A few months ago, at the end of a training seminar given on the premises of La Coop des Frontières, I applied for membership. Since I live in the Suroît and La Coop des Frontières covers my part of the country I thought this would be a great opportunity to become an official member. It was only once I had applied that I considered the scope of my action. I became aware that I would now have a dual relationship with the cooperative. In addition to the services I provide as an employee of La Coop fédérée, I would also have a vested interest in the success of this particular cooperative because it would now be… mine! Would this become a conflict of interest?
I asked this very question to the people around me. They all agreed that, no, I would not be in a conflict of interest. I still felt the need to support this intuitive response with logical arguments. First, I had to outline any grey areas. For example, could some suppose that I would spend more time and be more dedicated to working with this cooperative over all others, to provide greater support to cooperative life and education? And if so, would I have something personal to gain?
I examined my situation from all sides. First, as an auxiliary member, I will be forever disqualified from acceding to power regardless of any obscure manoeuvre I could imagine: Auxiliary members cannot be elected to the board of directors. Thus, there is no possible gain for me in terms of power. However, dividends may be appealing to me. If my cooperative were to show better results, I would have higher dividends! But for this theory to hold water, my services would have to help the cooperative improve its profits. I guess, in a very indirect fashion they could, based on the simple fact that a rich and varied associative life along with committed members can contribute to the financial success of the business. However, it would be a waste of time to explore this theory any further since I buy too little to be able to imagine the benefits of becoming wealthy through dividends.
Besides power and money, what other personal gain could push me to favour my cooperative over all others in the network? I haven't thought of any others. Anyways, I realized that the possibility of a conflict of interest within my work environment is virtually nonexistent since my professional activities are supervised by the General Secretariat, an absolutely neutral position if there ever was one. I also report to a board of administration committee that oversees my work on a recurring basis. They represent two capable bodies that would put a stop to any excessive zeal I could express regarding my cooperative.
If the question was quickly resolved as far as I'm concerned, it becomes particularly interesting for our cooperative administrators. I often hear comments to the effect of: "Your administrators, they're also personal users, so doesn't that place them in a conflict of interest? The business world recommends that independent administrators be appointed to avoid any possible conflict of interest." Perhaps, but that theory does not go unquestioned… I remember a point of view espoused by a specialist in internal governance who believed that independence was the same as incompetence! To be completely independent, he noted, a person cannot have any relationship with the business' field of activity. This begs the question: How can a person govern professionally a field of activity that is completely foreign to them?
The fact that a cooperative be administrated by farmers seems to me completely reasonable. Is this not part of cooperative culture: To help you, help yourself? This said our administrators must remain vigilant; they are often called upon to make decisions that impact the common good of their members and their personal ventures. It is through the acquisition and development of an ethical reflex that they will be able to stay alert, to ask the right questions, to openly seek advice from their colleagues and to maintain a steady heading on the true goal of their mandate.