Mr. Bahman Abdollahi, President of the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC) came to Ankara for a working visit on April 13th. Our dear supporter Ünal Örnek forwarded our questions to Mr. Abdollahi and made this interview possible.
Could you please tell us about yourself and how you first started working with cooperatives?
I joined the Cooperative Movement in 1985, and since then I have been serving the community and the cooperative movement in the fields of supplying and distributing public necessities and building affordable housing, and for about 20 years I have been the CEO of the National Union of Government Employees’ Consumer Cooperatives. At the same time, I am proud to be the president of the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC) since 2012.
What is the size and scope of the cooperative economy in Iran? Can you draw us a picture of the current situation of cooperatives?
Cooperative culture is rooted in our religion, so since 1980 and with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the cooperative sector has been defined as the second pillar of the country’s economy in the Iranian Constitution.
At present, more than 95,000 cooperatives with more than 11 million members are active in our country, and with the support of the government, their share of the country’s economy is expected to reach 25 percent. Iranian cooperatives are active in almost all economic activities including agriculture, transportation, services, housing, consumption, handmade carpets and handicrafts, petrochemicals, knowledge-based industries, etc.
At the world level, we see a growing phenomenon of new cooperative movement from social cooperatives and platform cooperatives to youth cooperatives and women’s cooperatives. In your country, is there a similar trend?
Active membership of the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC) in the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the Board of ICA-AP, has led to a strong and up-to-date relationship between the Iranian cooperative sector and the activities and experiences of cooperatives in different countries. Considering the importance of startups and platform cooperatives, at present, the ICC has put the issue of supporting the creative initiatives of university graduates on the agenda for many years. Currently, thousands of knowledge-based and accelerator companies are active in our country, and their goods and services are also exported.
Also, considering the importance of social responsibility, the ICC has put the issue of establishing Social Responsibility Cooperatives on the agenda in order to guide cooperatives with the capacity in a disciplined way to implement economic development along with social justice.
How is the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives as the apex body of Iranian cooperatives organized? Why is “a chamber”?
According to the approved cooperative laws, the Iran Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC), the apex body and parliament of the Iranian cooperative sector, is a member of most national councils and supreme policy-making bodies in the country.
The term “chamber” was chosen based on the experience of the Chamber of Commerce (representative of the private sector) and may be a sign that the most comfortable space in any home is its rooms (chambers), where family members can live without any worries. Chamber in the sense of economic organization may be a sign that all members are able to express their expert views and concerns without any consideration and in complete comfort. Iran Chamber of Cooperatives is a peak organization that represents its direct members including 31 provincial chambers and more than 60 national cooperative unions.
What lessons can be drawn from the Iranian cooperative experience?
In my opinion, the most important point and experience that can be drawn from the Iranian cooperative sector is the issue of legislation. As mentioned earlier, the cooperative movement is considered the second pillar of the country’s economy in the constitution, and also the Iranian cooperative sector has an independent identity in the country’s economic laws due to the Act on the Cooperative Sector of the I.R.Iran, 1991. Therefore, the privileged legal position of the Iranian cooperative sector can be a suitable model for other countries. In addition, the presence of cooperatives in all fields of activity including industry, services, and agriculture is another prominent point in the cooperative sector of Iran.
Are you familiar with the Turkish cooperative movement? If so, I would like to take your own assessments.
Modern cooperatives were established in Turkey in 1863, and their first significant development occurred during the Republican period, especially between 1920 and 1938.
According to available statistics, there are 53,259 cooperatives with a total membership of 7.4 million in Turkey. They operate in the form of 30 types of cooperatives and fields of activity under the three main economic sectors and under one of the three responsible ministries.
According to my assessment and knowledge, although Turkey is one of the leading countries in terms of cooperative laws and the number of cooperatives, the quality of cooperative entrepreneurship in Turkey has not been very successful. We know that in Turkey, there are cooperatives and associations that are economically strong and very successful, but the vast majority of cooperatives in Turkey depend on government support. Also, the number of cooperatives that adhere to the cooperative identity and cooperative principles is very small.
How do you see the future of cooperatives in Iran as well as in Turkey?
Drawing a roadmap and forecasting the situation of the cooperative movement in Iran and Turkey in the future is highly dependent on how policymakers and high representatives of the cooperative sector in the two countries recognize the current situation and how to adopt appropriate strategies.
As you know, despite the existence of progressive laws on cooperatives in Iran and Turkey, the cooperative movement of the two countries still faces similar challenges, including the small scale of many cooperatives and the weakness in adhering to cooperative principles. The root of this issue can be traced to the lack of seriousness in governments’ view of cooperatives, as well as how they are legally protected and monitored.
Therefore, the role of the non-governmental bodies and their activities in demanding governments to implement and monitor laws and also promote the cooperative identity and adherence to them is doubly important.
Moreover, we are facing the challenge of the aging of cooperators and the lack of updating of cooperative businesses in the two countries, and this has had a negative impact on the scale of activity and economic share of the cooperative sector in the economy of the two countries. Therefore, the high authorities of the non-governmental cooperative sector in the two countries must seriously promote youthfulness and use the knowledge, expertise, and modern technologies among the cooperatives. Training and research are also some of the issues that can help the transformation of the cooperative sector of the two countries by empowering the members and employees of cooperatives.
Networking between cooperatives at the national and international levels is also one of the issues that can help strengthen the cooperative economy in the two countries. For example, at the international level of the cooperative movement, Iran and Turkey can develop bilateral trade interactions in the field of various activities by recognizing each other’s economic potential as much as possible.
Therefore, if the mentioned issues are followed, it is expected that the cooperative movement in Iran and Turkey will achieve their desired and sustainable development.