ILO COOP 100 Interview

ILO COOP 100 Interview with Colombia Pérez Muñoz, Director of the Institute of Social Economy and Co-operativism INDESCO - Cooperative University of Colombia

Established in March 1920, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit marks its Centenary in 2020. On this occasion, the ILO COOP 100 Interview series features past and present ILO colleagues and key partners who were closely engaged in the ILO's work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). The interviews reflect on their experience and contributions in the past and shares their thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work.

Article | 28 October 2020

1. Could you tell us about your studies and background and how you came about working with cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE)?

My arrival to co-operativism and the social and solidarity economy was not orthodox. I am not an economist and at that time I was not an entrepreneur either. My original educational background is on Language Therapy. I studied at the National University of Colombia, and one of my first jobs was in a project to create a new university in Medellin, the city where I was born. As a result, I also had the opportunity to become a very young dean, which meant my incursion into the academic world. Subsequently, I obtained a master's degree in Education at the Externado University of Colombia, and that is how my professional profile changed, from health to education. Later on, I obtained a second master's degree in University Management at the University of Los Andes, while working on different posts at the Cooperative University of Colombia, where I arrived in the 90s as a teacher. I have also been director of social projection, postgraduate studies and planning at the Cooperative University of Colombia, which has allowed me to closely experience the construction of this institutional project that has the values of solidarity and cooperation in its DNA. The process has been challenging, mainly because it brings about a different proposal from the traditional ones.

Through the University I have been able to meet the pioneers of co-operativism and social and solidarity economy in Colombia and in the world. I have sought to find opportunities to participate in learning processes and knowledge building about its theory, reality, and political project. Moreover, the multi-campus structure of the university has allowed us to learn about good practices and challenges of these organizations in every region of the country. Today, I am not only a learner, but I am also a cooperative member. I am also an active citizen who seeks to contribute to the transformation of the society by exploring and promoting another way of making economy. This is a way that puts men and women at the center and makes them interact in an associative way to produce, distribute and consume in a fair and responsible way in pursuit of good living.

2. You work in the Cooperative University of Colombia, and you are the Director of the Institute of Social Economy and Co-operativism. Could you tell us about what the University and the institute stand for?

The Institute of Social Economy and Cooperativism - INDESCO is the mother cell of the Cooperative University of Colombia. INDESCO was founded in Bogotá, Colombia, at the end of the 50s. Its founders were Rymel Serrano-Uribe, Henry Serrano-Uribe and Carlos Uribe-Garzón, all members of cooperatives that were inspired by cooperative experiences such as the one of Moses Coady in Antigonish, Canada, and the one of Father Arizmendiarrieta in Mondragon, Spain. They decided to contribute to the education and strengthening the cooperatives that were flourishing at that time in Colombia.

With the support of international cooperation, the project was gradually consolidated, and in 1968 INDESCO was recognized as an Auxiliary Institution of the Cooperative Movement because of the consulting, advisory and educational services it offered. Later on, after successive transformations, it became the Cooperative University of Colombia in 1983, and in the 90s it expanded throughout the country under the principles of decentralization and democratization of higher education.

During all this time, cooperativism studies have remained in the curricula of all University’s courses. In the strategic plan of the 21st century, the subject is explicitly taken up as a contribution to the process of building the institutional identity and its contribution to society, based on the values ​​and principles of co-operativism and the solidarity economy in its mission and support functions.

INDESCO was reactivated as a national research institute in 2007. Its mission was to contribute to the construction of knowledge, education, and to the development of a culture of solidarity economy and cooperativism as a contribution to innovation and social transformation. INDESCO has a network that links professors, researchers and entrepreneurs in projects and processes of knowledge management with networks and organizations that represent the cooperative and solidarity model at the local, regional and global levels. In addition, it publishes the Cooperativismo & Desarrollo journal, that disseminates research results that strengthen the academic community around the world.

Since 2012, the University became a member of the International Cooperative Alliance, and together with other academic networks have developed activities and projects that have connected us with governments, organizations, unions and civil society, regarding issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and the necessary public, private and solidarity link to achieve them.

We have also created a Free Chair on Solidarity Economy that convene interest groups to reflect and influence on issues such as family agriculture, solidarity education, public policies and the construction of peace processes that have been a priority for Colombia. In recent years, more than 30,000 people have come together in this space. Moreover, we have the Rymel Serrano Award that encourages solidarity entrepreneurship and social innovation among young university students, either by supporting organizations or creating new ones as an alternative for their professional development.

We have been promoting a university ecosystem for the social and solidarity economy that, as it matures, generates synergies and impacts on the development of Solidarity Territories, where the University has its radius of action.

3. As an educator working on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy, what do you think is appealing to young people, your students about these models? And how do you think these models can be made more relevant to the challenges facing young people today?

I believe that we still have gaps on this issue. It has not been easy to achieve the generational connection of young people with the solidarity economy for different reasons. Among these reasons are the lack of knowledge of this socio-economic model by the society, and an educational model that motivates individualism and predatory competitiveness, which makes our courses or proposals to be considered rare and utopian in the curriculum. Furthermore, sometimes the methodologies that have been used are quite traditional. More emphasis has been placed on theory and doctrine, and therefore they do not always align with the realities or the expectations of young people.

The Cooperative University of Colombia has been working on educational innovation through action-research methodologies, and we are seeing more and better testimonies of young people who are becoming interested in fair trade, food security, responsible consumption, active citizenship, transformative economies, solidarity entrepreneurship and social innovation. What has contributed to this? The updating of the educational project of the University with the implementation of a critical model by competencies; the qualification of teachers; the creation of communities of practice; the gradual activation of the cooperative and solidarity DNA at all levels; the use of technologies of information and communication; and the close relationship with organizations and networks that, at different levels, show the relevance of this socio-economic and environmental model.

At the same time, academic research has allowed us to give greater importance to young people’s voice. They become more and more interested in active pedagogies, topics that connect them with their future careers and jobs, and practical experiences in their contexts. Every year, improvements are made and the more articulated the ecosystem is, the better the results are. More recently, professors are designing national multicampus virtual classes where students from all locations interact in an interdisciplinary way. They are able to carry out activities to allow for linkages with local markets in their locations and also achieve solidarity entrepreneurship and social innovation projects between several cities. Likewise, there are seedbeds of formative research that support research projects or establishment of cooperatives to contribute to the digital transformation and support projects in ecotourism, food processing, and the circular economy, among other areas. A new curriculum is being prepared that mainstreams social and solidarity economy in other subjects and it is complemented by internships in companies of the sector and in national and international interdisciplinary projects with emphasis on the generational connection of students and experts.

4. You have been involved in the roll out of training tools like My.Coop, on Managing Your Agricultural Cooperative. Could you tell us about your experiences with My.Coop?

The initiative to adapt and use My.Coop tool in Colombia came from my participation in the second Academy on Social and Solidarity Economy of the ILO, held in Montreal in 2011, where I shared experiences and talk about projects with experts from different parts of the world. The adaptation and use of My.Coop became a reality thanks to public-private and solidarity partnership of several organizations. A group of trainers of trainers was consolidated, which allowed for subsequent replications in different cities of the country. Since then, we have connected processes from the University with experiences of women and peasants that have been very rich in terms of knowledge exchange and dialogue.

One of the best practices has been with the Women Coffee Growers of Huila [Las Mujeres Cafeteras del Huila] they are an example of empowerment and capacity building through association, mutual aid, democracy and self-management. Thanks to My.Coop, they increased their entrepreneurial potential. This tool has also been successfully tested with associative enterprises of reinserted former guerrillas members and in agricultural cooperatives in various regions of Colombia. We still have the challenge of making My.Coop known among young university students in order to incorporate it into new projects.

5. You have collaborated with the ILO on a number of occasions across the years in Colombia. In your experience during these collaborations, what do you think is the value added of the ILO in its work on promoting and advancing cooperatives, mutuals and other social and solidarity economy organizations? How is the ILO relevant to the work on coops and wider SSE?

Indeed, my team and I have had the opportunity to collaborate with the ILO on different occasions. For example, through the adaptation of other methodologies such as Score and IMESUN, as well as through the mapping of solidarity economy public policies in Colombia. In addition, there was an important opportunity for collaboration in 2017, after the signature of the peace agreements, through the Academy of Rural Development and Decent Work for Peacebuilding where we were able to coordinate projects and exchange with important social actors. More recently, in the midst of the confinement, the University, the ILO and the International Cooperative Alliance celebrated together the International Day of Cooperatives, resulting in an agreement to implement new actions for the rest of the year, including the organization of academic events and knowledge exchange in the framework of the Solidarity Territories project led by the university.

In all these spaces, the common denominator of the ILO has been its capacity to promote social dialogue and the development of the collective brain of countries and organizations by fostering knowledge exchange and providing global and local perspectives. This has been possible thanks to the experience of its team, which is able to deal with all types of stakeholders. In this context, members of cooperatives and social and solidarity economy organizations participate in development cooperation programmes and projects that allow them to strengthen technical and management capacities, entrepreneurial skills and capacities to influence public policies necessary to promote decent work and employment, quality of life and the good living in the communities.

6. The world of work is experiencing various challenges, including the unfolding crises around the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think cooperatives, mutuals and wider social and solidarity economy institutions can be partners in responding to these challenges in the context of Colombia?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reconfigured the world and has exacerbated the crises caused by social, economic and environmental inequalities and lack of inclusion suffered by the majority of men and women. In this context, solidarity and cooperation for the common good are values that are mobilizing the society, which has to face the enormous challenges related to economic reactivation, inclusive education, digital transformation and environmental conservation. For this reason, social and solidarity economy organizations, including cooperatives and mutuals, are playing a very important role in Colombia and in the world, as has been seen in other crises.

There is a documented global recognition that, as per its values and principles, social and solidarity economy and its organizations have the potential to empower communities and foster transition from the informal economy towards decent and productive work and employment. Through SSE, women, young people and communities in vulnerable contexts can improve their quality of life and contribute to sustainable development in their communities. In Colombia, “Solidarity Territories” are emerging in various communities and the systematization and dissemination of these processes will favor the transfer and adaptation to other socially constructed spaces.

However, a coordinated action among governments, organizations, universities and civil society is needed to ensure favorable conditions for these organizations, and the society in general, to implement different ways of doing economy in which solidarity is the element that articulates production, distribution, consumption and accumulation of goods and services.

To this end, it is fundamental to advance in the implementation of public policies and institutions that foster creation and strengthening of these organizations. It is also crucial that the education contributes to the activation of citizenship for fair trade and responsible consumption, and to the creation of new competencies for new business models, such as those related to digital transformation, associativity, networking, and the activation of solidarity circuits. Along this path, it will contribute to the transformation needed to build a fairer and inclusive society in harmony with the planet.