COOP Champions

John Bliek, Enterprises Specialist at ILO Office for the Andean Countries

COOP Champions features ILO colleagues from around the world working on cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises. It highlights their contributions, and shares highlights of their experiences, current work, and future aspirations.

Article | 18 April 2019

What is your educational and professional background?

Mr John Bliek
After completing a bachelor’s degree on marketing, I majored in development studies at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. During this time I conducted a research on temporary migration and local economic development in Oaxaca, Mexico.

I started my career as a consultant and advisor on microfinance and local economic development in El Salvador in 2001. One of my first assignments was strengthening the governance and strategic planning of a federation of dairy cooperatives. After a few years, I moved to Guatemala and then Nicaragua continuing to work as a local economic development consultant. During the course of these assignments, cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) associations especially in rural areas were always among the key partners with whom I worked. Particularly at a Belgium NGO which is governed by member-based organizations (e.g. farmers’ cooperatives and employers’ associations), I was responsible for capacity building and monitoring of 80 member-based organizations in 12 countries.

Then I joined the ILO Moscow Office where I was in charge of studies on the enabling environment for sustainable enterprises (EESE) in five countries and also started collaborating with the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit (COOP). After two years in Moscow, I moved to my current position as Enterprises Specialist in the ILO Lima Office.

How have you been working on cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy (SSE) enterprises at the ILO?

In the Andean region, ILO has a long tradition of working on cooperative development based on requests from its constituents.

At the policy level, in collaboration with the Forestry, Agriculture, Construction and Tourism Unit (FACT) of the Sectoral Policies Department (SECTOR) and the COOP Unit, we recently conducted a study on cooperatives and wider SSE enterprises in the rural economy. The study looked at the strengths and weaknesses of these organizations, and the policy environment in Colombia and Peru. It identified that the existing policies are rather focused on regulating these organizations than advancing and promoting them. It also revealed that the Confederation of National Unity of Agricultural Producers of Colombia (CONFENAGROC) has a very few cooperatives as its members, but rather include a range of producers’ associations that fall under the wider umbrella of the SSE.

Women coffee producers at My.Coop training in Colombia
At the enterprise level, we have provided capacity building services to cooperative enterprises using ILO’s training tools in partnership with the government, universities and other development partners. In particular My.Coop – a training programme on the management of agricultural cooperatives – is being extensively used in the region for instance by women coffee producers in Colombia and by quinoa farmers and coffee and cacao producers in Peru.

Participants of Think.Coop and Start.Coop training in Bolivia
We recently launched new tools: Think.Coop – an easy orientation on the cooperative business model and Start.Coop – a participatory tool for starting a cooperative. After several pilot workshops in Bolivia and Peru, we are now seeing good uptake of the tools by the organizations of the workshop participants. For instance in Peru, the Cooperatives Unit of the Ministry of Production will start using the tools at the national level as part of their cooperative development strategy. We will soon organize a Training of Trainers (ToT) with the Ministry.

How do you see the future of cooperatives and the wider SSE? What do you think is needed for them to play a more prominent role in the Andean Countries?

Peruvian producers
Cooperatives have a huge potential to promote decent work in the Andean region, particularly for isolated small-scale producers in rural areas. In order to break their isolation, social and economic organizing strategies like cooperatives and the wider SSE are key. In the urban areas, with the majority of the population working in the informal economy, cooperatives and wider SSE associations can also play a critical role in the transition towards formality.

One of the key challenges in tapping into their full potential is an absence of an enabling environment that promotes cooperatives and the wider SSE. We support the governments in developing public policies and strategies to address gaps in capacity building needs at sectoral, primary, secondary and national levels.

Furthermore, there is a need to attract a younger audience to cooperativism by revitalizing the concept through innovative cooperative examples addressing emerging social issues worldwide. We also need to promote women’s participation and gender equality within and through cooperatives.

I strongly believe that at ILO we are very well positioned to support cooperative development through the combination of creating new knowledge, improving the enabling environment and providing capacity building services for cooperatives and the wider SSE.