I write to you at the close of a challenging year for our Commonwealth and our broader family of nations. Conflict and division feel more proximate than they did just 12 months ago. And, at the end of 2023, we have cause to worry that our values—and the trusted institutions we have built to protect them—may not be sufficiently robust to manage new and emerging threats to human rights and human flourishing.
At such a time we need to reflect on the noble purpose of the Commonwealth: the idea that a group of very different countries can unite in support of each other with the specific goal of advancing the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The Commonwealth now numbers 56 countries across five regions, bringing together 2.5 billion citizens. It is a noble and worthy project that deserves our unequivocal support.
At the Foundation we take our mission—to advance the rights, needs and interests of the people of the Commonwealth—seriously. The Foundation embodies the Commonwealth identity as a union of people, not just of countries or governments. It is our task to bring that identity to life, in ways that make a real difference.
2023 has been an exciting and fulfilling year for the Foundation. Highlights include our Critical Conversations Roundtables which united many hundreds of Commonwealth citizens to craft policy recommendations directly conveyed to Ministers at meetings in Geneva, Nassau, and Marrakech. That kind of engagement helps to ensure that the voice of civil society is heard in forums where policy is crafted, and decisions taken. It embodies the idea of ‘participatory democracy’ that lies at the heart of what we are trying to do.
Just last month, we launched our Commonwealth-wide preparations for the 2024 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF), which will be held in Samoa next October. Our launch event was explicitly action-oriented: how can civil society work together to advance the commitments that were made by Member States at CHOGM 2022 in Rwanda? What issues and priorities should be pushed, and how? Four additional regional conversations are in the pipeline, poised to shape the agenda for the People’s Forum and identify opportunities for civil society collaboration in the domains of health justice, climate justice, and freedom of expression.
The Foundation ringfences around one-third of our total budget for grants to Commonwealth civil society organisations in support of strong projects within our areas of focus. We now have more projects, in more countries, than ever before in our history. This year, we were delighted to be funding a wide range of innovative projects. In the area of climate change, for example, we are supporting the engagement of Mauritian fishers in climate policy decision-making and the creation of educational songs on climate change in Vanuatu.
Our grants programme is not just about providing funding. In many cases, we also support capacity strengthening aimed at building sustainable organisations that are often operating in fragile and uncertain environments. And the organisations we fund are our partners in the truest sense of the word. We strive to continuously listen and use insights from them to improve our advocacy and our ways of working.
Creativity continues to flourish within our Commonwealth, exemplified by the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Entries for the 2024 prize closed a few months ago and our team of readers is now well into the process of reviewing a record 7,359 stories. Entries from Pakistan, Rwanda, and the Solomon Islands also broke previous records and 2023 marked an exciting first: the inclusion of Maltese language entries, which led to a fourfold increase in submissions from Malta as a whole.
Finally, COP28 in Dubai presented a valuable opportunity to advance our strategic agenda on climate justice and the interests of the Commonwealth’s small and vulnerable states. At the Foundation we believe the role of civil society in shaping and framing the international conversation around climate change matters for people and our planet. That’s why we supported the participation of two journalists from Commonwealth small island states whose job it was to listen and report back to their countries and regions. We also supported the participation of two young climate negotiators who joined the summit as part of their national delegations.
My thanks to all who contributed to our work this year—most especially our governors and the Foundation’s ever-expanding network of partners. Please join us as we look towards 2024 in the hope that the principles and values of our Commonwealth triumph.
Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.