ILO COOP 100 Interview

Interview with Mark Levin, former ILO Human Resources Department Director

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 | 12 May 2020

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

I grew up in London, and at the age of 22 I moved to Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev desert in southern Israel. The kibbutz, at that time, was for me the epitome of a cooperative way of life based on the collectivization of production and consumption. In 1982, having left Kibbutz Revivim, I joined the staff of the Afro-Asian Institute in Tel Aviv as a tutor-lecturer in cooperative, development and labour studies. The Institute was part of Histadrut, the General Federation of Labour, and aimed at developing leadership for trade unions, cooperatives and community organizations in Africa and Asia through training courses both in Israel and abroad. Its philosophy mirrored the experience of the Israeli labour movement which at that time regarded cooperatives as one arm of the broader labour movement which included trade unions, social security institutions and educational and cultural activities. In 1994 the Institute was merged with parallel institutions doing similar work in Latin America, the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe and I became Deputy Director of the newly established International Institute of the Histadrut.

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

As an affiliate of the Histadrut, the Institute maintained close ties with what was to become ACTRAV and with the Cooperative Branch (COOP)at the ILO. I ran training courses in cooperative development in cooperation with the ILO and in 1995 or thereabouts became involved with the COOPNET Programme, a DANIDA-financed development cooperation programme aiming at strengthening cooperative education and training institutions in developing countries. In early 1996 I was approached by Joe Fazzio, Chief of COOP, and was asked if I would be prepared to take on the role of CTA of COOPNET, based in Geneva. In August 1996 I joined the Cooperative Branch.

What are some highlights of your work at the ILO on cooperative development? What was it like working on cooperatives then?

Without a doubt the highlight of my time in COOP was the adoption of the ILO’s Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193). My main contribution to the teamwork which characterized COOP was to use my background and networks to rekindle, together with key figures in the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) such as Yehudah Paz, the interest of the international labour movement in cooperatives. Without the support of the Workers’ Group at the ILO it would not have been possible to get the promotion of cooperatives on the agenda of the International Labour Conference (ILC). Through political networking with workers organizations, Lord Brett, who was at the time spokesperson of the Workers’ Group was persuaded to propose the revised cooperative recommendation for discussion at the ILC. I recall that the Employers were at best lukewarm about cooperatives but Brett persuaded them that they could not miss the opportunity to discuss cooperatives which, after all, are a form of business enterprise. The governments fell into line and the Governing Body decided to place cooperatives on the agenda of the ILC in 2001. At the ILC itself I was assigned the role of Committee Coordinator, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite the long hours. After the ILC, I participated together with other COOP colleagues in promoting the new Recommendation until I left the Branch in 2003.

Looking back, another personal highlight was the development of links with the employee ownership movement (ESOPs), particularly in the United States. I believed that, armed with the new Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193), the cooperative movement had a solid platform for reaching out to ESOPs, as well as other solidarity-based enterprises.

Much of my work in COOP was, of course, driven by the human resource development needs of cooperatives in developing countries. Through the COOPNET Programme my colleagues and I developed educational and training activities and materials mainly directed at cooperative colleges in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The ICA was naturally a key partner in this work which built on the successes of former COOP officials.

I suspect that working for COOP at that time (1996-2003) is not much different from today. We were a relatively small team of colleagues who enjoyed working with each other, employing our creativity and experience to develop new ideas, proposals, projects, etc. all the time. The unity brought about by a shared philosophy of life was key, as was the solidarity created by the often-tiring battle to protect the cooperative work of the ILO inside the Office. In addition to the normal rivalry for resources that characterizes all large organizations I often felt that COOP had to fight against forces that either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand what we were all about.

How do you see the role of cooperatives in the future of work?

It is some years since I have had any meaningful involvement with cooperatives as my ILO career took me in a different direction. I hesitate, therefore, to make any comments about the role of cooperatives in the future of work. Nevertheless, in a general sense while the world is rapidly changing the value of the cooperative idea remains valid particularly with regard to the “human-centred” approaches that the ILO is currently promoting. In developing countries, the core idea that people with limited resources can pool their efforts in order to provide themselves with their needs remains true. In industrialized countries the search for connection and community render the cooperative idea obviously increasingly relevant. As we (hopefully) transition into a post-Covid-19 society the initiatives already being undertaken by cooperatives and SSEs will increase in value and importance. The question remains whether or not the ILO will be able to seize the opportunities.

How do you interpret/understand the growing momentum around the social and solidarity economy (SSE)?

The growing momentum around the SSE is a result of a number of factors. Principally, however, the SSE fills a gap between public organizations and investor-driven enterprises that are unable to respond adequately to the needs of ordinary people. Coupled with this, the SSE is a reflection of people’s search for greater control over their lives through community action. The flexibility of the SSE and the variety of different forms (cooperatives, foundations, mutual benefit associations, etc.) is an important element in the growth of the SSE.