Co-ops and cultural heritage: Mondiacult

A side event at this year’s UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development (Mondiacult 2022) looked at how cooperatives advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through culture and the creative sector.

The session, led by the International Cooperative Alliance, (ICA) was supported by the International Organisation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA) and Cooperatives of the Americas. It was held online, and in person with sessions in Brussels, Belgium, and San José, Costa Rica. 

Part I

The first part of the side event was hosted from Brussels. Martin Lowery, chair of the ICA Board Committee on the Cooperative Identity, said it was a follow-up to discussions at last year’s  World Cooperative Congress in Seoul, Republic of Korea (2021) which looked at the idea of cooperative culture and safeguarding cultural heritage. “This is the first literal action to be taken out of the Congress,” he said. 

Lowery highlighted how the ILO defines co-ops as a means to meet economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations. He posed a series of questions for participants – “How do co-ops safeguard cultural heritage? How do they organise workers in the cultural sector? How do they use education to build a better world?” – and said the co-operative movement is “very appreciative of the honour of being recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage” since 2016.

“What we hope to accomplish through this event is the ability to expand and deepen our institutional collaboration with UNESCO which we value highly, and to see more of these opportunities in the future,” he added.

Giuseppe Guerini, president of the European confederation of industrial and service co-operatives (CECOP), highlighted how “co-operative enterprises rise from the ability of people to imagine a new economy with the power of ideas”. He added: “It is no coincidence that co-operation started with philosophers like Robert Owen and Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen […] I’m convinced that without a cultural element, co-ops lose their main characteristics.” These characteristics include how co-op businesses are intergenerational, long-lasting and promote a “common good”, he said. 

Related: Co-operation inscribed into Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list

As a group of people coming together, “the co-op business model is the best way to organise and run a creative industry,” Guerini said. “We believe co-ops are the best solution to overcome loneliness, to build identity and a sense of belonging … There is no freedom without identity”.

The keynote address was given by Prof. Thomas Knubben of the Institute of Cultural Management at the University of Education, Ludwigsburg, Germany, who had taken  part in the panel on cooperative culture and heritage in Seoul. 

“In modern industrial and capitalist society, the principles of competition and concurrence, based on the idea of economic liberty, private property and inheritance laws, have held the upper hand over the spirit of co-operation,” he said. … “There has been a lot of collateral damage.”

Co-ops can repair this damage, he thinks, because “they are not just another form of business-making, they are a form of problem-solving”. He believes co-ops “offer important chances to safeguard cultural heritage and foster the creative sector” but warned that “co-operatives of culture are quite young and new”. To scale up their successes “we need to make more effort to learn what they can achieve in terms of advancing the SDGs through culture, and what can be learned from the experience of others. We have to establish further research.”

Round Table 1: Cooperatives and In/tangible Cultural Heritage

In the first panel, Diana Dovgan, secretary general of CECO & CICOPA, chaired a discussion on co-operatives as a cultural heritage of humanity and their roles, responsibilities and potential in safeguarding other elements of cultural heritage.

“Cooperatives and culture are a perfect match, but we need to convince others,” she said. “The purpose of culture is to survive through time and share stories of practice, history, tradition, skills and knowledge.” Dovgan highlighted two cooperative strengths in this area: their intergenerational dimension and the fact they are community owned.

Related: Reports from last year’s World Co-operative Congress

Joining the panel from Germany was Korbinian Marz from International Raiffeisen Union, who highlighted how his country’s strong co-operative heritage was led by pioneers such as Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch, who were inspired by the Rochdale Pioneers and other practitioners to develop an idea of “self-help with entrepreneurship”.

“Now every fourth German is a member of a co-op,” he said. In 2012, the German co-op movement used the momentum of the International Year of Cooperatives to successfully submit ‘the idea and practice of organising shared interests in co-operatives’ for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural assets.

“It’s a recognition for co-ops worldwide,” Marz said. “But now we need to continue to advocate for the co-operative idea. Live it. Be active in it. Highlight it in the public sphere, and emphasise it in the press and in politics.”

Giovanna Barni is co-president of the Italian Alliance of Cultural Cooperatives in Italy – one of the few countries with a national co-operative cultural body. Italy has almost 1,000 cooperatives active in cultural heritage and performing arts – which were all affected by Covid-19. 

The crisis had a “big impact on cultural organisations and workers,” she said, “but it also accelerated innovations to enhance the accessibility, sustainability and capability of the sector”. Partnerships played a key role, Barni added, with advances made in collaborations between producers and consumers, and the development of public-private partnerships. She wants to see an international network of cultural cooperatives, and the replication around the world of the Italian model.

From Kyrgyzstan, Dinara Chochunbaeva, from the Central Asia Crafts Support Association’s Resource Center, shared how her country successfully applied to UNESCO to inscribe two pieces of intangible cultural heritage: The art of making traditional Kyrgyz felt carpets (Ala-Kiyiz and Shyrdak) in 2012 and the art of making traditional Kyrgyz-Kazakh yurts in 2014.

Co-ops are involved in many parts of these crafts, she added.: “The craftsmen producing shyrdaks for local, tourist, and international markets are organised in co-ops, as are many of the sheep farmers who provide the wool for the felt,” she said. 

Ouiam Aziz is an argan oil entrepreneur in the Argan sector, including a spell at Cooperative Toudarte in Morocco. She saw how women in co-ops were supported through education, childcare and microloans, and wanted to bring even more value to their work.. “Hence my idea to set up a platform co-op – not just for the one co-operative, but for all those using the argan tree and other products typical for Morocco. We want to help more women get a good level of salary.“

Faizal Khan – registrar of cooperatives and acting director of department of MSME, Government of Fiji – shared how more than 90% of land in Fiji is community-owned and how the cooperative model matches local concepts of mutuality. “We are a small country,” he said, “but our culture and traditions have kept us going.” He gave the example of craftsmen and women keeping alive traditional crafts such as making wooden tanoa bowls, used for preparing and drinking kava, a local drink. An easy way to support such activities has been to make trademarks more accessible to crafters and microbusinesses, he said. 

George Oates, a research fellow at the Institute for Co-operative Digital Economy at the New School in New York, and executive director, Flickr Foundation (which acts as steward for the billions of images on the photo-sharing site), described how Flickr has been referred to as a world heritage site: “It’s not an ancient monument, it’s being made in real time … The foundation’s goal is to work out to make the archive last for 100 years; it’s my suspicion that a co-operative approach will help us to achieve that,” she said. 

Round Table 2: Cooperatives in the Creative Sector

The second panel, moderated by Iñigo Albizuri (ICA Board Member; President of CICOPA and Global Head of Public Affairs at Mondragon Corporation in the Basque Country of Spain), was dedicated to co-operatives as a viable alternative for organising creative sector workers.

The in-person element held in Brussels was hosted by SMART Belgium, whose secretary general, Yvon Jadoul, argued that the link between co-operatives and the commons was increasingly important; these movements have shared values and should “work together to combat the considerable forces of neoliberalism and capitalism”, he said. One reason creative co-ops are scarce, he thinks, is the “strong competition in the cultural world to have the right to exist and develop your project” – which is harder to achieve in a collective.

Francesca Martinelli is a researcher at Cooperative Doc Servizi, Italy – the largest co-op of professional show operators in the country, with over 6,000 members.

She explained how European workers in the entertainment, culture and creative industries began organising as co-operatives in the 1980s: “Usually they chose worker co-operatives, because there they can have the double role of members and workers.” As members they keep a certain level of autonomy in the management of their daily activities; as workers, they also access the opportunity to share resources and responsibilities, obtain decent working conditions, have more sustainable careers, and become part of a community of peers. 

Rebecca Harvey, executive editor at Co-operative News, described the publication’s role of amplifying  co-operative culture both internally and externally, so co-ops can learn from each other, and those outside the movement can learn about it too.

The last decade has brought significant growth in the number of stories about cultural co-ops, she said, as people started organising differently in response to crises. This includes media co-ops, who “have the freedom to investigate, comment and advocate on behalf of their members in a way that traditional media doesn’t because of political or financial constraints.” Her message to delegates was to “work more closely with journalists – co-operative and non-co-operative – who can help you share these stories.”

Also working with media is Amrul Hakim, co-founder of the SAMA Sejahtera Media Cooperative (KoSAMA), Indonesia. In his country, mainstream media is largely owned by conglomerates, funded by advertising and created for political interest. 

“My friends and I co-founded the Indonesian Film Co-op as many Indonesian communities are educated through films; through the co-op we have the space and opportunity to be more creative,” he said. They involve communities in the production process, screen films and take part in festivals – and also collaborate with other co-operatives, including Blake House Film Co-op in the UK. 


Co-operative culture is  “a very important topic for us”, said ICA president Ariel Guarco, “and an opportunity for our movement to continue defending our identity. Through this event I expect to strengthen links with UNESCO and help to incorporate co-operative values in different levels of education systems..”

Graciela Fernández Quintas, president of Cooperatives of the Americas,  added that while the pandemic has  brought an “increase in inequality [it] also confirmed the resilience of co-operatives for rebuilding and recovery”. 

She said: “We need to listen, and spread our knowledge, including our ancestral knowledge. It’s important to create a culture of exchange and get to know other cultures.”

Part II

Discussion 1: Education as the key to a better world

Athe second part of the event, in San José, Costa Rica, Erbin Crowell, executive director, Neighboring Food Co-operative Association (USA) described how he learned about co-ops “not from Robert Owen, but from indigenous communities … this alternative model for globalisation involved a high level of community engagement and education, and was a revelation to me.”

Discussion 2: Institutional efforts in promoting Principle 5 to safeguard cooperative


Fabiola Nader Motta, general manager, Organization of Brazilian Cooperatives (OCB), shared how her co-op works with members,workers, the public  and decision makers to show the difference between co-ops and traditional companies – for instance, through social and environmental projects, co-operative business promotion through the Negocios Coop platform, and national awards.  OCB also offers education opportunities through the Capacita coop website, with 30,000 people enrolled across 90 courses. Every year it presents the interests of cooperatives to the government, and there is activity to help strengthen the use of the COOP Marque across the country. All co-ops in the country fund this activity with contributions from their net surplus.

From Argentina, Javier di Biase, of Sancor Seguros Foundation, shared examples of how cooperatives support the cultural and educational space, in sectors like education, road safety, environmental security, occupational health and hygiene and agriculture. Partnership work is important here, too: for example in February 2021, a cooperation agreement was reached with UNESCO’s Montevideo Office to develop joint actions and strengthen the work of both institutions.

Discussion 3: International Partnership to Advance the 5th, 6th and 7th Cooperative Principles

The Cooperative College (UK) and ICA Americas shared examples of their collaboration to strengthen capacity and build cooperative resilience for the concern of the community and of the planet.

Sarah Alldred, international partnerships manager at the College, introduced the International Cooperative Working Group, a UK body set up in 2020 to represent major UK cooperative societies who work internationally. It coordinates discussions and shares information, and coordinates development projects and crisis response in line with Principle 6.

One such project is Resiliencia Cooperativa Mexico, whose goals are capacity building for women and youth; business development; co-operative marketing and communication solutions; and climate resilience. Carlos González Blanco, project development and research officer, ICA Americas, said the empowerment of women is an important element.

“In some communities, women have to comply with roles as wives and mothers, and do not have the capacity or support to develop careers,” he said,. “We try to help co-operatives encourage roles for women.” The project has run workshops on healthy economies and sustainable development with coffee producer and ecotourism co-ops. “We want them to be empowered businesswomen and grow within the co-operatives.”

Marcela Bautista Grimaldo and Dov Orian, CNM (Mexico National Council) representatives from the Chiapas region, said co-ops offer a chance to develop an area hard hit by  poverty and climate change. “We work with indigenous communities, women and displaced people to create new opportunities at the local level, especially for the most vulnerable,” said Grimaldo. “Co-operatives have great networks and reinforce social fabric.”

Orian explained how in Mexico, ecotourism networks are trying an integrated approach. “We are looking at how to reinforce the business approach of activity, while reinforcing the essence of co-operatives.” This includes working with other organisations – such as the government of Chiapas, which is facilitating the use of infrastructure.

Panel Discussion: What does collaboration for cultural policies for sustainable development look like?

Introducing the final session, Hagen Henrÿ, chair of the ICA Cooperative Law Committee, said that for the co-operative identity to be successfully translated into legal rules and practices, the subject needs to be integrated into the education curriculum at all levels.

“If we want to have peace, we cannot allow ourselves to not work towards sustainable development.If we have no social justice there is no political stability or peace. If we have no political stability, there is no economic security. If we have no economic stability, and then people just can’t listen to these nice ideas about sustainability and the environment.”

But the world is set to miss the UN SDGs, warned Andrew Allimadi, coordinator of cooperative issues at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “This was supposed to be a wake-up call for the world,” he said. “With conflicts, the climate emergency and other global crises, how can society even begin to address them?” 

He said that UN Secretary-General António Guterres  “sees cooperation as the way we can work to a common agenda and is proposing a world global social summit in an attempt to restart a global pact [and develop an] inclusive mechanism aiming for a global public common good … Cooperatives are a perfect example of how this can be done. The ICA’s message needs to be amplified within this global system.” 

Guilherme Brady, head of the Family Farming Engagement and Parliamentary Networks Unit at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that too often, agricultural areas are only seen as production spaces, not as spaces of life. “There is enormous cultural richness in rural areas, through folk music, festivals, arts, and food landscapes,” he said, adding that “the recognition of cultural heritage can benefit populations in rural areas”. 

He gave UNESCO’s Cooperative Cultural Heritage Systems project as an example of policy that can strengthen the livelihoods of communities, sustainability, family systems and landscape management.

Joining the panel from UNESCO, Christine M. Merkel (EU Expert Facility Creative Economy and Cultural Policies) congratulated the ICA on its work with UNESCO. “Mondiacult 2022 will be a turning point,” she said, but warned that the time for co-operatives to act is now. “Don’t be shy. There’s no need to be defensive,” she said.

She strongly supported calls for  an international networking platform among the already existing cultural cooperatives. “In my mind, this can be done very pragmatically and swiftly,” she said. “I think you might also consider using the UNESCO EU experts facility to help make this happen.” 

A useful deadline for the project would be 2025, when the convention on creativity and intangible heritage is held, she added.

Stefania Marcone, who moderated the World Cooperative Congress 2021 Parallel Session on Cooperative Culture and Cultural Heritage which led to the Mondiacult 2022 side event, stressed that cooperatives “cannot lose this opportunity to take this step forward.”

“We are here to contribute to shaping the future of the world and the future of the cultural policies for the years to come,” she concluded, “but it is important to remember that on this path we are not alone.”

With thanks to Rebecca Harvery,

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