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Monday, 15 October 2012

Québec Summit on Co-operatives

Last week I spent four days at a once-in-a-lifetime conference, the 2012 Québec Summit on Co-operatives. The meeting attracted nearly three thousand attendees from over ninety countries. The Québec Summit was the first meeting of its kind, a gathering of the world's leading co-operatives, fleshed out with academics, activists, members of NGOs, and co-op federations and associations.

The meeting was truly a marvel. It showcased the unity of a somewhat disparate movement, demonstrating that it was very possible for co-ops to compete with business enterprises in the global economy. The atmosphere was charged, fueled by several high profile guests such as Québec Premier Pauline Marois, performer Gregory Charles, and alter-globalist Riccardo Petrella. While the experience was moving because of its sheer size, there are several aspects that jump out at me as concerns, which is the subject of this post.

The most auspicious in question was the role of Desjardins. Desjardins is a financial co-operative, a federation of caisses populaires, in Québec which has expanded outside that market. It is the largest co-operatively owned financial institution in North America, and it is also the largest financial institution in Québec, with 45 000 employees and roughly 80 per cent of Québec residents holding at least one account. Desjardins is an excellent enterprise with a serious focus on providing services that people need. It consistently ranks highly in terms of social responsibility projects, and it plays a key role in supporting the growth of the co-op sector. Of course the size of Desjardins speaks to the capability of co-operatively run businesses to become players in free market economies, but the issue is that Desjardins is virtually unchallenged in terms of its size and scope.

For this being one of two official ICA events in the International Year of the Co-operative, there was a sense that Desjardins itself had a disproportionately large stamp on it- perhaps explained by the fact that it was responsible for ensuring the success of the event, financially, logistically and in every other way.  Still, it would have helped enormously to have the Summit at least somewhat more participatory. Desjardins had 75 full-time staff organising the conference, with tasks varying from the logistical such as finding sponsors and designing logos to the substantive such as picking speakers. It is also a significant concern that the CEO suggested that Québec hold a second summit of this kind, organised and supervised by Desjardins again - however, I have since heard that she has backed down on this claim. While I am certainly glad that Desjardins was able to pool resources in order to put this event on, I am troubled by large institutions leading a movement without keeping close to democratic principles or the realities on the ground. Desjardins absolutely should continue to support summits and congresses, but it would be far more preferable that it come to to table as an equal player with other members of the co-op world.

This co-optation was very much reinforced by the use of several studies that were commissioned to showcase co-ops. Firms such as McKinsey and IPSOS were contracted to legitimise research that would be palatable to people outside the world of co-operatives. These organisations polled various groups in order to determine where the co-op sector was successful and where it was not. The information, in a lot of regards, was very helpful, notably that many people just don't know what a co-operative is, and that the best way to remedy this would be to state this more clearly. However, the sleek packaging of these reports was designed not just to present some useful data, but the medium is the message. Data from a respected, international, mainstream, and "objective" firm is designed to help co-operatives fit better into the existing economic status quo, rather than work to change it by being a recognisable alternative. Further, a very significant focus was placed on profit. This discourse of profit was not situated in terms of keeping the co-op operational, nor was it tempered by sustainability either socially or economically. The idea was the pursuit of profit, much in the same sense that it is routinely discussed by large transnationals.

Another issue was the lack of diversity amongst panelists. Predominantly, this relates to youth, women, and non-Westerners. There was a serious rhetoric that these groups flourish in co-operatives and that they are indeed not only the future, but the present of the movement. While the keynote speakers were very diverse, the plenary discussions (which were essentially roundtables) were surprisingly homogenous. Very few plenaries featured speakers who were female or from outside Europe and North America. What is perhaps more shocking, however, is that youth were virtually excluded from speaking.  

One last element that I'd like to mention is that there was an incredible lack of emphasis on the role of the state. Whether from the leaders of large co-ops, from researchers, or from other organisations, there seemed to be few that argued that it was the prerogative and responsibility of the state to invest in the strengthening of the co-operative sector so that it can become self-sufficient. There was even a roundtable discussion about capitalisation, but this was effectively balanced out by another plenary that suggested that government involvement (from a regulatory perspective) tends to create trouble. What was interesting was that intervention was shaped as state funding paired with crippling regulation, without really having a positive discussion of them together and how that might manifest itself.

I don't intend to paint a monolithic picture of the Québec Summit as negative. While these are elements that I, and many of my colleagues, found distressing or uncomfortable, there were certainly some incredible highlights. There were two associated events, the Imagine Conference, presented by St. Marys University, and a conference on Worker Co-operatives presented by Le Reseau. These events were great, but the registration was separate from the main conference, and thus not everyone benefited from them (the Imagine Conference, for example, had about 600 participants instead of the 2800 at the Summit).

Another important element was that the conference billed co-ops as high profile, essentially attracting public interest, attention from activists, and serious academic analysis. The event was actually well covered in the media, in particular the French-language press in Canada. This function was also supported by the Imagine Conference, which presented a radical perspective about economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Among other things, the Dean of the St. Mary's Business School, Dr. Patricia Bradshaw stated that St. Mary's University was committed to continue to disseminate the research findings.  She stated, "We want to collaborate with other academic departments.  We seek to form a network of university partners committed to co-op development.  We need to develop programs whereby students can run co-ops."

Fortunately, one of the most impressive parts of the summit was the keynote address, made by Riccardo Petrella, an Italian co-operator, economist, and alter-globalist. His address challenged the notion of development, urging the co-op sector to focus on meeting social needs, remaining close to communities, to nature, and to values of democracy.

In all, the conference was an excellent chance to meet fellow co-operators, and as someone who is brand new to the sector, it was a remarkable chance to see just how diverse the movement is. Speaking to colleagues and to new friends allowed me the chance to see what some of the major debates and tensions are within the movement.

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