Category: Knowledge Hub

Power to the People: the Commonwealth Foundation at CHOGM 2022

After two years of delay and postponement, of anticipation and frustration, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (CHOGM) finally took place in Kigali in late June.

For the Foundation, this was the culmination of years of preparation and planning, most especially for the People’s Forum—the largest gathering of civil society in the Commonwealth system that has been a fixture of the CHOGM calendar for almost two decades.

The Foundation also took the lead in convening a half-day of roundtable discussions between Foreign Ministers and members of Commonwealth civil society. An outcome video of the Forum, which was broadcast at the official CHOGM Foreign Ministers Meeting, and also played at the Roundtable itself, can be accessed here.

‘What role could—or should—the Commonwealth of Nations play in these vital steps towards a better world for all its people?’

The People’s Forum 2022: Our Health, Our Planet, Our Future

The People’s Forum 2022 set itself the ambitious task of asking—and trying to answer—the biggest and most important questions of our age: how do we harness the best of humanity—the forces of love, compassion, equality and justice­—to advance our common future and protect our planet? How do we work together to build or re-fashion our institutions so that they support a world that leaves no one behind? And what role could—or should—the Commonwealth of Nations play in these vital steps towards a better world for all its people?

Along with our partners at the Rwanda Governance Board, the Foundation took advantage of the two-year delay to shape a strong and streamlined programme that focused on what is front and centre for so many people of the Commonwealth: health, climate and freedom of expression. The Critical Conversations online event series, launched by the Foundation in 2020 after the first CHOGM postponement, proved to be a gamechanger: giving us experience and confidence in new formats and approaches and expanding our network of activists and leaders across all Commonwealth regions.

‘In a time of growing debt burdens, especially across low and middle-income countries, who should be paying for better primary health care and the other elements of UHC?’

In relation to developing the Forum sessions on climate for example, the Foundation was able to draw on several different events  organised as part of the Critical Conversations series, including one on small states and climate justice held in September 2021 just before COP26, and another on the difficult issue of reparations for climate damage, held in February of this year. Our main climate session at the People’s Forum was explicitly practical: looking ahead to COP27 in November and to what the Commonwealth could and should be doing to advance the interests of those most affected.  Leaders and advocates from the Commonwealth’s small island developing states left the Forum in no doubt about the urgency of the challenge and the moral duty of the Commonwealth, its member countries and its institutions, to demonstrate genuine solidarity through concrete commitments.

The Forum’s sessions on health also benefited from multiple Critical Conversations events the Foundation has convened since early 2020 which shed a bright light on the parlous state of so many national health systems and the apparent incapacity of international systems and institutions (including, disappointingly, the Commonwealth itself) to deliver practical support. At the Forum, the issue of universal health coverage (UHC)—the guarantee that people can access quality health services without facing financial hardship—was front and centre, with panellists interrogating the role that civil society might play in pushing for UHC and the strong, resilient, and equitable health systems that must be at its heart.

Any useful discussion around health and climate must address the thorny question of finance: how do we get the money needed to fund desperately overdue measures aimed at protecting countries and communities from the worst effects of climate change? In a time of growing debt burdens, especially across low and middle-income countries, who should be paying for better primary health care and the other elements of UHC? In the case of climate, Forum participants strongly took up the cause of the Commonwealth’s smaller and more vulnerable Member States, for whom the loss and damage caused by climate change is presenting unique—and in some cases existential—challenges. Across both issues participants were united in their conviction that the Commonwealth has a unique role to play in bringing together those who hold the power to deliver support, relieve debt burdens, and provide restitution. A failure to take up that role with determination would be, in the eyes of Commonwealth civil society, a clear rejection of the very ideas that the Commonwealth stands for.

‘a vibrant and principled Commonwealth is critical to the future of its citizens’

The Commonwealth Charter affirms that freedom of expression—including media freedom—is essential to the flourishing of democratic societies and a basic condition for development. Sadly, this is an area where too many Commonwealth countries are slipping behind. Building on a previous Critical Conversations event, the Forum engaged in a vigorous, at times tense discussion of freedom of expression: why does it matter and how can it be protected? What can the Commonwealth, its member states and institutions, do to support and advance free and responsible media? There was clear agreement that no country can afford to be complacent: direct threats to journalists and freedom of expression are real and growing. Civil society has an important role to play in championing the proposed Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression that could help shore up freedom of expression and break the culture of silence that provides cover for its steady erosion.

The final session of the Forum, A Commonwealth for All’, set itself the ambitious goal of provoking deep discussion and personal reflection about where we are now, and how the Commonwealth—its Member States, its institutions, and its people—can help inspire real and meaningful change. It was aimed at all those who care about the Commonwealth; those who have a perspective on its past; and those who have a stake in its future. The Forum Chair participated in the event alongside the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Both were asked to comment on a provocative video of highlights from the Foundation’s three-part mini-series on the future of the Commonwealth. The passion and conviction of speakers at this final event—and of the many participants who contributed to the discussion—left no doubt that a vibrant and principled Commonwealth is critical to the future of its citizens. The ten-year anniversary of the Charter, which will be commemorated next year, was singled out by many as an opportunity to galvanise action for a reinvigorated Commonwealth.

Weaving together all Forum sessions was the idea of participatory governance: the idea that the involvement of people in their governance is critical to democracy and democratic legitimacy; the idea that citizens have a central role to play in helping to shape policies and decisions that affect their lives. Forum participants acknowledged that participatory governance is a work in progress right across the Commonwealth. We can learn from examples of innovation that have delivered tangible results. But we must be brave in pushing for more meaningful involvement of citizens across every area of public life.

‘How can we measure progress? And how can we push for meaningful action as global economic headwinds turn against us?’

Civil Society and the Foreign Ministers’ Roundtable

The roundtable between participants of the People’s Forum and Foreign Ministers is now an established fixture on the CHOGM calendar: a powerful embodiment of the Commonwealth identity as an organisation of people—and not just of states. For the Foundation, it is an unambiguous exercise in participatory governance—the unifying thread of the People’s Forum.

The 2022 Roundtable was widely proclaimed to be a huge success with the largest-ever number of Ministers in attendance, including a substantial contingent of Foreign Ministers and excellent representation from Commonwealth civil society and accredited organisations. The event was Chaired by the Rwanda Foreign Minister and moderated by me. The seating arrangement, large round tables where government and civil society sat together, and the moderator’s insistence that each take turns in contributing, guaranteed a lively and at times passionate debate. Among the wide range of matters discussed, gender equality and freedom of expression stood out as issues that everyone in the room—government and civil society alike—cared deeply about.

Towards the Future

On the current schedule, we now have less than two years to go until CHOGM 2024. While our future is uncertain, we must brace ourselves for the likelihood that many of the challenges discussed in Kigali will be unresolved. How can we measure progress? And how can we push for meaningful action as global economic headwinds turn against us?

The CHOGM communique—which sets out a bold and ambitious plan of action—should be front and centre. However, many participants in the Forum pointed out the danger of the Communique becoming irrelevant unless Member States commit to measuring their actions against the goals they have set before reporting to CHOGM 2024. Our analysis of the sentiment coming out from the Forum indicates that progress on climate could be usefully measured by the practical steps that Commonwealth countries and institutions take to protect small island developing countries. Progress on freedom of expression is even easier to measure: the Commonwealth must take the final step to adopt a robust set of principles on media freedom that comply with current international human rights standards and put in place mechanisms to monitor implementation. Progress on health requires concerted action to break the debt deadlock that is strangling efforts to deliver universal health care in so many of the Commonwealth’s low and middle-income countries.

So much more could and should be done. But we must start somewhere if the Commonwealth is to hold its head high. Let us decide to hold ourselves—and each other—to account. The people of the Commonwealth deserve no less.

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Patently necessary: taking health into our own hands

At long last, the World Trade Organization is slated to open formal discussions on intellectual property waivers to help developing countries in the fight against Covid-19.

This pragmatic and humane idea was first proposed 18 months ago at the height of the pandemic. The proposals have since been woefully diluted: indeed—in their current form—it would seem the WTO has finally achieved the consensus it was looking for, since, apparently, everyone hates them. Hidden in the folds of this fiasco, however, is an important lesson for the developing world.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, monopolies on the production of tests and medicines were a part of the problem of surviving it. We went from a situation in 2020 during which tests and treatments were in short supply to a situation in 2021 in which vaccines were being made in far smaller quantities than was possible. This led to shamefully unequal access to these essential tools of survival. While vaccine access generally improved towards the end of 2021, there are still glaring disparities. To date, 93% of all contracted mRNA vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and BioNtech have gone to rich countries, according to data from Airfinity, a health analytics company. Promising new treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid which are now standard treatments in rich countries are almost completely unavailable in poor countries.

‘Promising new treatments such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid which are now standard treatments in rich countries are almost completely unavailable in poor countries.’

The TRIPs waiver—named after an obscure but powerful rule that obligates WTO member countries to uphold pharmaceutical monopolies—was meant to solve this problem. As the initial proposal was deflected, objected to, or just outright blocked by rich countries over a period of 18 months, people around the world suffered and died. The international community should be ashamed of this failure. Nevertheless, we find ourselves where we are, on the eve of discussions regarding proposals that have been dramatically watered down. What are we to make of this moment?

The first thing to understand is that critics of the current proposals are right: the ideas first put forward 18 months ago were more comprehensive and would have enabled us to turn the tide on the pandemic far sooner. The original proposals asked for intellectual property rights on all crucial aspects of our survival—namely tests, treatments and vaccines—to be waived for the whole course of the pandemic. These demands would have covered our immediate need to ramp up testing and would have delivered far greater quantities of treatments to those in need much faster. Consider the case of Bangladesh, where Pfizer’s patent on Paxlovid does not extend. Beximco—a pharmaceutical company based there—was able to manufacture and deliver the drug a mere ten days after the US Food and Drug Administration approved it, saving thousands of lives.

‘By limiting the waiving of patents to vaccines, rich countries have ensured the WTO plan will have a limited effect on the availability of treatments and tests that are so desperately needed.’

But, alas, the revised waiver proposal now under discussion at the WTO covers vaccines alone. This is perverse. By limiting the waiving of patents to vaccines, rich countries have ensured the WTO plan will have a limited effect on the availability of treatments and tests that are so desperately needed.

No matter how flawed the revised TRIPS wavier proposal is, the potential it holds to prompt a wider discussion among WTO member countries is probably a good thing. For the first time in eighteen long months, there has been a measure of agreement, however inadequate, between key WTO players to move forward: an essential prerequisite for the WTO to move the proposal into formal multilateral discussions. So far, discussions on potential waivers have been bilateral, or between groups of similarly-inclined countries, which is to say they have been unproductive and unaccountable to the international community.

The outcome at the WTO next week is almost certain to disappoint public health activists. Some rich countries are intent on further watering down the proposals and perhaps suppressing them altogether. A wide section of international civil society believes the proposal at the WTO has no value, even as a starting point. They argue that the WTO is in effect supporting a global protection racket: formal permission from the world’s richest countries to the rest of the world to allow them—without fear of reprisals—to do what they are in fact legally entitled to in order to survive an emergency.

‘But it’s also vital that we—those living in developing countries, the majority—begin to understand and use our own sovereignty to arrive at solutions.’

So, what if a decision could be taken at the level of the nation-state to simply roll back or even temporarily suspend patents, regardless of what’s decided at the international level? This would bring the immediate relief that developing countries need and arguably increase their bargaining power at the WTO. In September 2021, one country did exactly that: Brazil passed a law that went beyond even what the original TRIPs waiver proposal had asked for, and it did so with an overwhelming domestic majority and cross-party support. Even though the law was ultimately diluted by a Presidential veto, it remains in effect today and is perfectly permissible under the WTO’s own rules. This option, to create a legislative framework that supports increased supplies of tests, treatments and vaccines, and moreover, encourages their manufacture everywhere, is one that is open to all developing countries today.

Through this pandemic, we have heard much of the unfair way a majority of the world is being treated by a much smaller and wealthier minority. This situation deserves our outrage and attention. But it’s also vital that we—those living in developing countries, the majority—begin to understand and use our own sovereignty to arrive at solutions. The mRNA vaccine technology of today will define the future of global health. Many in the developing world understand that suspending pharmaceutical monopolies is an integral part of securing our present and future wellbeing. But what is less widely understood is that developing countries can do a lot to fix these problems on their own—or better still in concert with others—without having to wait endlessly for permission to do so.

Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa.

Remembering the indentured

In 1886 a young man of 20 named Kalidin left his family in Bihar in east India never to return. He died almost four decades later in British Guiana (Guyana), a country 9,000 miles away from his home.

His departure from India likely took place at the prompting of an arkati, one of an army of local recruiters employed by the British since indenture’s inception in 1834. These men initially sourced labourers for Caribbean and Indian Ocean plantations, as owners sought to replace the labour of enslaved Africans. The same system of temporary contracts later brought Indians to labour on plantations in Fiji and South Africa.

Initially, Kalidin was contractually bound to work for five years, but details on his indenture certificate reveal that he re-indentured to a neighbouring sugar estate. Family oral history suggests Kalidin accepted a portion of land in lieu of a return passage to India. He and his wife had ten children and my grandfather, Beharry, was one of the youngest. Beharry’s older siblings concentrated their efforts on protecting him from the carceral life of the colonial sugar plantation. They ensured he received sufficient schooling to train as a tailor and operate his own business in the colony’s capital, Georgetown.

‘I went through the English education system without learning anything about [indentured labour]. This is despite the fact it was designed, executed and implemented by British planters, civil servants, magistrates and judges’

Beharry went on to have five children who all eventually migrated with him to Canada in the late 60s, all except my father who, in 1961, became part of Britain’s Windrush generation, the term used to describe Caribbean migrants who came to the UK between 1948-1971.

If my life has been defined by any one thing, it would be my father’s silence about his roots. Having experienced a British colonial education he was fully immersed in the idea that the history and culture of his grandparents had little value. It was a desire to know and understand where he came from that propelled my academic study into indenture.

Picture shows black and white image of Kalidin’s son Beharry with his eldest son Harry and his wife Ameena.
From right to left, Kalidin’s son Beharry (my Grandfather) with his eldest son Harry (my Uncle) and his wife Ameena (my Grandmother). Circa 1960, the year before my father’s departure for England. This photo of Harry with his parents was taken on his wedding day. 

Like many descendants of indenture in Britain, I went through the English education system without learning anything about it. This is despite the fact it was designed, executed and implemented by British planters, civil servants, magistrates and judges, and affected the lives of over 1.5 million Indians between 1834-1917. Though some Britons campaigned for indenture’s abolition, I believe this silence pervades because of the challenge the documented injustices of indenture pose, particularly to those who trumpet the British role in the Abolition of Slavery and the notion of a benevolent Empire.

Two leading historians of indenture, Clem Seecharan (Guyana) and Brij Lal (Fiji), have reflected on how this external silence could be compounded by silences within families. Seecharan referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of my great-grandfather’s generation, suggesting that the perceived shame of humble origins and the brutal conditions of indentured servitude combined to create an environment in which the past became a taboo subject, as the indentured conspired in unvoiced agreement to accept a painful present in the hope that their hard work may offer better opportunities to the next generation.

‘The perceived shame of humble origins and the brutal conditions of indentured servitude combined to create an environment in which the past became a taboo subject.’

In the footsteps of a pioneering group of scholars and writers like Lal and Seecharan, I am one of many academics working to engage others with the history of indentured labour. Exciting work by poets like Rajiv Mohabir and Kama La Mackerel, and artists such as Shivanjani Lal and Sacintya Mohini Simpson, are part of a powerful cross-genre effort to share our histories and stories across the indentured labour diaspora.

Recently I chaired an event with the Guyanese poet Elly Niland, the Mauritian theatre practitioner Poonam Seetohul and the South African writer and barrister Anirood Singh. In collaboration with actors and using historical sources and fiction, all three produced powerful monologues that honoured the resilience and resistance of indentured labourers in Guyana, Mauritius and South Africa.

For my part the more I collaborate with others from the indentured labour diaspora, the more assured I am of our ability to productively disrupt the silences of our past. Long gone is the lonely sense that I once had as a child in the eighties, of being part of a history that was unworthy of being explored.

Dr María del Pilar Kaladeen is an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.

Festive Poetry Event

Every society, every community, has its poets. They are the first storytellers, the ones who weave words into images, capture and interpret feelings and ideas that would otherwise never find expression. Poets are the truth-tellers, the transmitters of knowledge and values and meaning. Poetry is also central to protest and rebellion, cutting through the abuse of language that so often goes with abuse of power: signalling eternal truths that all of us can recognise.

With these words, the Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation and the High Commissioner of St Kitts and Nevis welcomed High Commissioners for a unique celebration of Commonwealth culture.

Throughout the evening, distinguished attendees took to the stage to recite a favourite piece of poetry from their country. Chosen texts included the works of national laureates and lesser-known personal favourites and the themes of climate change; the experiences of colonialism; the beauty of the natural world; love of country and love of people shone through.

Sir Iftikhar Ayaz KBE reciting his poem, ‘Tuvalu, Tuvalu’.

Several participants wrote poems especially for the occasion and we are thrilled that they have agreed to share those for this story.

H.E. Dr Farah Faizal’s performance of I don’t want a dead herowas one of many highlights. Her original work was a personal reflection on the time her husband spent working as a frontline healthcare worker during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sir Iftikar A. Ayaz KBE, Honorary Consul of Tuvalu (pictured), penned: Tuvalu, Tuvalu: a stirring lament of the damage wrought on this tiny island nation by global warming.

And Dr Kevin Isaac, our co-host of the event and a widely published poet in his own right, closed the evening with his own poem ‘Time travel, a fitting reflection on the impermanence and uncertainty that marks all our lives—perhaps now more than ever.

While the creation of poetry is a solitary endeavour, the results of each creation are meant to be shared. That sharing serves as a powerful reminder of our common humanity and of the ties that bind us together—a reminder of what truly matters about being alive, about our common human experiences. Our thanks go to all High Commissioners and representatives who participated in this memorable evening.

Read three selected poems from the event:

I don’t want a dead hero’ by H.E. Dr Farah Faizal

Tuvalu, Tuvalu’ by Sir Iftikar A. Ayaz KBE

Time travel‘ by H.E. Dr Kevin M. Isaac

Climate justice: small island states push back

Small island states are experiencing global warming in ways that most of us can barely imagine.

From the Pacific to the Caribbean, these tiny nations, already highly vulnerable, are being battered by hurricanes and rising sea levels; their shorelines are retreating; salinisation is ruining agricultural land and compromising vital sources of freshwater. Whole villages and communities are physically shifting to higher ground.

For countries like Tuvalu in the Pacific, and Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean, claims of existential risk are not alarmist. Rather they reflect the very real possibility that, along with some of the world’s other 192 nation-states, Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda may not exist in physical form in just a few decades time. And this is not the only path to disaster. Because they lack the capacity to absorb large shocks, a single severe weather event in a small island state can wipe out livelihoods and decimate the economy.

‘Some countries will sink while others will swim.’

The global diplomatic discourse around climate favours a false equivalence, a mantra that we are all responsible, that we are in this together. But that is untrue. Some countries will sink while others will swim. Some countries bear much more responsibility for damaging the climate than others. Some continue to enrich themselves in the full knowledge that they are causing real and lasting harm.

On the first day of the COP26 climate summit, Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda took a modest but important step towards climate justice. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the Prime Ministers of these two small nations announced the establishment of a Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law.

This is a momentous development. Until now, international law has not been consistently or effectively used to hold countries to account for the damage they have inflicted on others through practices that contribute to global warming. This is despite well-established principles such as ‘polluter pays’; a dense web of rules that assign liability for foreseeable harm and ask that it remediate it; and a network of courts and tribunals that exist to uphold these laws and hold violators to account.

The hope is that all countries in similar positions to Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda will sign up to the Commission. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an intergovernmental body that brings together small and low-lying coastal developing States, is key here. The alliance has been instrumental in bringing its members to the big table: amplifying the voices of those who would otherwise be relegated to the sidelines. AOSIS Member States understand, very well, the problem of false equivalence. They are starting to reject handouts, rather demanding debt relief and fair access to vital financing for mitigation and adaptation as a right. They are now going even further: threatening, in very clear terms, to take their claims for loss and damage to international courts and tribunals.

‘No longer will they wait patiently while pledges of the rich and powerful go unfulfilled.’

The issue of liability and compensation for loss and damage associated with global warming has long been a sticking point in climate diplomacy and a focal point for civil society advocacy. Despite strong lobbying by AOSIS members, the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC) failed to include any meaningful acknowledgement of loss and damage. Subsequent efforts by States Parties to the UNFCCC to fill this gap have been subdued and largely unsuccessful.

The announcement of an International Loss and Damage Commission—established outside the ‘formal ‘system’—should be taken as a clear sign that the world’s small island developing countries have had enough. No longer will they be lectured about needing to reduce their own meagre carbon emissions while archaic development financing rules obstruct their access to vital funds. No longer will they wait patiently while pledges of the rich and powerful go unfulfilled. No longer will they pretend to be satisfied with vague commitments and empty promises.

For Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda and Prime Minister Kausea Natano of Tuvalu, the time has come to use the sharp tools of international law to hold those who are most responsible for global warming to account. They deserve our respect and support.

Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation. 

Caribbean priorities for COP26: adaptation, mitigation and access to finance

The Caribbean population has been experiencing the effects of increasing global temperatures for decades. Government and civil society experts have been asking for the resources to adapt to and mitigate the effects of a changing climate, but global funding mechanisms have not been effective.

Now the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has underscored the gravity of the situation, many Caribbean countries hope that the plight of the most vulnerable states will be at the forefront of the upcoming climate negotiations in Glasgow.

‘1.5 to stay alive’: compensating loss and damage

According to the IPCC’s 2018 report, warming is occurring at 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. At this rate, 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming may occur as soon as the year 2030— much faster than original predictions.

Professor Michael Taylor, a leading Caribbean climate scientist based at the University of the West Indies, said: ‘For the Caribbean, 1.5 is a matter of life and death. After 1.5, there is actually a shift in rainfall patterns, the region moves from marginally wet to dry in the long term. Loss and damage become a significant issue the more you go above 1.5.’

‘In Jamaica, just this year alone, we have had three major flooding events in the last four months, each costing the government upward of 100 million Jamaican dollars (US$675,000). Where is the government to find 100 million? And wasn’t that money earmarked to deal with education or Covid-19 or health? That’s the real cost of climate change.’

Dr Adelle Thomas, renowned Climate Scientist and a Lead Author of the latest IPCC Report, is also a strong advocate of making loss and damage a principal issue for COP26 and beyond.

‘At the international scale, loss and damage has been pushed to the sidelines,’ she said.

‘I did a paper looking at policies and mechanisms in SIDS [small island developing states] to see if we have things in place to assess loss and damage, and we largely don’t. Without having an understanding of [the scale of] loss and damage, it’s hard to say, “I need this support.”’

‘We need funding for loss and damage which is separate from the annual US$100 billion that was promised. I hope that we can get the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage operationalised [at COP26] and start helping countries.’

While efforts at adaptation and mitigation began in the Caribbean in the 1990s with financial support from the Global Environment Facility, ensuring continued access to technical and financial resources has been challenging for the region.

‘Where is the government to find 100 million? And wasn’t that money earmarked to deal with education or Covid-19 or health? That’s the real cost of climate change.’ – Professor Michael Taylor

Dr Ulric Trotz, Former Deputy Director and Science Advisor at the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize, described one such challenge: ‘Since 2015 we put in a proposal to support extending efforts at coral reef restoration in the Caribbean and up to now we have not had any agreement about supporting that,’ he said. ‘That is now six years ago. We have wasted six years and you are seeing increased bleaching of our reefs, increased degradation.’

He is right to be worried. Among many other effects, warming of 1.5 degrees will lead to the destruction of 70-90% of coral reefs globally. In the Caribbean, as elsewhere in the world, coral reefs provide shoreline replenishment and protection, are a major draw for tourism, and serve as critical habitats for local fisheries on which many coastal residents depend.

Dr Trotz also pointed out the failure of the international community over the last decade to keep up commitments from the Cancun Conference in 2010.

‘We were promised in Cancun that the international community would mobilise US$100 billion a year by 2020 for financing adaptation responses across developing counties […] but there is nowhere near the level of investment promised.’

There’s also widespread concern in the Caribbean that the countries most responsible for global warming are not honouring their commitments to reduce emissions and provide the necessary finance.

The Caribbean region in its entirety is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions while the United States contributes approximately 24% at a higher per capita rate. China has now pulled ahead of the United States in total global emissions: last year it built more than three times as much coal-fired capacity as the rest of the world combined.

‘When it comes to climate commitments in the Caribbean, I think that question needs to be turned on its head,’ Dr Thomas commented. ‘We need to ask, “is the developed world adhering to their climate commitments?” They are the big emitters, they are the ones that are supposed to be providing finance for us to be able to adapt, and they are not.’

‘To expect small developing countries to adhere […] without any support, while we are trying to manage impacts of climate change that are already happening now and also having to cope with things like this global pandemic, which has decimated our economies that [rely] on tourism—it’s an impossible situation while also trying to develop.’

Caribbean commitments and progression

All signatories to the Paris Agreement, including 14 Caribbean territories, have strict emission reduction targets known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

Trinidad and Tobago, for example, must reduce cumulative emissions from the three main emitting sectors by 15% by 2030, while public transportation emissions must be cut by 30% as compared to a business as usual scenario.

However, to reach this level of compliance, poorer countries need access to the resources necessary for adaptation and mitigation.

The estimated cost of implementation for Trinidad and Tobago is USD $2 billion, which is expected to be met through a mix of domestic funding and international climate financing, including through the Green Climate Fund.

‘If it’s not coming from the government, then we need to start doing things ourselves.’ – Dr Adelle Thomas

Kishan Kumarsingh, Head of Multilateral Environmental Agreements at the Ministry of Planning and Development, acknowledged that ‘The commitment made by Trinidad and Tobago is a very ambitious one in light of our national circumstances and the peculiar challenges we face as a small island developing state.’

Despite this, Trinidad and Tobago has set up a region-leading system to monitor emissions, and other Caribbean countries are now looking to them for guidance on the process.

The Bahamas, which, like Trinidad and Tobago, ratified the UNFCCC in 1994 and signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, has committed to achieving its mitigation contribution through an economy-wide reduction of greenhouse gas emission of 30% by 2030.

Thus far, Bahamian efforts include the expansion of the marine protected areas from 2 million acres to more than 13 million acres, surpassing national targets.

However, Dr Thomas, a Bahamian, feels that climate change is still not a top priority for the country.

‘Climate change is way down on our agenda of things we are interested in, even though we are highly vulnerable’ she said. ‘There is poverty, there is Covid-19 …  [Hurricane] Dorian came through and that completely destroyed everything and we had to focus on rebuilding so there are lots of other development issues, and climate change doesn’t get as much attention.’

The role of civil society

Dr Thomas believes participation from civil society organisations is critical in the fight against climate change.

‘Civil society really needs to hold government to account, to speak up when there are things happening that are not bringing climate change resiliency into bearing’, Dr Thomas said. ‘They need to be the ones to say this project is not a good project, this project is going to make us more vulnerable to climate change.’

‘In the Bahamas, we are still going after cruise ships, digging up the ocean to put in a cruise ship port—we cannot continue [like] this, we are going to see the negative impacts of that within our lifetime.’

Dr Thomas also advocates for the role of CSOs in community-based projects and top-down adaptation relief, saying that they are key in organising and reaching the community to reduce their vulnerability: ‘If it’s not coming from the government, then we need to start doing things ourselves.’

IAMovement, a Trinidadian organisation that was formed in 2014, has recently embarked on a Caribbean-wide mitigation and adaptation project led by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture. Grassroots4LaVie, as it is known, will utilise vetiver grass and the vetiver system, a unique ‘green’ infrastructure technology that assists with slope stabilisation, erosion control and soil and water conservation.

‘I hope that the growing citizen awareness and pressure globally and realities outlined in the sixth IPCC Climate Report will help to force decisions and agreements to be made at COP26′ – Jonathan Barcant

Jonathan Barcant, an engineer and co-founder of IAMovement, is overseeing training and implementation for the project alongside local NGO partners across Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago. He has also been advocating for action on climate change issues within Trinidad and Tobago through marches and community and policy work.

‘Frankly, if we look at the long historical record of knowledge about climate change and lack of action on climate, traditional leadership has failed miserably and I believe may one day be held accountable for it. We are now at a time which is pivotal to the future of mankind and our planet.’

Barcant believes that action on climate change will not happen without the active engagement of citizens.

‘I hope that the growing citizen awareness and pressure globally and realities outlined in the sixth IPCC Climate Report will help to force decisions and agreements to be made at COP26 which are long overdue, and which can play an important role in supporting and determining the levels of security and comfort which our future generations will face.’

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, between 31 October and 12 November 2021.

Reporting by Aurora Herrera.

Towards common ground

It was an unseasonably hot humid day in the stunning Scenic Rim, Queensland, Australia, also known as Mununjahli and Bundjalung Country by the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the land.

The mountains were kissing the sky in the distance and there was not a cloud to be seen. Heat was radiating off the ground. I was walking past my totem tree: a flame tree, blooming with vivid scarlet red flowers. I was on my way to the local shops to avoid the heat and rehydrate. I stopped and looked in awe, my feet connecting with the hot earth beneath. It struck me that it was the wrong time of the year for the flame tree to flower. Indigenous Australians have been stewards of this land for thousands of years; knowledge passed down, through countless generations, would suggest that something was profoundly wrong.

I turned and walked into the cool of the shops. As soon as I entered—dressed in my Aboriginal art singlet and flip flops—I felt eyes on me. Shrugging off this feeling I continued to walk the aisles but I couldn’t help noticing an employee behind me, following. I turned the corner and, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the employee again. Feeling uncomfortable I grabbed some water and headed for the checkout. This never happens when I wear non-Indigenous identifying clothes, I thought.

Heading back to my car, shoes off and walking on the grass, I noticed a group of Aboriginal Elders sitting upright under the flame tree, peaceful, silent, but nonetheless being questioned by police. Yet in view of the police, a group of non-indigenous people were drinking alcohol and littering. Why did the police not choose to speak to them?

I shook my head and left. This experience is sadly not uncommon; it is one that has been spoken about publicly by many indigenous Australians including Steven Oliver, Melanie Mununggurr-Williams and Meyne Wyatt.

‘We tend to notice the reality of exclusion bubbling under the surface of mainstream consciousness only when a tragedy is filmed and tensions explode’

Nor is it an experience that is unique to Aboriginal Australians. First Nations people across the globe fall victim to misunderstanding and isolation, not to mention poverty, short life expectancy and imprisonment. We tend to notice the reality of exclusion bubbling under the surface of mainstream consciousness only when a tragedy is filmed and tensions explode as they did in the fallout from the George Floyd tragedy and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, or, in the Australian context, the now politicised ‘change the date’ debate for Australia Day, currently held on the 26 January—the day that Indigenous Australia changed forever and our lands were taken forcefully and declared Terra Nullius.

So why do Indigenous peoples continue to face these abiding challenges? It’s important to look at root causes. Indigenous peoples have faced varying levels of settlement and colonisation by imperial powers throughout history. Western cultural world views, for example, are very different to the Indigenous world views they have tended to dominate, especially around the areas of individualism vs community orientation and holistic thinking vs technological and scientific thinking. As our thinking can often contradict western views, we have been relegated as a psychological out-group. This has led to pervasive, intergenerational misconceptions that Indigenous people are somehow less intelligent and less human than their non-Indigenous counterparts—and more deserving of suspicion. Most of this thinking is unconscious and has seeped into the fabric of our political and social systems. It has also played havoc on the way we relate to ourselves, each other, and our environment.

In order to move forward, we must acknowledge that Indigenous knowledge systems have much to share.

Indigenous Australians have the longest surviving continuous culture in the world, and most of the unspoilt natural environment in Australia is Indigenous-owned land: as a beacon of sustainability we should stand tall and proud.

This brings me to our shared now—and the imperative to find common ground with each other to live and prosper in harmony. Deep down I believe that we all want the same thing—a happy and equitable community of people on a safe and healthy planet—we just have different beliefs on how to get there.

‘Indigenous Australians have the longest surviving continuous culture in the world, and most of the unspoilt natural environment is Indigenous-owned land.’

To borrow from activist Alice Eather: let’s sit around a metaphorical fire—in a circle—and decide on a path that promotes equity and prosperity. In this spirit, I invite you to read the table below and see how differing outlooks on the world can merge to create a more sustainable and just tomorrow; not just for the indigenous people of the world, but for everyone.

Key Assumptions Indigenous
Working Together Towards Equity & Sustainability
Ontological and ethical
Metaphor of Earth Mother/web of life Vast machine Life support system
Perception of Earth Alive/sensitive Dead/passive Home/managed
System composition Organic/wholes Atomistic/parts Parts and wholes
System structure Heterarchical Hierarchical Holoarchical
Human role Plain member Domination Stewardship
Scientific and technological
Resilience of nature Highly vulnerable Tough/robust Varied/fragile
Carrying capacity limits Already exceeded No limits Approaching
Population size Freeze/reduce No problem Stabilise soon
Risk orientation Risk aversion Risk-taking Precaution
Faith in technology Pessimism Optimism Scepticism
Economic and psychological
Primary objective Ecological integrity Efficient allocation Quality of life
The good life Antimaterialism Materialism Postmaterialism
Human nature Homo animalist Homo economicus Homo sapien
Economic structure Steady-state Free market Green economy
Role of growth Bad/eliminate Good/necessary Mixed/modify
*Table 1 is adapted from Gladwin et al’s (1995:993) Paradigm framework and their constituent assumptions as sighted in appendix 1, page 40, Barter, N & Bebbington, J (2011), Pursuing Environmental Sustainability, University of St Andrews. Please note that these categories are generalised for illustration purposes and may not apply to all people within each category.

What more can the Commonwealth institutions and members states do to learn about First Nations’ world views, and promote cultural capability between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples? I suggest starting with these practical steps:

  • Build your organisation’s knowledge of First Nations’ history, culture and world views
  • Provide a platform for Indigenous voices at events hosted by your organisation
  • Fund development and growth opportunities for Indigenous people and include them in the design of such programmes
  • Monitor and report on your cultural capability progress.

These steps are not exhaustive, but they are a great start—let’s continue to walk together towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

Lisa Rapley is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Yuludarla Karulbo.

A clarion call for Commonwealth solidarity

How does a small island state, already suffering from the havoc caused by Covid-19, recover from volcanic eruptions that pushed plumes of dark ash 6km into the sky and forced the evacuation of almost 20% of its population?

That is the billion-dollar question facing the government and the approximately 110,000 residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Since early 2020, Covid-19 has virtually eliminated tourism in the country; its main foreign exchange earner and a major source of employment.

Just as it began rolling out its vaccination programme, the country’s active volcano, La Soufriere, erupted into a series of violent explosions lasting for almost two weeks. Though the explosions have subsided since 22 April, ongoing volcanic emissions continue to create mudflows and lahars, a mixture of water and pyroclastic debris which, combined with the voluminous ash spewed by the eruptions, make the fertile northern section of the island uninhabitable.

The current eruption is the third one to strike the country in the last half a century but is far larger and more destructive than those of 1971 and 1979. They confirm the ongoing active status of the volcano which also exploded violently in colonial times. The devastating fallout from the eruptions of 1812 and 1902 are a reminder of the enduring threat with which Vincentians must live.

‘How does one strictly enforce social distancing in evacuation centres?’

St Vincent and the Grenadines does not have the resources and facilities to host evacuees at scale without severe disruption to social life. As a result, thousands are currently being housed in schools, community centres and churches. The National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), with the aid of local, regional and international assistance, has made heroic efforts to house, feed and ensure the well-being and safety of the evacuees along with the countless volunteers who have begun hosting evacuees in their own homes.

This mass evacuation could not have come at a worse time. How does one strictly enforce social distancing in evacuation centres? How can the centres adhere to hygiene protocols when the national water supply system, fed from rivers emanating mainly from the Soufriere foothills, has been severely disrupted?

This eruption has compounded the challenges of Covid-19 and represents a major setback to a country that, until now, has been recording success in its effort to attain the global sustainable development goals. Take education as an example. The sector has been dealt a heavy blow by Covid-19 and after missing the first term of 2021, schools were due to be reopened on 12 April. The volcano struck on 9 April. Now schools are housing evacuees at a time when local and regional examinations are due.

‘The cost of damage stands at a staggering 36% of GDP—a figure that will rise substantially’

The preliminary estimates of the damage paint a grim picture in a country with a total Gross Domestic Product in 2019 of 824.7 million USD. The cost of cleaning up volcanic ash, mudflows and lahars has already surpassed $38 million; five thousand buildings have been damaged at an estimated cost of $35 million; agricultural and forestry losses are estimated at $225 million. The total cost of damage to the local environment and public infrastructure is being assessed but even if we leave those vast sums aside, the cost of damage, so far understood, stands at a staggering 36% of GDP—a figure that will rise substantially.

All this for a national economy that—as estimated by the Ministry of Finance—will contract by about 5-8% in 2021. This follows a 5% contraction occasioned by Covid-19 last year.

The challenges are huge, not only in economic but also in social terms. Children are particularly hard-hit. The forced closure of schools over the past year has disrupted education but above all, it has created tremendous psycho-social problems for children and young people forced to curtail education, sporting and recreational activities. Unemployment has skyrocketed. Food self-sufficiency, a point of national pride, is now fundamentally threatened and mass evacuation has given rise to new fears regarding the spread of Covid-19.

‘Now is the time to demonstrate the power of international solidarity. The Commonwealth can lead the way.’

This situation is one that this proud nation cannot handle alone. The Commonwealth and the international community can help meet the needs of the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines in the following three ways:

  1. Supporting the rehabilitation and reconstruction process with special emphasis on resilience to safeguard communities in at-risk areas
  2. Partnering with Government and civil society organisations in ongoing relief and humanitarian efforts
  3. Long-term funding to build the capacity of regional organisations that work in disaster preparedness such as the Seismic Research Centre of the University of the West Indies (UWI) to establish a state of the art volcano monitoring system

In this, the Commonwealth, both at an institutional level, including the Commonwealth Foundation through its civil society partners, and through Member States, can play an important part. Now is the time to demonstrate the power of international solidarity. The Commonwealth can lead the way.

Renwick Rose is a journalist and coordinator and CEO of the Windward Islands Farmers Association. 

Covid-19 has shown the importance of media freedom. How can the Commonwealth defend it?

Who wants to know more about Covid-19 vaccinations?

All of us.

As citizens, we deserve information that has a bearing on our lives—we should know about national plans and progress, about virus variants and the price our governments are paying for jabs.

We need to know how our governments are allocating rescue and stimulus packages. Who’s paying, and who’s benefiting? Are we indeed saving jobs and mitigating poverty, as our governments claim?

In any society, only a small handful of actors can provide this information. Those who work in the news media are among them. Journalists do the important work of enabling us to hold governments to account for their promises. Thanks to them, we can understand the world around us as events unfold. But journalists rarely work without fear or favour, and sometimes their employers require them to give favour.

This is where international organisations (IGOs) come into the picture. It falls to bodies like the Commonwealth—and to UNESCO where I work—to help uphold the norms whereby journalists can work freely and safely.

Safety—freedom from physical or moral threats—is a basic prerequisite for carrying out the work of a journalist. Without that fundamental protection, the free flow of information is restricted and a citizen’s chance of understanding what is going on badly limited.

In too many places around the world, impunity for the range of crimes committed against journalists prevails, and a culture of silence and misinformation has taken hold.

In Commonwealth countries alone, 178 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2020. The impunity rate for the killings of journalists during that same time stands at 96%—which is notably higher than the already disgraceful global impunity rate of 87%.

‘In Commonwealth countries alone, 178 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2020.’

Journalists worldwide, including throughout the Commonwealth, are too often targeted by disinformation campaigns and the aggressive discourse of political leaders. Recent times have seen a surge in attacks against journalists covering protests, an increase in incidents of women journalists facing gender-specific threats and violence, and the use of Covid-19 by governments as a pretext to stifle legitimate dissent.

So, what role can IGOs such as the Commonwealth play in reversing these trends?

As a South African, I am personally aware of the positive difference that the Commonwealth has made in advancing norms governing freedom of expression and press freedom.

The landmark Harare Declaration, adopted by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1991, roundly condemned the apartheid government and its regime of censorship; ultimately, it hastened the establishment of democracy in my country. In that same year, the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press established a normative framework for freedom of expression in a post-Cold War world.

The Windhoek Declaration emerged out of a UNESCO-supported seminar that also led to the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day by the UN General Assembly in 1993. It was African journalists’ calls for greater press freedom that catalysed these landmark events.

Thirty years later in 2021, the global commemoration of World Press Freedom Day comes home to Windhoek (Namibia) on 1-3 May. Commonwealth organisations have a valuable role to play in joining the event and in marking this date.

In doing so, they will be riding the tide of international state-led initiatives addressing this issue. The formation of ‘Group[s] of Friends for the Safety of Journalists’ by Member States at the Headquarters of various intergovernmental organisations in Paris, New York, Geneva, Vienna and Strasbourg has virtually guaranteed that the conversation around Media Freedom is now ringing in the halls of major intergovernmental organisations and agencies.

‘Press freedom and journalists’ safety are vital to functioning democracies’

The Media Freedom Coalition, with over 40 members, was mobilised through the Media Freedom Campaign initiated by the United Kingdom and Canada in 2019 and contributed to the adoption of the Hague Commitment to Increase the Safety of Journalists at the 2020 World Press Freedom Conference.

These state-led efforts present an opportunity to firmly reiterate the norm that press freedom and journalists’ safety are vital to functioning democracies.

In addition to defending and advancing basic principles of media freedom, IGOs also have a great deal to offer in terms of supporting the effective implementation of those norms, not least by urging their Member States to monitor and report on freedom of expression, access to information and journalists’ safety. There is a multitude of relevant platforms supporting this work*.

IGOs—including the Commonwealth—can also work with UNESCO in facilitating connections and building specialised knowledge among key actors, such as judicial operators and security forces. In this regard, a soon-to-be-launched multi-language online course for judges developed by UNESCO jointly with Oxford University could be of special interest to associations and networks of judges and legal professionals in Commonwealth countries.

The development of an informal light touch task force, between UNESCO and several other IGOs will enable us to coordinate these various efforts and ensure they feed into the agenda for 2022: the tenth anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

By highlighting the issue of media freedom in its Critical Conversation series, and by ensuring that is on the agenda of the forthcoming Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Commonwealth Foundation is making an important contribution to these collective efforts.

The global pandemic’s collision with the information age has shown that good journalism can be an issue of life and death: now is the time for intergovernmental organisations and their Member States to seize the mantle of media freedom. I’ve seen first-hand the difference they can make.

Guy Berger leads UNESCO’s work on the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity

*The Sustainable Development Goals offer the opportunity of Voluntary National Reviews; there is the  Universal Periodic Review process operated by the UN Human Rights Council; UNESCO’s Director-General annually calls on states to provide information on the judicial follow-up to the killing of journalists; An African Digital Platform has been recently launched, with UNESCO’s support, to foster reinforced monitoring on the safety of journalists. Commonwealth members, journalists, CSOs and other relevant stakeholders working in this region are encouraged to contribute to these opportunities.

Commonwealth women’s rights organisations: action on gender equality needed now more than ever

Women’s rights and women-led organisations have called on Member States to take action on the Commonwealth’s Four Priorities on Gender Equality in light of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, they argue, has exacerbated gender inequalities the world over. 

The call comes during the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the principal UN organ promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. 

Civil society representatives revisited recommendations made during the 12WAMM Civil Society Roundtable — which took place prior to the pandemic in September 2019. The group agreed that many of their recommendations remain the same but are by now, in a post-Covid world, more pressing than ever.