MADISON, Wis.-There may still be a few weeks left of 2012, but the United Nations' International Year of Cooperatives (IYC) officially hit the one-year mark on Oct. 31. The hope now is the IYC laid at least some groundwork for future collaboration among cooperative sectors.
"I think we've seen a lot of discussion around two issues," said Brian Branch, president and CEO at the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU). "We found a lot of credit unions and credit union systems around the world were looking for an opportunity to refresh their message. The second thing was that there were a lot of calls for more cooperation across sectors; for credit unions to work with other types of cooperatives."
Branch cited Latin America as perhaps the best example of that, noting that many urban areas there "had become very saturated with credit unions and banks and microfinance institutions, yet there were large tracks of rural areas that weren't getting much service. We worked with a lot of CU systems to extend service to more remote rural areas using mobile technology."
The groups also worked on finding ways to utilize cooperatives so that farmers can more easily get access to loans, as well as get their crops to market more easily.
While he believes the United Nations could have better promoted the International Year of Cooperatives-Branch said that it did not receive as much publicity from the UN as the International Year of Microcredit in 2005-he also believes that the year allowed cooperatives an opportunity to get out in front of policymakers.
The Big Takeaway
The big takeaway for WOCCU, he said, is that the group needs to work on better projecting its messaging and branding-both tasks it plans to focus on in the coming year. Additionally, he said, cross-sector collaboration has become a useful business model for the group. "We used to work very hard to bring financial services to communities through credit unions, and now we find that if we combine that kind of collaboration with financial services and market cooperatives ... then we can increase household income significantly more than if we were only providing them with financial services."
From a domestic standpoint, CUNA's SVP of Communications Mark Wolff acknowledged the IYC didn't get much in the way of of media attention, but said U.S. credit unions that were involved in various IYC-related activities in their local communities did see some publicity.
Wolff said it may still be too early to assess how much the year moved the dial-not just for CUs, but for cooperatives at a larger level.
"Has it made a huge difference in public awareness of cooperatives? I don't think so-that's going to take a much longer effort," he said. "But by bringing different cooperative groups together it may have helped lay the groundwork" for a boosting involvement in cooperatives and their place in American society.
New Cooperative Groups Launch
The year also spawned events such as an international credit union summit in Quebec City, which drew WOCCU's Branch and CUNA CEO Bill Cheney. "There was a credit union presence at that international meeting with leaders from cooperative sectors around the world. and they had the opportunity to hear about opportunities and challenges everyone was facing," said Wolff.
A similar event, the Cooperatives United conference in Manchester, UK, was held in early November and served as the IYC's official culmination.
Wolff also pointed to increased cooperation between CUNA and other cooperative groups, including the National Cooperative Business Association, and said that new groups have begun to spring up regionally, including the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, which has seen some credit union participation.
More info: http://social.un.org/coopsyear/