A truly vibrant and visionary association
The world over democracy remains a work in progress, deep and inclusive development a challenging goal, and diversity … This is the context in which the Commonwealth continues to be a wellspring of wisdom, and a source of practical global good.
The spotlight will again be turned on the Commonwealth when its Heads of Government meet in Perth in Western Australia in October 2011. Their summit – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – is the beating heart of the Commonwealth, providing energy and purpose. The spotlight will reveal that the association is doing what it set out to do the last time its leaders met – and much more besides.
Values, fairness and practical help – the Commonwealth in active pursuit of democracy and development in 2011
Coherence and flexibility have always been at the core of the organisation, which is built around promoting its values and responding to the changing needs of its most vulnerable people – which is why, the last time they met (in Port of Spain in November 2009), our Heads recognised that their collective democratic aspirations needed both deeper and wider application.
The guardian of the Commonwealth’s values is the Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), and Heads have clearly said that they want to see it empowered to deal with what they called ‘the full range of serious or persistent violations’ of our principles. The Group thus far has concentrated on the unconstitutional overthrow of governments rather than on other serious or persistent violations.
Over 15 years, seven countries have been on its agenda, of which five have been suspended, with Fiji Islands sadly so since September 2009.
In 2011, CMAG aims to move in the direction of strengthening its scope to engage: being censorious where it has to be, but also engaging positively with offers of assistance. It will do so in the cause not just of defending, but also of promoting, the democratic values we most cherish. CMAG will present these recommendations to Heads in Perth.
Also under debate in Perth will be new thinking – requested by Heads – on a revitalised Commonwealth. Our Eminent Persons Group (EPG) is charged with helping to set new directions across the association. Under the chairmanship of Tun Abdullah Badawi, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, this group of 11 high-profile personalities – representing the continents, age groups and sexes, as well as political, development and civil society groups – has consulted extensively and been very open in its deliberations. It is ambitious in its vision of the future. The commitment to protect and to promote the Commonwealth’s values will feature strongly in the EPG’s recommendations; it is already advocating for the appointment of an independent Commissioner to reinforce and lift the bar of adherence to the rule of law, and calling for the creation of a Commonwealth Charter.
The Commonwealth continues to give solid support to its members in their practical efforts to live out our democratic values. The Network of Commonwealth Election Management Bodies met for the first time in Accra, Ghana, in May 2010, and is now developing concrete proposals for sharing best practice in areas such as voter registration, the mobilisation of entire electorates, polling practices, security oversight, media policy, the use of public funds in election processes, and other aspects of creating a fair and level electoral playing field.
At the core of the Commonwealth’s commitment to democracy is its commitment to fairness and inclusiveness, and a voice for all which can be heard in many different ways. The new Commonwealth Small States office in Geneva, Switzerland, for instance, is now up and running, offering space for countries with serious limitations on establishing a diplomatic presence in Europe, and in dealings with the United Nations and other multilateral organisations in that city. The office will also act as a global hub for small states to work on issues such as trade and human rights. Four of our member countries, and one regional organisation, have earmarked office space.
Smaller and poorer countries’ voices also need to be heard in a climate change debate that is too often dominated by the biggest economies and the biggest polluters. Within the global challenge of reducing carbon imprints while still spurring economic growth, there is a bewildering array of advice and international obligations for countries to follow, and an equally bewildering array of possible support mechanisms. The Commonwealth focus has been on helping its more vulnerable members to secure better access to climate change finance, with a conference in January 2011 setting out plans for co-ordinating knowledge and action, and sharpening the links between climate change and national development plans. We have also pledged to advocate on the global stage for greater and more responsive flows of climate change finance.
Such advocacy is furthered by global networks, and the quest for greater networking means that we are actively exploring the vast potential of information and communication technology (ICT) – not just to link and inform us further, but to bring about a far greater level of interaction and co-operation, and creative partnership. The year 2011 sees the launch of ‘Commonwealth Connects’, a huge new portal website – an internet gateway designed to shift the association from its networking approaches of the past to the ways in which it can actually transact using ICT in the twenty-first century.
One of the portal’s most important constituencies will be the young people of the Commonwealth. Based on decades of experience with national youth ministries and youth councils, detailed guidelines are being prepared for all member states to bring youth affairs, youth concerns and youth programmes – with budgets attached – into the heart of government and society.
This ‘mainstreaming’ best policy has in turn opened up best practice, with the Commonwealth turning its pilot youth credit initiative into a new and comprehensive youth enterprise programme directly involving commercial banks. Our task is to link the identification, the training, the funding and the mentoring of young entrepreneurs, and to secure funding beyond government sources from international finance institutions, regional organisations, banks and businesses. The year 2010 saw successful models of ‘character lending’ in India and Kenya multiplying in those countries and beyond. The Commonwealth has trained 20,000 young people and helped to start up 2,500 businesses in just the last two years: these numbers can grow significantly with big banks as partners. It can significantly advance the goal of ‘financial inclusion’.
Another vital Commonwealth constituency is women. The 2011 Commonwealth theme of ‘Women as Agents of Change’ reinforces the message that where women prosper, societies prosper; and where women suffer, so too do the societies in which they live.
By investing in women and girls, we have seen that we can accelerate social, economic and political progress. Helped by major communications initiatives and a special website, the theme can encourage both the Commonwealth Secretariat and the member countries in putting women’s considerations – again, with policies, programmes and budgets to match – at the heart of all their actions.
The Commonwealth as a global and a regional citizen
So the Commonwealth is hard at work on its ongoing business of advocacy, sharing best practice and giving practical support.
It hosted five ministerial meetings in 2010. The Health Ministers Meeting in Geneva in May reviewed the state of the health-related Millennium Development Goals, and fed into September’s UN Summit on the Goals. The Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting in Bridgetown in June sent a statement to the same New York meeting, and examined new ways of promoting investment specifically for women. The Sports Ministers Meeting in Delhi in October requested the development of a new action plan to advocate the role of sports in development. The Finance Ministers Meeting in Washington in October brought together the heads of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to discuss Commonwealth policy in the G20. A legal meeting for small Commonwealth jurisdictions in London in October focused on shared ways to strengthen the roles of Attorneys-General across the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth was also a voice at two G20 meetings in the year – in Toronto in June and Seoul in October. We kept close contact with the Canadian and Korean governments, and – in the run-up to the Toronto meeting – Abdou Diouf (Secretary-General of the Francophonie) and myself were invited to brief Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. We did so on behalf of the one Francophone country and five Commonwealth countries that are members of the G20, but also on behalf of all our members not represented at the G20 table. The overriding message was one of inclusiveness: the G20 represents 10 per cent of the world’s countries and 90 per cent of its gross domestic product – we made it clear that its task, as global trustees or the ‘T20’, is also to represent the 90 per cent of the world’s countries which generate the remaining 10 per cent of its GDP.
We lobbied the meeting on the need for innovative sources of development finance, on the role of women in development (including a call for half a million more midwives to counter the scandal of half a million women dying in childbirth every year), and we also made a special plea for small states in tackling climate change and debt. The results were seen in both Summit communiqués, and in the creation of a Development Working Group in the G20. We are now working with the Group on three of its nine focal areas: trade; growth and resilience; and financial inclusion. The Commonwealth Secretariat Small States ‘Resilience Index’, developed alongside the World Bank, is integral to the G20’s work.
The Commonwealth has always maintained a strong presence on the global and regional stage. From the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October which unfolded before a television audience of many millions, to the group of eight Commonwealth women – some from countries which had never even experienced snow – who trekked to the South Pole; to a global conference on small states; to a global report on the effects of urbanisation; to regional programmes supporting governance in the Pacific or training police officers in Africa in counter-terrorism; to a suite of more than 30 publications for the global market on areas such as the links between gender and economic development, small country debt, and public-private partnerships policy and practice – the examples are legion.
The Commonwealth on the ground …
So, too, are the Commonwealth stories ‘on the ground’ in our 54 member states. There was much focus on our observation of elections in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) in 2010.
Rwanda became a Commonwealth member in 2009, and in 2010 we began to provide technical support – for instance, through a trade policy analyst – and support to tourism development, and a communications strategy for the Ministry of Information. A Commonwealth forum in Kigali, Rwanda, in March 2011 aimed to stimulate debate on emerging issues in media and journalism in Rwanda, and on the role, obligations and responsibilities of the media, government, political parties and others in a multiparty democracy. It also examined good governance and development in countries which have emerged from conflict, such as Rwanda. The country is also benefiting from regional programmes of Commonwealth assistance in Africa and pan-Commonwealth programmes.
Wherever I travel across the Commonwealth, I see and discuss that work first hand. A visit to Kenya in September 2010, for instance, focused on providing support in the wake of the country’s successful referendum on a new constitution. We are supplying legislative drafting in areas such as finance, devolution, land and electoral systems. Support for the new Kenyan election commission and its human rights commission can follow, building on our ready-made networks and expertise in both areas.
Meanwhile there is ongoing Commonwealth work in Kenya in areas such as debt management, mining sector reform, delimiting maritime boundaries, promoting community-based tourism, business planning for dairy farming, public administration (we have trained 500 Kenyan officials in the last five years), developing and testing a national e-health strategy, and managing teacher flows with Rwanda and Sudan through the Commonwealth Teacher Recruitment Protocol.
I was also able to follow up on our work with young people in the country, where I met some of the 90 or so individuals who have received Commonwealth diplomas in youth development in the last few years. I also saw some of those young Kenyans trained in peace-building after the 2007 elections, and met young entrepreneurs who have received funding and training as part of our youth enterprise programme there, run through both a national bank and a major charitable foundation.
The Commonwealth has been active in Kenya for nearly 50 years. Recent Commonwealth projects remain high in the mind: a project with the Women Judges Association offered training on jurisprudence surrounding the issue of gender equality, while work with the Umoja Uaso Women’s Group raised awareness on Samburu pastoralist women’s land rights. Three years ago, we also made strategic recommendations on a major project to overhaul and improve the customs system for the port of Mombasa, considerably speeding up and opening up Kenyan trade. An independent report identified a 50 per cent trade advantage within the Commonwealth during the year, and the Secretariat aims to unlock some of that potential where it can.
The quickest glance at the Commonwealth Secretariat website – which received more than one million visitors last year – reveals scores more of these individual works on the ground in individual Commonwealth countries. In any year, we will have over 450 experts and resident in-house advisers carrying out around 600 small-scale projects, worth some £25 million, in more than 45 developing member states and overseas territories. Their pursuit is sustainable development and good governance.
The work of the Commonwealth is of course about much, much more than the Secretariat. It is its peoples and their networks that are the hidden glue that binds the association. And the Commonwealth of peoples is vibrant and forward-looking in the face of the goals – and the challenges – of these times. We are truly a visionary, adaptable, aspirational association.