Theme: Gender equality

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.

Download the report

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.

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.