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The Commonwealth: making it work for people

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Following a year of work, including reviewing over 300 written submissions, the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG) has completed its report and submitted it to the Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, for transmission to the 54 Heads of Government of Commonwealth countries, on reforming the 62-year old Commonwealth of Nations. The report will be considered by leaders at their Summit meeting in Australia in October.

The EPG was created at the 2009 Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad and Tobago as an initiative to define the Commonwealth’s role for the 21st century. The task of the EPG has been to explore and recommend ways in which the Commonwealth can sharpen its impact, strengthen its networks, and raise its profile to ensure that it remains relevant and serves its citizens now and into the future.

The eleven members of the Group, chaired by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi, spent the last year listening to a broad range of stakeholders from throughout the Commonwealth about their vision and ideas for the association. The Group also closely examined the work of the many inter-governmental bodies and non-governmental organizations that constitute the Commonwealth. At the end of its work, the Group is convinced that the Commonwealth is important to all of its member states, and that, as it had done in the past, it can – and must – continue to make a significant contribution to peace and development in the world.

Indeed, had the Commonwealth not already existed, many would have wanted to create it. The association encompasses the governments and peoples of 54 member countries: from India, the world’s largest democracy, to the small Caribbean and Pacific island nations. Commonwealth members also include developed countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada and rapidly developing nations like South Africa and Malaysia. Together, the countries of the Commonwealth are the most ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse grouping in the world. It is quite exceptionally an instrument for straddling the world, for comingling races, religions, cultures, and views that would otherwise not connect in any single place. The world is better for the opportunity for dialogue and for understanding that the Commonwealth provides.

And, while the association originates in the defunct British Empire, the member countries chose either to remain in or join the Commonwealth voluntarily. Unlike many other organizations, the member states of the Commonwealth enjoy equal status – each exercising as much rights as the other.

The Commonwealth suffers from hiding its light under a bushel in the areas where it is outstanding. In part, because while its work is beneficial, it is not sensational – it is not front-page news – but also because it has not sufficiently employed modern media techniques to tell its story. In recent times, critics have also accused it of not speaking-out when the values for which it says it stands are violated. They claim that the organization is hypocritical. The claims are not entirely fair. But, these are issues that the Commonwealth must clarify, if it is to be respected as significant, and if its work is to be known and valued by its people.

No other organization delivers relevant technical assistance to developing nations as rapidly and without conditions as the Commonwealth’s Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC). Countries, such as Britain, Canada, Australia, contribute significant sums to CFTC for the benefit of developing Commonwealth countries, including all those in the Caribbean. In every minute of every day of the year, there is a CFTC expert in one or more Caribbean countries, for instance, delivering assistance in a range of fields where expertise is urgently needed, but does not exist among the local population. So, while the person in the street may be unaware of the role that the Commonwealth is playing in the improvement of his or her country, that role is being played out every day, quietly and effectively. CFTC is a fine example of co-operation between rich and poor countries of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth has always been an unashamed champion of the interests of its small member states. For example, Caribbean small states were able to call on the government of Canada to stand-up for them in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) over ‘harmful tax competition’ which threatened the off-shore financial sector. And, the present Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper took the initiative to invite the Prime Minister of Jamaica Bruce Golding to brief him on the issues facing the Caribbean when Canada chaired the G20 meeting in Toronto in June 2010. No other organization has taken up the concerns of small states in the international community more consistently and effectively than the Commonwealth, and it does so with the full backing of its developed member countries.

The association also has tremendous value for the governments of its developed member countries. No other organization brings together Heads of Government, ministers and senior officials from every continent of the world, from every race and religion, from every size of country as does the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a special opportunity for governments to talk with one another, to listen and to act in an atmosphere of informality and genuine co-operation.

The EPG has made it clear in its report that it believes the Commonwealth must strengthen its advocacy work in development and it must expand its capacity for promoting investment that will deliver more employment to its developing member states and, by so doing, alleviate poverty. It has also focused on youth and proposed measures that will create funds from which young entrepreneurs might be able to access funds for well-founded ventures that unleash their energies and creativity.

In making recommendations on reforming the international financial architecture to give developing Commonwealth countries a strong voice in decisions that affect them and to alleviate them from the burden of debt, the Group was also mindful that political, civil and human rights are as important as economic rights and opportunities. It has argued that the Commonwealth, as an association, must remain the guardian of these values in all its member states, helping to correct infractions at an early stage and protecting the rights of people to live in freedom. This is the Commonwealth that works for its people. To make it work better, governments have to ensure that the principal instrument for delivering the goods – the Commonwealth Secretariat – is given the support to carry out reforms necessary to make it fit for its purpose.

The writer is a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, appointed to recommend ways to reform the Commonwealth)

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