INTERVIEW WITH DR. ANTHONY JENSEN, CO-AUTHOR OF “WAKING THE ASIAN PACIFIC COOPERATIVE POTENTIAL”

This interview was released by The International Cooperative Alliance Asia Pacific and has C-Mac Industries (an Australian workers Cooperative) as a case study.

Dr. Jensen is the lead editor and key author of the book “Waking the Asian Pacific Cooperative Potential”. He is also the Founder of the Asia Pacific Cooperative Research Partnership, with Prof. Kurimoto.

Q 1. What was the genesis of the book?

This project had its genesis in collaborative thinking around the idea of comparative research. An idea whose time had come. It started with discussions I had held with Mr Bien Nito at the University of Asia Pacific on a comparative study of cooperatives I had conducted in Italy and Australia, and how this could be applied to Asia-Pacific. Ms Melina Morrison of the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals (BCCM) in Australia suggested that I put this to the ICA-AP Research Committee in Bali in 2015, where it struck a deep chord with Professor Akira Kurimoto, Professor Yasavaatha Dongre, Professor Morris Altman, and Dr. Robby Tulus. As a result, we founded the Asia Pacific Cooperative Research Partnership (APCRP), and invited Professor Seungkwon Jang to join us as a founding member. The APCRP was fortunate to have a very strong editorial board with Professor Kurimoto, specialising in consumer cooperatives; Dr. Tulus, in credit unions and cooperative policy; Professor Dongre in agricultural cooperatives; Professor Jang in worker, consumer and agricultural cooperatives; and Professor Altman in cooperative theory.

The first meeting of the APCRP was held in early 2014 in Bangkok, with 22 participants from across the region. The scope of the research was defined and work began, including the recruitment of eleven countries and twenty-two case studies. The concept was supported by Mr Balu Iyer, Regional Director of ICA-AP, on the back of the substantial work already done to date by the ICA-AP Research Committee. Professor Morris Altman negotiated a book contract with Elsevier.

Q 2. What are key takeaways from Asia cooperative experience?

The key takeaway was that the APCRP initiated a new phase of research into cooperatives in the Asia Pacific. Having been eclipsed by neo liberal ideology, this book positions cooperatives in the renewal phase of theory and practice. Acknowledged as a group of revisionist academics, APCRP redefined the position of cooperatives, from being seen as inadequate and failures, to that of being viewed as a superior business model. Subsequently, cooperatives are now viewed as a model with untapped potential.

The APCRP academics, in conducting this project, positioned cooperative research as being distinct from that conducted in the West. They positioned their scholarship in the context of cooperatives sitting within Asian business systems, “which cannot be understood by concepts developed in the West” (Witt and Redding 2013).

Asia consists of a number of different economies in which certain types of cooperatives thrive unevenly across the region. Witt and Redding (2013) described ten factors which define these Asian business systems. One key factor they defined is “multiplexity” meaning that different business systems co-exist within an economy. Here we take a new view of cooperatives, that rather as living on the margins, can be seen as a “state within a state “. We see potential in Asia for cooperatives “nestling’ within a system of opposites, of co-existing, of being the possibility of being the “new normal”, and therefore having the ability to affect the development of the state and the value systems underlying corporate behaviour.

Q 3. Within the Asia Pacific context are there any specific tools for practitioners to establish effective cooperatives?

This case study research provides an invaluable matrix of factors which impact the successful formation and trajectory of cooperatives, giving practitioners an explanation of how the cooperative businesses model starts and functions.  These factors are the fundamental tools of the practitioner. In addition, the context of the book is underpinned by as described by Profan explanation of the theoretical concept that cooperatives will out-perform their investor competitors if they implement the cooperative principles Altman (2020). This presents a major challenge to the perceived wisdom that the neoclassical model is the best one for economic development. 

The theme of the book is invaluable to practitioners as it is a study defining the obstacles that cooperatives face in the start-up phase, and reporting on how these obstacles were overcome in subsequent phases. In addition, this study is focused on four different types of cooperatives – agricultural, consumer, credit/thrift, and worker. The matrix/model is developed further using the variety of Asian business systems approach to explain different outcomes in different national political economies. The final stage of the model uses macro factors of the state, civil society and the market to explain the emergence and micro factors of ownership, governance, and human relations, to explain functionality and trajectory. Using these concepts, practitioners and policymakers can craft and design cooperatives to fit different political economies. They can also predict outcomes of state interventions to improve cooperative formation and resilience.

Q 4. What are the key lessons from case studies regarding the role of cooperatives in a modern economy? 

This raises questions as to what the future economy might look like. A key lesson of this project was that cooperatives provide an alternative model which can be embraced by many sectors of both the traditional and modern economy. Through a series of twenty-one extraordinary case studies, this book presents a rethink and challenge to the way capitalism fails society, and in the way, the production and distribution of wealth is organised. In the sustainability and resiliency of financing, production and distribution of wealth and opportunity, the case study cooperatives provide key lessons about how to create a more egalitarian and democratic world. A key lesson of the case studies is the confirmation of proof of concept where cooperative start-up and thriving was effected by important local leaders.

Another key lesson that the book provides, through a study of a number of successful cooperatives, the ability to scale up which is a necessary alternative view to the negative perspective that cooperatives are not a suitable model for lifting people out of poverty. The book is a rich ‘how to do it’ series of examples to counter these negative views. The Uralungal Labour Cooperative Society in India evolved from a group of 13 men in construction to diversifying into Intermediate Technology with 5000 members; Asia Pro in the Philippines developed a model to supply employees to companies, and now has over 80,000 employees; the award-winning retailer Saigon Coop demonstrated a joint venture approach to partner with the Singapore cooperative grocery chain FairPrice, establishing cooperative retail chain in Vietnam.

Q 5. How do you see the future for worker cooperatives in the region?

Worker cooperatives are relatively scarce across the region but their theoretical potential is enormous if they can overcome start-up problems. The case studies demonstrate the potential of worker cooperatives succeeding in a range of scenarios in the pursuit of jobs: business start-up and diversification, contract employee hire, business succession of the family firm to employees, strike action over wages, trade union job creation, and social mission supported by consumer cooperatives. Their scarcity, however, reflects the disadvantages that they face in the start-up phase when the investor model is preferred. Workers wanting to start a mutual business are generally risk-averse, lack financial skills, and lack access to investment and working capital. Crucially there is often a scarcity of state support and market entry is costly. In this scenario, demonstrated in the case studies, leaders with a social vision emerged from civil society institutions, with their commitment to overcome these problems and launch the cooperative. The case studies demonstrated this could be achieved.

They provide replicable models that can be used as a template to roll out across the region in joint ventures. This results in the major lesson of the research that there needs to be a redefining of the role of the state, from control to support, in facilitating cooperatives’ success in competing in competitive markets and accessing capital in the early stages. The joint venture to bring the Saigon Coop in Vietnam into existence is a good example.

Once launched and past the start-up phase, some of the case the studies leveraged their strategic competitive advantage through efficient communication channels, better motivation, and so outperform the investor model. The key lesson is that conflict is a tension to be managed, not eliminated. As a researcher stated, “Through conflict and debate a new organisation was formed”. The key lesson from the highly successful Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society (Isaac and Williams 2017) is that a change to “right” support in the role of the state is required if worker cooperatives are to reach their potential and replicate these case study successes across the region. Worker cooperatives can achieve their full potential in Asia and deliver social and economic good.

To do this, it is hoped this book provides impetus for states in Asia to legislate to establish institutions to support worker cooperatives, as has occurred in many Western countries, e.g. the Marcora Law in Italy (1985) established two funds the FONCOOPER and CFI (Campagnia Finanziaria Industrie) with funding and advice.

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