The story of a friendship: Juan Somavia and Ivano Barberini

News | 03 September 2020
Juan Somavia
Juan was a seasoned diplomat who, after an exceptional international career, became the ILO’s 9th Director-General , a post he occupied from 1999 until 2012. Ivano started his career at the age of 21 in an Italian cooperative, and 41 years later he was elected as the President of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), a position he held until 2009. Except their age (Juan was born in 1941, Ivano in 1939) there was little that bound the two men together. This was until in 2001, when the International Labour Conference discussed an item on the “Promotion of Cooperatives” which led to the adoption of ILO Recommendation 193, in 2002 under the same title. One year later, Ivano invited Juan to attend the ICA General Assembly in Oslo. Juan accepted, concluding his keynote address at the event with the words; “I believe in you and what you are doing. Let’s keep cooperating together”. At the evening reception, the two men shared a light moment and a few glasses…

Signing of the ICA-ILO MoU on 10 February 2004
In 2004, they met in Geneva to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and a “Common Cooperative Agenda”, the first of its kind since the establishment of the two organizations.

At the signing ceremony Juan and Ivano agreed to meet once a year to review the progress in implementing the MoU. While this could have been an empty diplomatic phrase, they actually kept their promise and met three times, in February 2005, 2006 and 2007. The second of these meetings took place at the ICA Office in Geneva, and Juan, quite exceptionally, agreed to walk to the ICA rather than being driven.

First review meeting of the ICA-ILO MoU, February 2005, Geneva
Their photos together bear testimony to the fact that on each occasion, Juan and Ivano got closer and eventually developed a genuine friendship. This might be due to the fact that the two organizations posed no threat to each other, they were not competing. The ICA and the ILO had separate constituencies but pursued a common goal. As Juan recalled in his speech at the Oslo event: “Albert Thomas [ILO’s first Director-General], perhaps put it best when he addressed your 1930 Congress: ‘Our two organizations,’ he said, ‘(have) been technically and constitutionally linked together. But the thing that matters most is neither technique nor procedure, it is the spirit which animates the organizations from within--the communion of the hearts.’”

Of great importance is the fact that the ICA was the only non-government organisation invited to speak at the African Union Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State on Poverty and Employment which took place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in September 2004. This summit provided an opportunity to highlight the special contribution of co-operatives to the global aim of reducing poverty based on ‘self-help’.

Third review meeting February 2007
In 2005, Juan travelled to Genoa to receive the “Colombe d'Oro per la Pace”, an Italian Peace Prize awarded by the “Archivio Disarmo ” research institute, which at the time, was presided over by Ivano. Juan delivered an ad-hoc speech, ignoring the written text prepared by his speech writer, and took the opportunity to explore, guided by Ivano, the city of Genoa. They returned at 1 a.m. the following morning…