Earlier this year a group from the Czech Republic came to Wales to meet with various groups working within the third sector. As part of their visit they met with representatives from the Wales Co-operative Centre.
In October 2013, the Czech group hosted a return visit for their Welsh hosts Planed, and invited the Centre to attend their annual conference. Mike Williams of the Centre's Social Enterprise Support team travelled to the Czech Republic to address the conference on the subjects of Wales, co-operation in Wales, and in particular, the work of the Wales Co-operative Centre.
The hosts were a local action group based in Borovany, a town which is around a two-hour drive south of Prague and only twenty miles from the Austrian border. As part of its work, the group is actively promoting the development of a co-operative brewery and was keen to draw on the Centre’s experience to provide appropriate knowledge and guidance.
The conference itself was held in a rural venue outside the town and was a relatively small affair, attended by delegates from throughout the region. These people are amongst the first to try and revive the co-operative movement in this formerly communist country. This presents a very real challenge, one which we have been fortunate not to experience in Wales.
When elections were held in 1946, the Communists became the dominant political party and gained control of the Czechoslovakian government in 1948. Thereafter, the former democracy was turned into a Soviet-style state and remained a Communist country until the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989 when Czechoslovakia was divided back into its former constituent parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
During this forty-one year period the term ‘co-operative’ took on an entirely new meaning, whereby the government took control of many existing businesses and ran them itself under the ‘co-operative’ banner, although of course they were not co-operatives in any sense we would understand. As such, the very term has deeply-embedded negative connotations for many people and the efforts now being made to re-establish co-operatives in their true form face a very real emotional challenge as well as the usual economic and community issues.
For this reason it was particularly rewarding to be able to make a contribution to the work currently being undertaken. The first conference day was an informal affair where Mike was not scheduled to speak. However, as some of those present would not be attending the second day, he was asked to give a summary of his presentation to those present. This was well received and after the conference ended he was asked to attend an evening meeting of those who were working towards the brewery co-operative, in order to share the experiences of client groups in Wales who run community pubs. Present at this meeting was a local brewer, the group’s technical expert, who invited Mike to visit his own brewery the following day.
The second day of conference was more formal, and again Mike’s presentation was well received. As part of the day he was able to take up the invitation to visit the existing – but still new – local commercial brewery where the obligatory product testing had to be endured, however reluctantly!
Overall the visit proved to be a great success, and served as a reminder that in Wales we have experience and expertise which is admired in other countries, and we should not be slow to acknowledge this. On the other hand it also served as a reminder of the continually growing belief that co-operation is a valid, positive and realistic alternative for communities, and is pursued by many who have endured far greater setbacks than we have. We have much to share and to learn from each other, and hope that the links now established can be further developed for our mutual benefit.
Wales Co-operative Centre
The Wales Co-operative Centre was set up thirty years ago and ever since has been helping businesses grow, people to find work and communities to tackle the issues that matter to them. Its advisors work co-operatively across Wales, providing expert, flexible and reliable support to develop sustainable businesses and strong, inclusive communities.