-year strategic plan of the ICA is focused on four priorities: strengthening the cooperative identity, encouraging cooperative growth, contributing to cooperative development and linking together the global cooperative network. Much of this work involves communication and education of multiple stakeholders – governmental institutions at the local, regional and national levels; NGOs; global bodies such as the UN and the ILO and World Food Program in particular, the G20, the World Bank; the International Monetary Fund; the Regional Development Banks; and many others.

The world is changing rapidly with environmental, demographic, technical challenges, and more recently with the pandemic. What role can cooperatives play in mitigating and adapting to these crises?

Let me begin by saying that the response of cooperatives around the world to the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinary. We have many examples of cooperatives building new supply chains for personal protective equipment, emergency food and medicines and even special insurance coverage for caregivers. In so many sectors of the economy – food, housing, health care, utilities and financial services, for example – cooperatives are responding to the rapid changes with innovative ideas and imagination. I believe that having the single mission and purpose of serving their members, their owners, facilitates cooperative innovation and entrepreneurship.

What do you think is the role of United Nations organizations in general and the International Labour Organization in particular, with respect to cooperative development?

Within the United Nations, ILO is, of course, the most important institution regarding cooperative development with a dedicated unit on Cooperatives and can be influential in building understanding and recognition by other UN organizations about the importance of the cooperative model. I believe that the pandemic is likely to create permanent changes to the ways in which human beings interact with one another and will dramatically increase our reliance on digital technology. The ILO, as it enters its second century, will have a significant opportunity in this regard to address in new ways the future of work and worker dignity. The cooperative option can and should be central to that exploration.