One-third of Commonwealth countries have yet to achieve universal primary education. Of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS, 60 per cent are Commonwealth citizens. Women and girls constitute 70 per cent of the world’s poor. Without sustained progress on these and other issues of human development, efforts in Commonwealth countries for economic and sustainable development will not be achieved. A healthy, educated workforce is key to individual and national development, economic growth, and peace and security.
Unfortunately, the global economic crisis has only added to the already heavy pressures on governments, communities and individuals to meet even the most basic of human development goals. Aid budgets are suffering, and this can impact on social safety nets and health and education budgets of developing countries.
The Commonwealth Secretariat, through the Social Transformation Programmes Division (STPD), takes a holistic approach in education, health and gender sectors to help bolster member countries’ capacity to meet the key development targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on universal primary education, the reduction of child mortality, combating of HIV and AIDS, and promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.
It does so by working closely with governments, development partners, civil society and other stakeholders to address the issues and challenges in these areas. It supports capacity development through far-reaching advocacy, knowledge sharing, research and workshops designed to push the boundaries of both policy thinking and practice.
Specific focus areas are teachers and their professional development, education in gender, e-health, health worker and teacher migration, and gender equality across all areas, from trade, to peace and conflict resolution.
The Commonwealth is committed to the achievement of universal primary education. At the 17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM) in June 2009, ministers agreed to continue to focus on the MDGs to eliminate gender disparities in education and emphasised the importance of quality in the provision of primary school education.
Through its Education Section, the Secretariat works to develop appropriate tools, mechanisms and publications and facilitate their adoption by providing technical assistance. Key areas of focus are multi-grade teaching, supporting gender-responsive schools, looking at achievement of both girls and boys, inclusive education, policy-level engagement through the Fast Track Initiative, and addressing dynamics and implications of teacher migration through the Commonwealth Teacher Recruitment Protocol
Gender disparity remains a major barrier to education in the Commonwealth. The vast majority of those excluded, or denied an equitable experience on the basis of gender are girls. The Gender Responsive School: An Action Guide (published by the Commonwealth Secretariat), helps schools to be more gender responsive in terms of classroom processes and teacher understanding. As part of their gender portfolio, the Commonwealth Secretariat has also been influential in tackling the growing phenomenon of boys’ underachievement in participation and performance, which has become an issue in many countries. Addressing these issues should both help boys to remain in education and play an important role in reducing youth crime.
Working in partnership with the World Bank, the Secretariat organised an initiative to help boys at risk in the Caribbean. The initiative identified successful programmes and best practice across the region. A conference was held which focused on the causes of underachievement of boys.
Reflecting the inclusion agenda, the Secretariat has also brought together nomadic groups and governments, researchers, and education practitioners working with nomadic peoples to discuss the use of open and distance learning and information and communication technologies to increase access to quality education and provide training opportunities.
The Secretariat works to raise awareness among Commonwealth countries of the importance of the Education for All Fast Track Initiative (managed by the World Bank), which encourages low-income countries to develop national education plans and commit greater political and financial resources in exchange for which donor countries provide the funding and know-how required to reach national education targets.
The Commonwealth Teacher Recruitment Protocol is an example of how the Secretariat has led the way in setting parameters for international standards with regard to teacher migration. The protocol balances the rights of teachers to migrate internationally, against the impact of losing scarce human resources in developing or low income countries. The research for the protocol formed the backdrop to recommendations on international teacher migration at the 17th CCEM to monitor the mobility and recruitment of teachers within and beyond the Commonwealth. The Protocol has attracted great interest both within and beyond the Commonwealth.
Despite strides to achieve gender parity across Commonwealth countries, there remain stark differences in access to services for women and men.
In many countries, maternal mortality is high, education is denied to girls, daily battles are faced by women to achieve equal participation in decision-making, and discriminatory laws remain on many statute books. Through STPD’s Gender Section, the Secretariat ensures that gender equality is supported by all Secretariat programmes and becomes a legitimate and integral part of the structure, systems, laws and culture of Commonwealth governments. Recognising that gender equality is intertwined with social, economic and political challenges created by conflict, globalisation, poverty and HIV/AIDS, the Secretariat has been working to help countries implement international legal instruments and harmonise national laws with international standards.
Supporting the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – which calls for respect of women’s rights, support and full participation in peace negotiations – the Secretariat has been working on a pan-Commonwealth framework for implementing resolutions on women, peace and security.
Cutting-edge research and gender analysis have been conducted to highlight gender dimensions in the implementation of trade liberalisation policies – that is, policies aimed at removing trade barriers in order to make an economy open to trade and investment – in Jamaica, Mozambique and Tanzania. This research fed into the agenda of Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations between European and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, while training workshops and research resources have been expanded.
A gendered analysis of trade policies means looking at the way trade policy affects men and women differently. For example, women workers tend to be clustered in vulnerable sectors of the economy and among small scale agricultural producers. They often work informally and in export-led sectors, and are therefore more exposed to the impacts of globalisation and trade liberalisation, whereas men tend to be more concentrated in formal employment with better safety nets. By mainstreaming gender into trade policy, a gender-sensitive approach that considers the needs and positions of all stakeholders is ensured.
The Secretariat has continued its focus on implementing gender responsive budgeting – which enables governments to assess their budgets from a gender perspective, and consider how these allocations affect the economic and social opportunities of men and women – through capacity-building workshops and dissemination of information. Research on the institutionalisation of gender responsive budgets in Commonwealth countries prepared for the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting identifies next steps in building women’s economic empowerment and an equitable financial system.
A research project on the gender dimensions of unpaid work in HIV care aims to identify key strategies to help member governments with the policy framework for addressing issues of home-based care and remuneration.
A gender management system has also been developed that established a network of structures, mechanisms and processes for advancing gender issues in government policies, plans and programmes.
Too many men, women and children around the Commonwealth die needlessly every year. The Secretariat aims to help member countries reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, working to raise the profile of major crises and find low-cost solutions to the achievement of MDGs related to maternal health and child mortality and the combating of disease.
Through STPD’s Health Section, the Secretariat addresses priority health concerns and works to strengthen health systems in member countries by facilitating the development and implementation of policies and programmes. They help to support vital advocacy work on HIV/AIDS, malaria and non-communicable diseases, increasing access to universal healthcare and utilising technology, helping to ensure that national issues are reflected in global policy-making.
Through the Commonwealth Code of Practice for the International Recruitment of Health Workers, the Secretariat works with health ministries to help with health workforce migration, organising workshops to raise awareness about the code and promote its implementation.
Training curricula developed with support from the Secretariat at educational institutions in East, Central and Southern Africa and the UK have helped to boost the number of professionals from Malawi to the Seychelles trained in midwifery and women’s health.
The Secretariat has advocated for greater adoption of e-health, promoting high-level dialogue between ministers in East, Central and Southern Africa, and supporting a technical working group in drafting a framework for countries to develop their own e-health strategies. Kenya’s first national e-health strategy was completed in August 2009.
E-health has the potential to increase the efficiency of health systems, reduce costs of delivering and introducing economies of scale and improve access – especially in remote areas or for marginalised or excluded populations, the disabled and the elderly. Discussion papers on health and climate change, stigma and discrimination related to HIV/AIDS, and research on innovative fundraising solutions such as the Currency Transaction Levy (a tax on wholesale or inter-bank foreign exchange transactions) and patent pools (where a number of patents rights, held by different owners, are brought together and collectively managed) have helped to expand international research and debate.