Considerations before Commonwealth

Britain's Queen Elizabeth at the opening ceremony of the CHOGM 2007 at Kampala in Uganda. This coming together of leaders takes place every two years. This year's CHOGM takes place in Trinidad and Tobago.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth at the opening ceremony of the CHOGM 2007 at Kampala in Uganda. This coming together of leaders takes place every two years. This year's CHOGM takes place in Trinidad and Tobago.  

Leaders of a quarter of the world’s countries meet in Port of Spain in the last days of November. The Commonwealth, which marks its diamond anniversary in 2009, meets at the end of a year in which half of its 53 members have suffered stagnating, or negative, growth. Lashed by economic storms, and with new crises overlaid onto old ones, we meet at a time when the rich man’s heavy cold has become the poor man’s life-threatening influenza.

For the developing world, investment and remittances are down; unemployment and budget cuts are up; and the World Bank reports that at least $270 billion is required to get the developing world back on its feet.

All over the Commonwealth, we see the devastation of downturn. Nearly 750 million Commonwealth citizens live in dollar-a-day poverty; and another 50 million have been pushed into poverty in the last twelve months. And the neediest areas of national life — health and education — have borne the brunt.

We are quite aware of the solutions to this confluence of crises. The challenge now is to secure the shared will — and the shared funds — to implement them. Recovery and prosperity will not come from one country, one economy or one continent alone. The world in all its diversity needs to act together.

A big step towards that outcome can be taken when Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in Trinidad and Tobago. This coming together of leaders — buttressed by youth, business, and civil society gatherings, and representing every corner and community of the globe — takes place every two years. The Commonwealth assembles, knowing that it has a track record of working together to achieve positive change.

It has been active in 2009. The game-changing outcome of the year has been the creation of the world’s new top-table: the G20, which accounts for around 90 per cent of global GDP, but only 10 per cent of the world’s countries. This group should be renamed the T20, shouldering responsibility as 20 Trustees for the other 10 per cent of GDP, and the other 90 per cent of countries. The Commonwealth has made the case, in arguing that the voices and concerns of the wider world be heard and taken into account, even if they are not sitting at the top table.

In Trinidad, the Commonwealth’s collective voice and action will be evident on other global preoccupations too.

It has always maintained that there is an inextricable link between democracy and development: where one flourishes, so too can the other; where one suffers, so too can the other. Where the world’s older democracies fail, they have hundreds of years of tradition, culture — and working institutions — to fall back on. Most Commonwealth countries are younger than 50 years of age, and have no such firm foundation. The Commonwealth may at times act as referee, but more often it is asked to provide the services of a coach.

A proposed new network of Commonwealth election commissioners can aid the sharing of best practice, and signal a commitment to that most powerful of moral forces: that of peer review. If Rwanda’s application for membership is accepted, the Commonwealth will be saying again that it values progress made, and the determination to advance.

The ability to scrutinise and suspend members in a voluntary association for acting outside constitutional rules may be seen as fair play in a local sports club. But the way it has been successfully done in the Commonwealth for 15 years is unheard of in international affairs. Yet there remain abuses within constitutions which need to be examined, and this is an area where the Commonwealth needs to give itself more room.

Such measures to strengthen democracy may seem remote, and focussed on politics and institutions. But the benefits from them offer the potential of a better quality of life and opportunity for all, wherever we call home.

For some, our homes are under an existential threat: that of climate change. The most threatened are those who have done the least to bring us to this pass. Witness flooding in Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Bangladesh; encroaching desert in Namibia and Nigeria; thawing tundra in Canada; drought in Kenya and Australia; five times more hurricanes than usual in the Caribbean.

Meeting 20 years ago in Malaysia, Commonwealth leaders in effect wrote the blueprint for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. In 2009, they are called to lead again, in the very week before the U.N. conference on climate change at Copenhagen. The Commonwealth cannot negotiate the outcome, but it can set the boundary lines and the expected outcomes within them.

The Commonwealth is already talking of the need for a system of international environmental governance in which every voice is heard, and in which all strive towards a collective purpose. It is mapping practical ways in which countries can assist each other with technology, technical assistance and finance. It is well advanced in sharing its best ideas in areas such as deforestation (where a forest is worth more alive than dead), and in helping each other to cope with natural disasters.

In all this, youth is not a flower which should be allowed to wither. To be so young a Commonwealth, in which half of our two billion population is under 25, ought to speak of unimagined hope. And yet, as often as not, it speaks of unemployment, marginalisation and lack of self-belief. The young of the Commonwealth and of the world risk inheriting a flawed legacy from the past and current generations. By 2015, there will be 3 billion young people in the world, with 2.5 billion in developing countries. Is the job market ready for them? Can we make them not passive job-takers, but innovative job-creators?

The Commonwealth was the first inter-governmental organisation to have its own youth programme, dating back to 1974. It is looking to set the global pace again, by doing much more in future. First, by owning to the fact that youth affairs is no sideshow: every government policy needs a youth consideration, and a youth budget. Second, by responding to the truth that job creation does not happen in isolation: skills, funding and mentoring need to be part of the same package.

For the past 60 years, the Commonwealth has been producing homemade products that have become “global goods”, in every sense of those words. For anyone wanting to know about solutions to the world’s problems, look no further than the next Commonwealth summit.

(The author is Commonwealth Secretary-General.)

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