Theme: Environment and climate change

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.

A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform

Commonwealth Heads of Government decided to create an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to advise them on reform of the association at their meeting in Port-of-Spain in 2009.

This decision by Heads of Government was taken at a time when the world was – as it now still is – in the midst of an economic crisis. The old order of economic power was changing. Climate change showed signs of endangering global economic activity and the safety and livelihood of millions of people. It posed threats to the very existence of a number of countries. Terrorism, too, threatened the security of states and presented a serious challenge to international peace.

Heads of Government decided that in such a world, it was important to build a stronger, more resilient and progressive Commonwealth and to make it more relevant to its times and to its people in the future. They made it clear that they wanted the Commonwealth to continue to be an important player in the world, drawing on its rich diversity to help build global consensus around the Commonwealth’s core values including peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality, economic development, and freedom of expression.

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Pacific priorities for COP26: make real changes, make money flow

They want the same thing they have been asking for in the years since the Paris Agreement was made at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) six years ago.

However, with increasing adverse weather events and the latest science confirming unequivocally what they have known for years—that human activity in the larger economies has affected their way of life, possibly irreversibly—young Pacific climate activists are demanding action.

Lavetanalagi Seru is a young climate justice activist based in Suva, Fiji and, as the founder of the Alliance for Future Generations which he established several years ago, he wants world governments to effectively engage youth in the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow.

A boy stares into the devastation caused by Super Storm Yasa in Fiji in January 2020. Photo credit: Justin Naisua

Along with fellow climate activists across the Pacific, Mr Seru wants COP26 to chart better climate financing pathways that ensure the communities at the very front line of climate change benefit from more accessible funding.

‘The burden right now is on Pacific Islanders.’

‘We know, we have seen from science, the increasing threat posed by climate change and humanity’s role in causing it, we’ve seen the IPCC latest assessment report. In order for our communities to adapt to some of the worst climate impacts in our region, we actually need technical and financial support, because we do not have the kind of capacity to continuously be rebuilding after every cyclone,’ he said.

‘Right now, the burden is on taxpayers. The burden is on individuals themselves who have had to source their recovery funding from pensioner’s funds. The burden right now is on Pacific Islanders.’

He says there is a gap around climate finance that needs to be closed, and that world leaders at COP26 must ensure developed countries deliver the promised 100 billion dollars per year, a goal that was supposed to be reached in 2020.  

Anything less, Mr Seru insists, will mean Pacific communities will not be able to mitigate or effectively adapt to the changes global warming imposes on them. He said Pacific people face losing ancestral lands, and asks that leaders remember the displacement and relocation of whole communities in the Oceania region.

Storm surges have become increasingly frequent in the Pacific and are posing a serious threat to islanders’ way of life. Photo credit: Justin Naisua

Another key message is better operationalisation of agreements on loss and damage so ‘it is not only just about putting up a website […] but that it is also about financial resources and technical support because we can’t deny the fact that loss and damage is already at our doorstep.’

These are the key messages he is taking to COP26, which he is attending alongside other members of the Pacific Climate Action Network (PICAN).

Another activist attending COP26 as part of the PICAN delegation is Willy Missack, from the Vanuatu Climate Action Network.

Mr Missack is one of a handful of climate activists attending from Vanuatu who may be among his country’s only representatives at COP26 because his government has decided not to send a delegation.

This will be his fourth COP, but unlike previous times when he attended as part of his government’s negotiation team, he will be advocating instead as a civil society representative.

‘Ms Talemaimaleya hopes to build the capacity of other young Fijians to become agents of change’

‘This is the COP where we need to see actual achievement. We have to be real, we have to make stronger calls to action because this one is a benchmark, where there are specific things we must see.’

One of the ways Mr Missack hopes COP heads will choose to address climate change is by acknowledging traditional knowledge when it designs support programmes for climate-adaptive infrastructure in the Pacific.

While he acknowledges the need to develop new ideas and harness modern technology, he recommends that development policies also consider indigenous approaches to mitigating climate change including, for example, through the conservation and restoration of forests, mangroves and coral reefs.

‘When these bodies of traditional knowledge are supported and when the perspective of indigenous people are taken into account, to some extent, it holds more value to the communities.’

Unlike Mr Missack and Mr Seru, Adi Davila Talemaimaleya is attending a COP for the very first time as the Pacific representative of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance, an organisation that trains young leaders to advocate for ocean conservation. 

A recent graduate of the University of the South Pacific’s Postgraduate Diploma in Climate Change, Ms Talemaimaleya hopes to build the capacity of other young Fijians to become agents of change. She hopes that one day the health of the world’s oceans will be a priority for the international community. 

As a Pacific youth representative at COP26, she’s acutely aware of the lack of young Pacific Islanders who will be attending.

‘There’s not a lot of Pacific youth represented at this COP, so it’s an honour and a privilege to attend and engage. It won’t only be in the [civil society] space that I’ll be looking to engage [….] I hope to engage with high level [government] delegates.’

Ms Talemaimaleya has volunteered to moderate and facilitate panel discussions and speaking events that COP negotiators may be present at so she can appeal for more bold action.

‘The main thing that I will tell people is how important urgent and bold climate action is for our Pacific Island countries because, in the Pacific, our islands are already sinking’, she said.

‘It’s already here and we can already see it with our own eyes. In Fiji, it’s about more intense frequent tropical cyclones. In other places, its sea level rises and frequent storm surges. We have some people who still don’t believe that climate change is real.’

‘I think being in that space and that platform to be able to share our realities and to share our experiences, that’s something that is needed for people to really believe what is happening here.’

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Glasgow, Scotland until 12 November 2021.

Reporting by Lice Movono and photography by Justin Naisua.

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.

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. 

Dear Young Leaders: if you do just one thing today…

We hope you were among the hundreds of young people from 66 countries who connected live for Young Leaders Speak—the third event in our Critical Conversations series of online events.

Held in collaboration with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and Commonwealth Youth Council, the event provided an opportunity for seven distinguished young leaders to reimagine the Commonwealth. They discussed shared colonial legacies of dominance and violence and—crucially—how the Commonwealth can build a more just and equitable future. If you missed the event, you can watch it here.

Our panellists want you to continue the conversation and, above all, to take action—and it’s their hope that the books, articles, and videos listed below will inspire you to do so.

Darrion Narrine, a social justice advocate from Trinidad and Tobago, recommended three books that he credits with deepening his understanding of race and race relations. As Darrion says, ‘racism and “othering” also has an economic benefit for some people. These books raise the consciousness around this.’ The first is Capitalism and Slavery written by the late Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams. Williams looks at the economic factors which contributed to the end of slavery in the British Empire arguing, contrary to mainstream narratives, that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was based on economic necessity rather than any supposed moral awakening.

‘Is the Commonwealth living up to its aspirations and values?’

The second is Plantation Economy by George Beckford, which has contributed significantly to economic thought in the Caribbean. It examines issues of underdevelopment, the significance of plantations to developing economies, and the influence of European powers and the slave trade. The third book recommended by Darrion is Britain’s Black Debt by Sir Hilary Beckles. Beckles argues for reparations for the enslavement of Africans with a focus on the Caribbean, examining the movements that are advocating for reparations.

Kakembo Galabuzi, an environmental entrepreneur from Uganda, called for greater engagement from young people in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ‘It’s important to understand our role in Sustainable Development and [how] we shape our ideas and actions towards achieving the set goals.’

Kakembo also encouraged us to watch an interview by Simon Sinek on Millennials in the workplace; ‘I share this because it’s important to understand and reflect on our weaknesses and forge a way to do better. We are the future and the present of this planet, so we have no choice but to do better than those before us.’

‘If you’re reading this but don’t see yourself as a Young Leader, then you might be asking “how can I help?” Alicia Wallace has an answer’

Nondomiso Hlophe, a gender consultant from Eswatini who also joined the panel, agreed that it is vitally important to acknowledge history—but urged us to always keep the future in mind: ‘The one thing that I would like [people] to know and learn about, to re-read and critique—especially with youth and an equitable future in mind—is the Commonwealth Charter. Ask yourself: does this document truly reflect the past, present and future of the Commonwealth? Is the Commonwealth living up to its aspirations and values? And what can you do to live a life in line with the Charter?’

The Foundation’s Graduate Interns, who introduced Young Leaders Speak, also shared their recommendations.

  • Fisayo Eniolorunda suggested Black Skin, Whitehall: Race and the Foreign Office, 1945-2018. The article documents the history of race in the UK’s Foreign Office and is a useful source for discussions on race, inequality and identity in Britain today
  • Kevwe Edekovwere urged young leaders to read Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala, the popular UK historian and rapper. The book is part autobiographical and part commentary on the consequences of Britain’s colonial legacy
  • Nausheen Khan suggested reading Afua Hirsch’s book Brit-ish—a book that she feels is relevant to young diaspora communities who grapple with multiple identities throughout the world—and not just those living in the United Kingdom
  • Olivia Bourge draws inspiration from reading Amanda Gorman’s poems and watching her spoken word performances
  • Vivian Ngere recommended this article by Ashfaq Zaman. Zaman sees the Black Lives Matter movement as a turning point at which Britain can finally come to terms with its colonial past and build a better relationship with diaspora communities.

If you’re reading this but don’t see yourself as a Young Leader, then you might be asking ‘how can I help?’ Alicia Wallace, a movement builder from the Bahamas who moderated the conversation, has an answer: ‘Find ways to get others to support the work of young people working for equality and justice,’ she said. ‘Invite others to attend their events, share links to their work, recommend their services, or start a giving circle to make donations. Amplify their voices and send resources their way to help increase impact.’

What are your recommendations? Post them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #CriticalConversations. 

Space for change?

Often, when I talk about striving to make human rights progress within the Commonwealth, I’m met with raised eyebrows. The Commonwealth? I’ll hear, is that really the right place to be pushing for progress?

It’s a healthy scepticism I come across time and time again, especially from those who are well-versed in the long-lasting impact of the British Empire on its former colonial subjects. The Commonwealth, for many, feels like a vestige of a foregone time, a time in which certain countries were under the thumb of others, a time where the imposition of British law and values upon a litany of diverse and distinct cultures went largely unscrutinised by the global community. And so, the Commonwealth’s origin story, and the fact that its existence cannot be uncoupled from the legacy of empire, continues to ring loud in the ears of many. Especially those who are still dealing with inherited colonial laws that expressly discriminate against certain communities.

‘For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens’

It was in this light that the Commonwealth Foundation held the first of its Critical Conversations series, bringing together a diverse array of thinkers and doers to examine the Commonwealth’s past and reimagine its future. It was a chance to have an honest conversation about the legacy of the Commonwealth while also discussing its potential as a space for progress, where decision-makers and activists can come together and challenge each other to create a fairer and more positive future.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, the Commonwealth has proven itself as a useful space for civil society organisations to come together and advocate for positive change. This wasn’t necessarily a view shared by all panellists, but it is a truth I have seen in action. As Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, the United Kingdom’s leading international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) human rights organisation, I have found that the organising done to create awareness and advocate on LGBT+ human rights issues at Commonwealth-specific fora, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), has often had a resounding impact.

The work of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), a network of 62 LGBT+ organisations across the Commonwealth, for which Kaleidoscope Trust acts as Secretariat, is a testament to this. TCEN aims to create a positive and more equal future for LGBT+ citizens in the Commonwealth, in a context where 34 of 54 Member States criminalise homosexuality as a direct result of inherited colonial-era laws. For LGBT+ activists in the Commonwealth, an acknowledgement of the past was the first step toward envisioning a more equal future. And so TCEN went about advocating for this exact thing—a statement of acknowledgement and regret from the UK government.

The network achieved this primarily by centring the voices of young grassroots activists in our advocacy both before and during CHOGM 2018, which was held in London. This simple act, of creating opportunities for the lived realities of LGBT+ people to be heard in high-level diplomatic spaces, was enormously impactful.

It included creating a platform for Melusi Simelane, a young gay man from eSwatini, to talk about the safety and security of LGBT+ people in his country at the Committee of the Whole, during an event for Commonwealth accredited civil society organisations to present priorities relating to CHOGM to high-level Commonwealth officials. It also included working with the Commonwealth Foundation to ensure Zeleca Julien, a lesbian activist from Trinidad and Tobago, was able to speak about her experiences fighting for equality at the opening plenary of the Women’s Forum at CHOGM 2018, the first time an LGBT+ person was granted the opportunity to do so.

Beyond these specific examples, we also aimed for as much LGBT+ civil society representation as possible at Commonwealth events. CHOGM, for example, is a unique opportunity for LGBT+ organisations to come face to face with diplomatic or parliamentary representatives from their countries or regions, an opportunity that few other diplomatic spaces provide. Where they might not be able to safely do so in their own countries, representatives of TCEN organisations were able to hold their national-level parliamentary representatives to account within a Commonwealth space.

TCEN is one of many examples of how the Commonwealth can be used as a force for good, particularly for the LGBT+ community. But TCEN is only the beginning. As our work has continued, we have sought to ensure we are building a more intersectional human rights movement in the Commonwealth, working with youth organisations and those fighting for women and girls rights to make sure that the progress we achieve can also support the aims of other marginalised groups.

For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens—and that includes examining the mistakes of the past, mistakes that have led to staggering inequalities, and aiming to rectify them accordingly. So long as the Commonwealth can continue to create spaces for the likes of TCEN to make their voices heard, it deserves to be championed as a promising avenue for real progress.

Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (Lady Phyll) is Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust.

Caribbean island states and COVID-19: re-building resilience

Caribbean Island States are characterised by, among many other things, small but growing populations, limited resources, remoteness, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks, excessive dependence on international trade, and fragile natural environments. For many Caribbean countries, a new year signals the start of a series of established annual events—from the respective country carnivals of exceptional revelry to the end of a flourishing tourist season that coincides with the winter season in North America and Europe. Such is the Caribbean reality to which many have grown accustomed.

The year 2020 beckons a different Caribbean truth. The entire region is grappling with COVID-19 and some unique challenges loom. Commodity-dependent islands such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana are reeling from the shock of oil prices that have plummeted beyond their wildest imagination. Given that the pandemic began to shut down global travel as early as December 2019, tourism-dependent islands did not have the kind of winter tourist season and revenue to which they’ve grown accustomed. Add to these novel challenges those that are not new: the imminent hurricane season that starts in June (the devastation of earlier years from which some Caribbean countries are still trying to recover), and the perennial social and economic challenges in the region—high levels of debt, poverty, unemployment, and crime.

‘It is well known that the poor suffer the most in times of disaster due to fewer—if any—safety nets.’

As seen around the world, local outbreaks of the coronavirus result in illness, quarantine, and in many cases, government-imposed ‘stay at home’ measures; these all affect hours worked and productivity. Public health services are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response but most countries in the region have little fiscal space to increase spending to the health sector and simultaneously support households. Islands that have weak public health infrastructure and large elderly populations are particularly at risk. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has predicted that ‘The effects of COVID-19 will cause the biggest recession that the region has suffered since 1914 and 1930.’

Caribbean countries need to begin contemplating what their development trajectory with COVID-19 looks like. It is well known that the poor suffer the most in times of disaster due to fewer—if any—safety nets. Women and children are also more at risk, especially in developing countries since they comprise a larger proportion of those living in poverty. Building multidimensional resilience should be a priority at this time; resilience, in this sense, is understood as a country’s (or individual’s) capacity to adapt and maintain an acceptable level of functioning when exposed to hazards.

‘This challenge should not be left solely to Governments, though they have a pivotal role to play’

COVID-19 is exposing many of the fault lines that could compromise sustainable development in this part of the world. Loss of jobs and slower economic activity could push more people into poverty; health care systems, which are under unimaginable strain at this time, may not be able to support the general health and wellness of the population, particularly the most vulnerable; and, while many schools have closed and lessons have moved online, inequities and inequalities in education might be exacerbated due to unequal digital access.

The road ahead in rebuilding Caribbean island states will be challenging. I see it as a marathon as opposed to a sprint—it will be achieved over the medium to long-term.  This challenge should not be left solely to Governments, though they have a pivotal role to play in terms of ensuring the availability of, and access to, public goods and services. Caribbean community-based and non-governmental organisations are vital allies in the process of recovery and resilience-building since they are closer to the pulse on the ground and can identify where interventions might be most effective. To ensure we do not rebuild our vulnerabilities and that we embed resilience—now, more than ever—Caribbean civil society should be integral to policy-making and planning.

Dr Marlene Attzs is an economist and a Civil Society Advisory Governor on the Foundation’s Board.

After the aftermath: Hurricane Dorian

It’s been two months since Hurricane Dorian struck The Bahamas. In Abaco, my cousin and her family swam to my uncle’s house when the wind took her roof. In Grand Bahama, my best friend’s family spent two days in a second-floor bedroom of their home as the sea climbed the first landing. Leviathan waves decimated coastlines and winds tossed cars and houses out like cast nets into oblivion. And then there are those who didn’t make it.

For a short while, the world peered through television and smartphone screens into the aftermath of one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, but, just like the storm, the collective concern and interest of the global community dissipated. This is natural: you only look through your neighbour’s window when you hear a commotion inside. I want to tell you what happens after the aftermath. I need to tell you because this may only be the beginning.

‘Our proof lies in Irma’s endless deluge, fuelled by warming waters; in the ancient trees and electrical poles Matthew cleaved, winds strengthened by rising temperatures’

In the last decade, the Bahamas has suffered at least five major hurricanes: Hurricane Irene (2011), Sandy (2012), Joaquin (2015), Matthew (2016), Irma (2017), and now Dorian. Of course, hurricanes come with the territory, but while residents of continental states have the option to evacuate, there are no roads to safety in the Caribbean, not when you live on flat terrain surrounded by water and the next district may just as well end up in the monster’s path. Even if another island is spared a direct hit, the effects of the storm are widespread. I was in New Providence during Dorian, where conditions never escalated beyond ‘Category One’, and yet even here we were submerged in water almost three-feet deep. We are unwitting victims of a larger global issue beyond our control.

Every year, hurricanes increase in ferocity, bringing stronger winds, higher storm surges, and more rain. For Bahamians—and the Caribbean at large—the legitimacy of climate change is not a debate. Our proof lies in Irma’s endless deluge, fuelled by warming waters; in the ancient trees and electrical poles Matthew cleaved, winds strengthened by rising temperatures; in the 18-23 foot storm surge that Joaquin and Dorian brought, elevated by glacial melting. Then we look at the data. Catastrophic storms are becoming more frequent. To disregard 28 major hurricanes in the region in just 10 years as ‘coincidence’ is wilful ignorance. What can developing nations do when they are threatened with three cataclysmic storms a year? There is no escape from the effects of climate change for us, and as storms become more incessant and destructive, we as small island nations suffer not only from immediate devastation but also from, more grievously, the long-term economic consequences.

‘Teachers, doctors, and public service workers are rioting, but how can they be paid when the money is needed elsewhere?’

The Bahamas is not a wealthy country. With a GDP of $12 billion and a national debt of nearly $9 billion: we did not need this hurricane. We were still recouping after Joaquin, Matthew, and Irma, which collectively incurred $915 million in damages; Hurricane Dorian has incurred $7 billion. Two of our three strongest economic pillars, tourism and fisheries, have been damaged. Nearly 70,000 are homeless and countless more are without jobs. But the financial implications go even deeper.

For developing nations, natural disasters detract from progress. Infrastructure must be repaired. Schools and medical centres must be rebuilt. Public amenities must be restored—and these projects drain money away from other national priorities. Dorian ripples throughout the country as it downs the engines of our economy, however temporarily. Electricity fees have risen to supplement the funds needed to reinstate facilities lost. Public workers and government contractors are likely not to be paid for their services as the government allocates those payments to hurricane relief. Teachers, doctors, and public service workers are rioting, but how can they be paid when the money is needed elsewhere? It is not fair, but it is the sad reality of our situation as a developing nation.

Finally, the cruellest irony of all: with hurricanes bombarding the country with increasing regularity, will developers risk investing in the islands? Is it safe to build hotels here? Will tourists be discouraged from visiting? The Bahamas’ primary industry is tourism, but with media coverage touting the destruction of the country post-Dorian, it has been estimated that we can expect a 10% drop in inbound tourists. People are worried, and with good reason.

The Bahamas is resilient. We’re accustomed to rebounding from hurricanes, but as temperatures rise and the economy droops, we have to admit the injustice of our situation. 65 people are dead. Official reports claim that 282 people are still missing. Rumours suggest it’s higher. We are in a precarious position as our government and people struggle against a relentless force beyond our control. But what is most frightening is not the immense task of rebuilding once again. Our biggest fear now is whether or not Dorian was only the beginning.

Alexia Tolas is a Bahamian Writer and Caribbean regional winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

After Cyclone Pam: rebuilding a community multimedia space

When the category five Tropical Cyclone Pam hit on 13 March 2015⁠—packing winds of up to 250 kilometres per hour⁠—people in Vanuatu were in a state of disbelief.

‘No one was ready,’ recalled Further Arts General Manager, Viviane Obed. ‘There were warnings but nobody took them seriously. At the Government level, there was little preparedness. [In evacuation centres] the quality was very poor; toilets were not working and many families were moved to them at the very last minute.’

At Further Arts’ Nesar Studio, a community multimedia space designed to train and support local artists, it was business as usual: the staff and members just expected the cyclone to pass through without causing much disturbance.

‘Half of the building’s roof was down on the road, 100 metres away [….] there was water everywhere.’

Nesar Studio is located just outside of the capital, Port Vila, on a hilltop in a residential area. The studio was created by Further Arts, a local NGO, in collaboration with youth and local communities, as a place for anyone to sign up and benefit from various media education projects and initiatives. Nesar refers to ‘nasara’: a word which translates locally as a ceremonial meeting place within a village for the intergenerational transmission of ‘kastom’⁠—knowledge and wisdom through song, dance, art, and other practices. Nesar Studio is named as such because it resembles a digital, urban nasara, imparting skills in new media so local artists can transmit messages and knowledge. Providing the community with education on these tools is a powerful means to enact change, enabling people to realise their rights to voice.

‘Before Pam hit, Nesar Studio was a centre for many youths in this area. Youth came here with interests in media, video, handling a camera or microphone for the first time, doing interviews, taking photos, and things like that,’ recalled Marcel Meltherorong, a local artist and Nesar Studio member and crew.

‘On Friday the 13th when the wind picked up, we were all at our own homes nailing down roofs and covering windows. But little had been done at the office to prepare it for what was coming⁠—we didn’t expect it to be so ferocious! Once night fell, the storm grew stronger and you couldn’t see anything… you just heard it—things breaking, cracking, landing, and crashing.’

During the proceeding cleanup, Marcel recalled that people helped one another; families helped other families to rebuild homes, and then helped to clear the roads.

When staff and crew finally made their way back to the organisation’s headquarters a few days after the cyclone, the streets were emptied out and damage to the office was colossal.

‘Half of the building’s roof was down on the road, 100 metres away. The wind had thrown it there. Most of the equipment inside was damaged, and there was water everywhere… it’s hard to describe it… I mean, this was where Further Arts and Nesar Studio was born!

‘When Pam hit, it was like this big space was just gutted. Everyone was feeling very down after that’ Marcel said.

Following the devastation, Further Arts staff and crew moved into a smaller space in town.

‘We weren’t discouraged, even though we lost the building. We kept going and didn’t give up because we were passionate about what we did,’ said Roselyn Tari, the Production Co-ordinator at the time.

Before long, Further Arts made an appeal to its key partners and donors for their assistance in rebuilding, and received generous support from many, including new opportunities for growth and activity.

‘When the idea to rebuild came about after Pam, we were all so happy—even though we had to start from zero—to train members and recreate that space. People were starting to feel hopeful again’ Marcel said.

The success of rebuilding was based on Further Arts’ deep networks and partnerships, both in-country and internationally. Working with the local community was also important to ensure that the new space could accommodate the needs of its stakeholders.

Further Arts was extremely fortunate to receive assistance from the Commonwealth Foundation so that it could continue its work. The funding supported the studio to conduct a needs assessment amongst its membership, and then purchase multimedia equipment and train members in its use. This enabled the facility to continue its work relatively quickly, which lifted morale during a very hard time.

Everyone agrees that disaster readiness and preparedness has become a major priority in the community following Cyclone Pam. Further Arts itself has begun implementing stronger disaster preparedness measures to mitigate future disaster impact to its resources and personnel.

‘It’s the work you do before the storm that is most important. Really, these storms, they’re just a part of our lives,’ the organisation’s Finance Officer, Ladonna Daniel, pointed out.

Production Co-ordinator Gina Kaitiplel believes Further Arts Nesar Studio has a very bright future because of all the work it has done supporting young people and local communities.

‘Further Arts has become a main powerhouse to support communities in Vanuatu through multimedia, arts and culture. It helps individuals within the community to know where they come from, and what the true meaning of culture is. And it does that by building the knowledge of young people in the media industries.’

This post was written collaboratively between Further Arts and Nesar Studio staff and crew.