ILO COOP 100 Interview

ILO COOP/SSE 100 Interview with Jean-Louis Bancel, President of Coop France and Cooperatives Europe, and Vice President for Europe for the International Cooperative Alliance

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives, Social and Solidarity Economy 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 | 23 septembre 2020

Could you tell us about your background and how you first got involved in cooperatives and mutuals?

I was born in 1955 in France, a country where cooperatives and mutuals have a long history. Though I was surrounded by cooperatives and mutuals since the beginning, I was not conscious of what they stood for and the difference between these solidarity structures and the others.

For example, I remember that when we were going to the grocery shop with my grandmother in a small village in the south of France where she lived every time we were shopping she received stamps. We collected them and at the end of the year she received a patronage dividend. It was a small amount of money she used for Christmas gifts.

My parents were civil servants and the compulsory national health social security was run by a mutual. My first job was as a civil servant as well. I am still a member of this mutual, even if it is no longer responsible for the compulsory national health social security anymore. I am active in its activities and I am still the chair of this small but very active institution.

Professionally I have been involved in the mutual sector since 1993, when I became the secretary general of GEMA, which was then the gathering of all the insurance mutuals. They represented about 50 per cent of the insurance market in France. From that point onwards I started being involved, nationally and internationally, in a range of Social Economy institutions. At the national level I was involved in the French national apex which was then call CNLAMCA, and nowadays it is called ESS France. At the international level I was involved in the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF) from its foundation. In 2001, I was elected as the president of ICMIF for a period of years.

In 2005, I shifted from the insurance sector to banking. I joined Crédit Coopératif , a French cooperative bank created at the end of the nineteenth century for cooperatives. It is now the leader in the banking sector for financing social and solidarity economy in France. Since then I have been more involved in the cooperative movement. In 2015, I was elected as the Chair of Coop FR , which is the apex for all cooperatives. I have been a member of the board of the International Cooperative Alliance since 2009. And most recently I was elected as the Chair of Cooperatives Europe in 2017.

In a way, I think I am giving back, in time and energy, to the mutual and cooperative sector as much as I received unconsciously from those days when I was young.

As President of Crédit Coopératif you have supported a number of important initiatives in developing cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy in Mediterranean countries. It is in fact in this capacity we first collaborated with you and the late President of MACIF Gérard Andreck at the ILO. What can SSE offer in addressing the challenges people in the Mediterranean region face?

In my vision, cooperative spirit is all but selfishness. Consequently, as individuals, but also in our institutions, we have to give back to the others as a part of our own success. We have to share our time and energy towards those who need it the most. Crédit Coopératif has a long history of success. Thanks to the founders and their successors, we have been part of the success in development of our country. With difference in forms, in time and location I am convinced that the same factors of success: energy, will, collective intelligence can be used all around the world. In the Mediterranean countries, establishing a vivid tradition of solidarity can help the informal economy to transform itself into a real alternative against the exploitation of the most disadvantaged groups in society and facilitate their access to resources, secure livelihoods and decent work.

That is what we tried in creating, with the help of the late President of MACIF Gérard Andreck, Medess (Mediterrannée economie sociale) , which is a structure to give visibility to social economy initiatives in the Mediterranean region. Moreover, Crédit Coopératif sponsored the launch of an investment fund: Coop Med to back financially these initiatives. Despite difficult circumstances, the idea of social and solidarity economy is flourishing in this region. I am especially glad that Tunisia recently passed a legislation on the matter.

You are the President of Cooperatives Europe and Vice President of the ICA for Europe. What are the priorities of Cooperatives Europe and the ICA for the next ten years toward advancing the sustainable development goals in the region and around the world?

Since being the chair of the development committee of ICMIF, I know how important it is for our global trade bodies to be involved in international development of mutuals and cooperatives. If cooperatives and mutuals are playing an important role in some countries, such as France, they are still lacking of capacity in other parts of the world.

One of the ways to express our solidarity principle is to help strengthen the structures that help the expansion of the cooperative and mutual sector. This is best done through national, regional and international federations.

In this field, Cooperatives Europe and the ICA have started a very fruitful collaboration through a partnership agreement, signed almost five years ago with the European Commission. This five-year agreement for 10 million€ funding from the European Commission and the international cooperative movement is building up capacity in developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. We hope that the European Commission will continue with another partnership in the future. In Cooperatives Europe, we expect to better focus the means from the European countries towards countries of the neighborhood policy such as Mediterranean countries which are not included in the current development partnership with the European Commission.

You have been the chair of the International Cooperative Banking Association (ICBA). What is the role of social finance in creating a conducive ecosystem for cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy institutions?

I chaired the ICBA from 2006 to 2018. My colleague Bhima Subramanyan, from India, has been elected as its President in 2019. To my knowledge it is the first time in the history of the ICBA that a non-OECD member is chairing it. This is a way to illustrate the role of financing in the development process.

Since the International Year of Microcredit in 2005 , we all know the importance of financing of social economy institutions in the development process. In the already fairly long history of microfinance, we have heard of major failures brought by detorted spirit of microfinance. These scandals show the importance of not only recognize actors on what they pledge but also on what they actually do.

This is why cooperative and mutual financial institutions have to play an active role to conduct capacities to the real social economy actors and not only the pretending to be We have to be careful Social economy label is very attractive this is why some usurpers who try to pretend they are part of our world. This is why cooperative financial and non-financial institutions have to work together in setting transparency process, such as cooperative auditing, and if necessary labels to prevent the spreading of this misleading process.

What do you think is the role of the UN in general and the ILO in particular, in relation to the development of cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy?

As I mentioned the social economy label is positive. This is why some people are trying to blur the lines in trying to link ambiguous ideas to our calling. I am not rejecting the idea that some people try to improve the way of acting of capitalistic companies by setting new ideas such as B corps or “for purpose” corporation. However, these categories must be clearly distinguished from the social economy. We have to acknowledge that insidiously some persons are leading a cuckoo strategy towards the social economy sector. Living in France I could show you some examples of mesmerizing ideas that a “brave new world” policy will help our country get rid of the old-fashioned social economy institutions. The COVID-19 crisis showed how effective and useful are the cooperative, mutual and associations in overcoming these difficult times.

In this context, the UN and especially the ILO play an important role in helping people “call a cat a cat”. The ILO Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193) has included the Statement on Cooperative Identity as an annex.

Similarly, the decision of the UN General Assembly to declare 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives with the motto “Cooperative enterprises build a better world” played an important role in bringing attention to the cooperative difference.

Not all this happened by chance. We have to remember the role that some international cooperative movement leaders played in the founding of the ILO, especially Albert Thomas, who was its first director general and Léon Bourgeois who was the first chair of the council the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations.

All these great men knew that fulfilling people economic, social and cultural needs was the best way to bring and keep peace among nations.

The world of work is changing rapidly. The pandemic is further accentuating the already existing demographic, environmental and economic challenges. Are cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy ready to respond to these?

Considering what I said previously, you would not be surprised to read my positive answer. To me the cooperative spirit is the best cure I have ever found to fight against everyday difficulties. If you consider the cooperative values enshrined in the cooperative identity declaration: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity you find the best antidotes any big pharm would ever discover.

To understand the strength of the cooperative spirit in action you can look at the website of any of the national or international apex organizations of the cooperative movement. There you can see how important cooperatives are to social and economic resistance and recovery. However, it is still a long way for cooperatives, mutuals and associations to live up to their full potential.