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The long history of the chamber movement can be traced back to 1599, when the term “chamber of commerce” appeared for the first time, in Marseille, France.

Establishment

Moving beyond individual interests to that of a collective group, the establishment of chambers provided merchants, traders, craftsmen and industrialists a public forum to discuss issues facing them as a business community. This representation of common interests became, and remains, the foundation of chambers of commerce worldwide.

Gaining acceptance from public authorities also helped the chamber cause. Public authorities rapidly established close dialogue with chambers, seeing them as the legitimate and institutionalized common voice of business.
Today, chambers of commerce exist in almost every country of the world.

Diversity

Chambers of commerce today are as diverse in name as the business communities they represent. The word “chamber” is still used in most countries. No longer just chambers of “commerce” and “industry”, chambers also describe themselves as representing “manufacturers”, “entrepreneurship”, “training”, “shipping”, “commodity exchanges”, “agriculture”, etc, to help reflect the communities they serve.

Chambers have been established along bilateral lines (eg. British-Swedish Chamber of Commerce) as well as community and special interest chamber groups eg. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce, and the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Transnational associations of chambers are also a feature of our landscape, such as the Confederation of Asia Pacific Chambers of Commerce and Association of Latin American Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

However, as diverse as chambers have become, representing a wide cross-section of interests and methods, their common goal remains to support business enterprises. Chambers are still the most important type of multi-sectoral business organizations in the world.

Two models: Private Law and Public Law

While chambers of commerce have evolved and grown based upon a nation’s own historical context, two basic models prevail.

The “continental” or “public law” model is founded on the remains of medieval guilds. From its origins in France, chambers were established quickly across other European countries like Austria, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Spain. This type of chamber is called “public law” as it is established and regulated by national legislation. A key characteristic is that under most public law chamber systems, membership is mandatory for all enterprises.

Public law chambers are generally found on the European continent, as well as French speaking Africa and other former French colonies. Other countries like North Korea, Bhutan, as well as the majority of Arab nations fall under this model.

The predominant model in the world is the “private law” or “Anglo-Saxon” model originated in Great Britain and spread to other countries influenced by the British tradition. It is also prominent in the Nordic countries. Reflecting the more “laissez faire” economic policies of these nations, chambers are established by the desires and needs of their local business community. These chambers are not created and governed by public statutes, but are established under private law requiring only registration in business or association registers.

Private law models are found in Great Britain, other countries of the British Commonwealth, North America, Scandinavia, Belgium and Switzerland.
While most chambers can be classified as one of these two models, some countries have incorporated features of both systems more compatible with their own political and economic development. Such hydrid models can be found in China, Cuba, Paraguay as well as other Latin American countries, Singapore and Vietnam. Though established by national legislation, the chambers operate with voluntary membership systems.

A worldwide history of the chamber of commerce movement is currently being written by World Chambers Federation. Chambers are encouraged to send any information they may have on the chamber movement in their region to help us with the development and regular revisions of this document.