ILO COOP 100 Interview

Jürgen Schwettmann, former ILO official and COOP Chief

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 | 04 March 2020

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

As a young man, at the age of 17, when I was doing an apprenticeship in a German bank, it was my greatest wish to become engaged in international development work, as a volunteer. In 1972 I addressed a letter to the German Volunteer Service (GVS) to ask for advice on how to realize my dream. The GVS responded that I was far too young to apply as a volunteer, and that my professional background (banking) was not really needed in GVS projects. However, if I would specialize in cooperative promotion and management it might be possible to find an opportunity for me.

Hence I completed my apprenticeship in 1973, returned to a secondary school to earn an A-level, enrolled as a student in business administration at the University of Koblenz, and moved after two years to the University of Applied Science in Nürtingen, at the time the only German university of that nature which offered a specialization in cooperatives. I completed a thesis on “Cooperatives in Tanzania”, earned my diploma in 1978, applied again with the GVS, got a job offer as a volunteer in Cameroon, and began my preparations in October of the same year.

I arrived in Loum, Cameroon, on 2 January 1979, to serve as a management advisor to three coffee-marketing cooperatives in the Moungo Division. At that time, Cameroonian cooperatives held marketing monopolies for the country’s main export crops (coffee, cocoa, cotton), except in the Moungo and Meme divisions. “My” three cooperatives had to compete with over 60 private buyers, and could survive only by rendering the best possible services to their members. In Loum I learned my first lesson: cooperatives can succeed only, if they are based on voluntary membership and democratic control, and when they are free from government interference.

After three and a half years in Loum I moved to Nkongsamba, a bigger town in the same Moungo Division, to work in a much larger coffee marketing and exporting cooperative – a very interesting assignment which I had to discontinue after only one year, because I had to move the Yaoundé, the capital city, to serve as the coordinator of the GVS cooperative programme in Cameroon (17 volunteers at the time). During this 2-year period I compiled a bibliography on cooperatives in Cameroon which served as the basis for a manual (see picture).

In 1985 I was recruited by the German Technical Assistance Agency GTZ as a credit advisor to Cameroon’s Rural Development Fund (FONADER) – but I never really worked there, because the GTZ had asked me to cooperate with the World Bank and other agencies on three major assignments: improving access to rural finance for smallholder farmers; revamping cocoa production in Southern Cameroon; and reforming the country’s cooperative system, which was plagued by inefficiency and corruption. Cooperatives were central to all three topics. During this period, I drafted one of three preparatory studies for a national conference on cooperative reforms which took place in 1988, and initiated a major reform programme, as well as a comprehensive revision of Cameroon’s cooperative law.

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

The ILO was one of the agencies that was involved in the national conference in Cameroon. In fact, the ILO had implemented major cooperative development projects in the country since the 1960s, and had become increasingly frustrated with the gulf that separated theory (the universal cooperative principles) from reality (excessive, permanent state interference into cooperative affairs). During the run-up to the national conference I had closely collaborated with Mr Christian Jacquier, an official working with the ILO’s Cooperative Branch.

Paper 4: Final report of the Regional Advisor on Cooperatives (1994)
Having left Cameroon and the GTZ in mid-1987 Christian asked me to undertake, as an ILO consultant, a project formulation mission to Haiti, to design the second phase of an existing cooperative project on the island. This was followed by two similar missions to Cameroon and to Côte d’Ivoire. While carrying out the third one, in May 1988, I received a call from Mr Hel-Bongo, the then Chief of ILO COOP, who offered me a post as “Regional Advisor on Cooperatives for Eastern, Southern and Central Africa”. After several weeks of hesitation I accepted the offer, and moved to my new duty station Kinshasa on 14 October 1988. My role consisted of formulating cooperative development projects in 27 African countries, and of mobilizing funding for them. This was at a time when cooperatives had some bad press in Africa, mainly due to the excessive interference by governments. At the same time, the World Bank and the IMF pushed many African governments toward adopting “structural adjustment programmes”, which implemented a neo-liberal agenda where cooperatives had little role to play. This notwithstanding, the ILO continued promoting the cooperative idea, albeit at a much smaller scale than hitherto because donor funding was dwindling. In mid-1994 I moved to Geneva to work as a technical specialist in ILO’s Cooperative Branch, responsible for programmes and projects in the areas of cooperative policy, cooperative legislation, job creation through cooperatives, and poverty alleviation through cooperatives.

Paper 5: Cooperatives and Employment in Africa (1997)
In 1999, after several years of advocacy, the ILO Governing Body decided to put “cooperatives” on the agenda of the International Labour Conferences (ILC) 2001 and 2002, with the aim of developing a Recommendation on the subject. The entire Branch became deeply involved in the preparatory process; and when I was appointed Chief of the Cooperative Branch in early 2000, I assumed responsibility for the secretariat of the Office committees that served the two ILC sessions. Recommendation 193 on the “Promotion of Cooperatives” was adopted in June 2002 and led to considerable legal and policy reforms in well over 60 countries in the years thereafter. Cooperatives slowly returned to the international development agenda, albeit often disguised as “farmers’ organizations” or “producers’ associations”.

I left the Cooperative Branch in July 2006 to assume a new position as Director for the ILO Office in East Africa, located in Dar es Salaam. Although I was no longer responsible for ILO’s work on cooperatives, I maintained a close connection with the cooperative world through the regional COOPAFRICA programme, which happened to bywas based in ILO Dar es Salaam office.

Paper 6: Report on the social economy conference Johannesburg (2009)
In September 2008, I became the ILO Deputy Regional Director for Africa, with Addis Ababa as my duty station. The then Regional Director, Mr Charles Dan, showed considerable interest in the social economy, and asked me to organize a major regional conference on the subject. The event took place in October 2009 in Johannesburg, bringing together over 200 participants from around the continent. This conference became the starting point for the annual Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) Academies which are being organized by the ILO in partnership with ITC Turin.

Three years later I moved back to Geneva to serve as Director of ILO’s Partnerships and Development Cooperation Department (PARDEV), which gave me the opportunity to strengthen the link between South-South cooperation and the SSE. In 2013, together with colleagues from UNRISD, UNDP and NGLS, we initiated the UN Task Force on the Social and Solidarity Economy (UNTFSSE), which continues until today.

I retired from the ILO in October 2015 and I continue to work as a consultant with the ILO and other organizations since then. Many of my assignments since then are related to cooperative and/or the social and solidarity economy.

3. What are the fundamental issues that emerge from your work on cooperatives in development?

I would like to mention two issues that constitute the quintessence of my 41 years of work on cooperatives in development:
The first issue is the relationship between cooperatives and the state and, by extension, the role of development partners. Until the late 1980s there was a widespread belief that cooperatives must be promoted and protected by the State, and that donors should support them technically and financially. The collapse of the state-sponsored cooperative systems during the structural adjustment era of the 1990s was a painful demonstration of the failure of such policies. The ILO Recommendation 193 introduced a new cooperative development paradigm which emphasizes the autonomy and self-reliance of the cooperative enterprise. It ultimately boils down to the question: are members allowed to form cooperatives according to their own needs and aspirations, or are they being organized into cooperatives from the outside? Most people would agree with the first option – but in reality, we still see many projects and policies which apply the second option. 

The second issue is the realization that cooperatives, in Africa and elsewhere, merely constitute the formalized, officially recognized tip of an iceberg whose invisible body is composed of a myriad of associations, self-help groups, community-based organizations and similar initiatives which, in most cases, observe the principles of cooperation. Those initiatives are commonly grouped under the umbrella of the “social and solidarity economy” - even though most of the people involved would be unaware of that label. I am profoundly convinced that the multitude of SSE organizations play an absolutely essential role in the economies and societies of the developing world. And again, this boils down to a single question: are we promoting co-operatives as a specific form of socio-economic organization, or are we promoting co-operation as a mechanism for organized self-help and mutual assistance?

I recall a dinner that took place at the margins of the General Assembly of the International Cooperative Alliance in October 2005 in Cartagena, Colombia. We were five: Mr. Ocampo, the then UN Under Secretary-General for Social and Economic Affairs (UNDESA); Mr Salazar, ILO Executive Director of the Employment Sector; Mr Barberini, ICA President; Mr MacDonald, ICA Director-General; and myself. During the dinner Ocampo stressed the importance of the social economy (a term which was rather new to me at the time), proposed the formation of an alliance between UNDESA, ILO and the ICA around the subject. Upon his return to Geneva Mr Salazar shared this idea with Mr Somavia, the ILO Director-General, who supported it. He then asked me to write a paper on the relationship between the decent work agenda and the social economy, and to arrange a meeting between himself (Somavia) and Ocampo. This, I believe, was the starting point of the SSE discussion in the ILO which then developed its own dynamic.

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

Paper 7: Cooperatives and the Future of Work (2015)
One of my very first assignments after retirement from the ILO was a paper commissioned by the Cooperatives Unit on “Cooperatives and the Future of Work”. This paper has recently been published as an article in the book “Cooperatives and the World of Work ” (Routledge, Milton Park, 2020), so I would not like to repeat what was written there. Let me rather raise a point which was not touched upon in the paper: the relationship between artificial intelligence and cooperatives.

It is now common knowledge that more and more work processes which today are controlled by humans will tomorrow be led and controlled by artificial intelligence. The term “artificial intelligence” describes essentially a collection of connected algorithms which were originally programmed by humans, even though many of these algorithms have acquired self-learning capabilities. The question here is: would it be possible to insert cooperative values and principles into the code of such algorithms so that the processes controlled by AI become cooperative rather than solely profit-oriented? I believe that this is possible, and I think that the “cooperativization of artificial intelligence” should become a top priority of the international cooperative movement in the coming years.

5. What are some thoughts / advice you would like to impart with colleagues working on cooperatives and the wider SSE in the ILO and beyond?

Just two messages:

Go to the field and work with real people. Nothing is more fulfilling than experiencing the impact of your work on the individuals and the communities around you. And when you are working with cooperatives and the SSE you are in direct contact with our fellow human beings. Seize that opportunity.

Do not spend to much time thinking about your career within the ILO, rather concentrate on your current assignment. A job well done often leads to a promotion.

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.