Independence as a Rite of Passage

by Colette Lebel

The year cooperative principles were most recently reviewed was back in 1995, and independence is among the core principles of cooperatives as a whole. In fact, it was after an extensive consultation of its members that the International Alliance of Co-operatives implemented this precept as a cooperative principle. But why in 1995?

First, let me clarify that independence, as a cooperative principle, is juxtaposed against another concept, much stronger in my opinion: “Autonomy and independence” together represent the fourth cooperative principle. Autonomy is the ability to self-govern, and to be able to govern ourselves, we need to seize the control that a third party may claim over our own management. We therefore need to be independent.

Remember the historic context that existed at the end of the last century. We can clearly identify two groups of external players within the cooperative movement, which seemed to undermine the expression of cooperative democracy and they are authoritarian governments and financial markets. In terms of government, just think about communist countries where cooperatives were actually (and are still, for the most part) under state control. As for financial markets, the best and closest example I can think of is Wall Street’s stronghold over the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, this jewel of cooperation which was rapidly led down the path of demutualisation. This is why, fellow cooperators, from the world over, we need to say it loud and clear that a true cooperative must be autonomous and independent.

However, I believe it would be ill-advised to make independence a final value. In fact, the IAC has made independence a principle, an action guide rather than a value. There is a significant nuance. For me, independence is a passage toward a superior state, one of interdependence.

Allow me, if you please, to make the following parallel with human development. Former consultant to President Clinton and author of the book ‘The & Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen R. Covey explains how, as children, we are dependent. Then in adolescence, we seek to establish our independence, which will be acquired once we enter adulthood. The author states: “On its own, independence doesn’t correspond to the reality of life, which is comprised of interdependence.” That’s why, with wisdom and maturity, when we are sufficiently self-confident, when we have learned to evaluate the risks, to decode behaviours, to appreciate our humanity, only then can we become interdependence, the most advanced phase of development. 

It’s a vision that makes a lot of sense. How can we even imagine living in complete independence? We may as well become hermits living deep in the woods! I think the same applies to the entrepreneurial world. Business obviously needs to be independent and ensure its own viability. But, once that has been achieved, being an entrepreneur, by definition, means to engage in relationships with employees, clients, suppliers and partners. From that point on, interdependency is allowed to evolve.

Interdependency involves a complex dynamic. But it places value on an extraordinary potential. It makes possible endeavours that would otherwise be unimaginable as a solo player. That’s why several authors have demonstrated such great interest in the topic and why they are trying to get us interested. For Dominique Steiler, a Doctor in Management at the University of Newcastle, there is a very individualistic tendency in western civilisation that has made us lose interest in interdependency. “This tendency, describes the author of Osons la paix économique, leads us to ignore or to underestimate our need for relationships and connections with others in favour of our possessions, which are deemed as the culmination of our lives.”

Independency is not a sacred dogma. It is essential to our growth, but it’s not necessarily the overall goal. It is rather a reasoned and harmonious interdependence that allows us to flourish and leads us to the ability to create greater wealth. And, I must add, interdependence is also what justifies and gives the sixth cooperative principle its full meaning: Cooperation between cooperatives.

Colette Lebel's picture

Colette is agronomist and director of cooperative affairs at La Coop fédérée. She was the first woman to be appointed as head of training of the boards of director within the cooperative network and works to improve women representativeness within the boards of directors. Dedicated cooperator, Colette had the opportunity to pass on his expertise in several missions abroad both for La Coop and SOCODEVI.