Interview with Professor Marie J. Bouchard, Chair of COPAC Technical Working Group on Statistics of Cooperatives

The ILO has joined forces with other members of the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC) to improve statistics on cooperatives. They are working towards developing guidelines on the measurement of cooperatives to be presented at the 20th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) in October 2018. ILO COOP interviewed Professor Marie J. Bouchard, Chair of COPAC Technical Working Group on Statistics of Cooperatives, on the importance, the challenges and the outlook of its work.

News | 16 April 2018

1. Could you tell us briefly about yourself?

Professor Marie Bouchard
I am a Professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (Canada) and the President of the CIRIEC International Scientific Commission on Social and Cooperative Economy. I have been chairing the COPAC Technical Working Group (TWG) on Statistics of Cooperatives since its inception in 2016 and working with other members to develop a harmonised conceptual framework, definition and methodology for generating comparable statistics on cooperatives.

2. How have you gotten involved in statistics on cooperatives?

The definition and statistics of cooperatives and social economy has historically been an important issue at CIRIEC. In 2010 to 2011, I led a research project to develop a conceptual framework to define the statistical population of the social economy in Quebec which is now used in practice at provincial level. It was commissioned by the Institut de la statistique du Québec, and also involved the Ministère de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale (MESS), the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (MSSS), and the Secrétariat à l’action communautaire autonome et aux initiatives sociales (SACAIS). Then in 2015, I also published a book titled “The weight of the social economy: An international perspective” with Damien Rousselière, Professor at Agrocampus Ouest (France) and CIRIEC international, with participation of renowned authors in the field of statistics on non-profit organizations and cooperatives.

3. Why do you think statistics on cooperatives are needed?

In many countries, cooperatives have contributed to job creation, job preservation and more equal wealth distribution as a member-owned, member-controlled form of enterprise. Not only have they served for the members’ benefits, but also they have worked and invested for the common goods of their communities. However, their presence and economic contributions have not been easily identifiable in official statistics.

If we are to advance their positive economic contributions, it is important to develop a common framework for statistics on cooperatives through which we can obtain the reliable and comparable data on their size, weight and underlying mechanisms. A clear statistical methodology and definition of cooperatives can also guide policies and initiatives on cooperative development.

4. What is the work that you have been doing in this Technical Working Group?

First, together with the other TWG members, we produced a conceptual framework to have a clear statistical definition on cooperatives. Although there is an internationally agreed definition of cooperatives, it is not for statistical purposes. To reach to a common understanding, we discussed what key information characterises cooperatives (e.g. membership, distribution of surplus, etc.).

One of the issues is classification of cooperatives. Each country has a different classification system and terminology for cooperatives depending on how they have evolved in each country context. In order to find out the most relevant way to aggregate these different classifications, we looked into how they were organized and the logics behind them. We proposed a framework for comparing data sets from one country to another.

Another issue is the way to measure economic contribution of cooperatives. Cooperatives work to maximize the benefit for its members. For instance cooperatives distribute surplus among members in proportion to their use or transactions with cooperatives, which leads to a more equal distribution of wealth compared to distribution on the basis of capital investment. In terms of employment, cooperatives have higher possibility of giving more stable employment opportunities, especially when workers are members of the cooperatives taking part in decision-making and management. Over the economic crises in 2008, cooperatives have shown they are sustainable enterprises with survival rates at least as high if not higher as other types of enterprises.

5. What are the challenges to statistics on cooperatives?

Technically, it is hard to obtain the information which characterises cooperatives with the existing statistical tools. For example, for housing cooperatives, a normal questionnaire may ask if a person is a tenant or an owner of the residence and there is no column to indicate that the person is both a tenant and owner. As mentioned above, we need a cooperative-specific statistical framework and tools that identify the sectors they work in, the sizes, the direct and indirect employment, the wealth distribution, etc.

6. Who are the target audiences for the work of the Technical Working Group?

This work is intended to raise awareness among policy makers in general and national statistics offices (NSOs) in particular on this type of enterprise.

With an enabling environment, cooperatives can effectively contribute to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a tool for people including those who are socially vulnerable like youth, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees, to come together as members and cooperate toward creating economic opportunities and achieving their aspirations.

The output of this TWG, i.e. the guidelines to be presented to the 20th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) in October 2018, will help policy makers and NSOs to develop and advance statistics on cooperatives as a fundamental step towards developing such an enabling environment.

7. What do you hope this work to achieve?

We hope this work will raise awareness on cooperatives and other social economy enterprises among policy makers and NSOs, help them to advance statistics on cooperatives, and promote discussions on how to tap into their full potential to contribute to the SDGs. In this process, as there are quite a few researchers interested in identifying and analysing the specificities of this form of enterprise, we would like to encourage NSOs to partner with such researchers and research institutes.

Once the guidelines are adopted by national statistical agencies at the 20th ICLS, we could test the guideline in some countries and get more details needed to adjust to national and local contexts. Based on these and depending on the needs, we might continue our work toward developing a manual or hand book on the guidelines just like the work around the UN Handbook on Non-Profit Institutions in the System of National Accounts.