31 October 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Launch of International Year of Cooperatives


As the United Nations launched the International Year of Cooperatives (2012) today, panellists at a Headquarters press conference laid out the benefits that financial institutions and other businesses using the cooperative business model could bring to a troubled global economy.

Sha Zukang, Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), said cooperative businesses could help strengthen local economies and empower their citizens, especially marginalized people, as they tapped into a community’s resources.  The United Nations hoped to raise awareness — among individuals, communities and Governments — of how cooperatives could advance social development and achieve the Millennium Development Goals, he added.

With a theme of “Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World”, the International Year was launched this morning with an informal round table discussion and a plenary meeting of the sixty-sixth session of the General Assembly this afternoon.  The framework setting up the International Year was outlined in Assembly resolution 65/184.

Other panellists gathered at today’s press conference were Piet Moerland, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Netherlands-based Rabobank; Pauline Green, President of the International Co-Operative Alliance; and Monique F. Leroux, Chair of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Desjardins Group.

Mr. Sha said the United Nations appreciated the partnership of the international cooperative movement and thanked Rabobank for its general support, which he hoped would bring greater momentum to the cooperative movement.

Spread across a spectrum of sectors from agriculture to banking to housing, cooperatives are a type of business enterprise owned and controlled by the members that they serve.  Rabobank is a cooperative bank headquartered in the Netherlands and one of the 30 largest financial institutions in the world.  It is governed by its members and provides a wide range of financial services.

To ensure the initiative’s success, Rabobank Group came forward as the first donor to the International Year and earmarked $200,000 to help finance its communications campaign and other activities to support the role of cooperatives in social development.

Mr. Moerland said the cooperative business model was underestimated by the media as well as by legislators and governmental regulators.  He said he was happy that the United Nations had declared 2012 as the International Year of the Cooperative.  Rabobank was the only cooperative bank in the Netherlands and its roots went back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when it began helping rural citizens, farmers and small and mid-size businesses gain access to loans with acceptable conditions, he said.

“Cooperative banks help make people independent,” said Mr. Moerland, adding that these type of financial institutions could help the 4 billion people living in developing and emerging countries gain access to financial products.  It would be a huge challenge in 2012 to make financial services available to people around the world and help them develop their businesses and create livelihoods.

As CEO of the Desjardins Group, Ms. Leroux heads one of the largest cooperative financial groups in Canada with 5.8 million members.  She announced that the 2012 International Summit of Cooperatives would be held in October 2012 to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives.  The International Summit would aim to advance the role of cooperatives and mutuals in the global economy; lay out the performance and evolution of their business models; and assess their socio-political influence in the global economy.

She said the Occupy Wall Street movement was a reminder of the importance of human capital over financial capital.  “The cooperative model was a way to bring long-term prosperity to people”, she added.  “It was there to support people and contribute to the real economy”.

Pauline Green, president of the International Co-Operative Alliance, said the size, scope and reach of the cooperative business model was one of the world’s best kept secrets.  “We are not business as usual,” Ms. Green said, adding that cooperative businesses help remove people from poverty and keep wealth within communities as they help people build businesses and skills.  They have been helping to develop societies for 170 years.  With headquarters in Geneva, the Alliance is a non-profit group with 260 member organizations from 96 countries that represent about 1 billion individuals.

In response to a question on how Rabobank kept its roots in the community while becoming one of the world’s largest banks, Mr. Moerland said it was a balancing act.  The bank grew its business in the Netherlands for 80 years and then ventured outside about three decades ago.  It was now in 45 countries.  Through trial and error, Rabobank chose a clear strategy to focus on food and agriculture.  “People have to keep eating all over the world,” he said, adding that “the relationship with people in emerging countries was obvious”.

In response to a question about whether cooperative banks could have failed in the same way that many commercial banks did during the recent financial crisis, Ms. Green said cooperatives were values-based institutions that gave priority to the interests of their members.  Cooperative banks always had more cautious investment records.  “Some investment banks thought of us as outdated and old-fashioned,” she said, adding that cooperative banks had sustained their members and small businesses throughout the financial crisis.

Ms. Leroux added that the cooperative business model adopted a long-term outlook and the purpose was not to provide earnings and profits every quarter for shareholders.

Ms. Green said the asset base of financial cooperatives had continued to grow throughout the financial crisis and they had continued to lend.  There had been a flight to cooperative banks over the last 45 years.

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For information media • not an official record