This year the Commonwealth’s theme is ‘Towards a Common Future.’
It’s an aspiration which many would subscribe to; what distinguishes the Commonwealth’s commitment is a focus on making that future fairer for all.
For the Commonwealth fairness is a powerful concept. We invoke it, for example, in relation to the conduct of elections and the pursuit of a global rules-based trading system. But fairness also evokes other words that are keystones for the Commonwealth, like equity and justice. Through these lenses fairness also means sustainable development and universal human rights.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) saw the global community agree that we should ‘leave no one behind’. This means that each of us has a responsibility to each of us and that we all need a say in determining what’s fair. At the Commonwealth Foundation our strapline is ‘More voices for a fairer world’ because we recognise that inclusive, fair, and accountable development is best achieved through civic dialogue and participation.
‘The architecture of the SDGs acknowledges that fairness doesn’t just happen—it requires foundations.’
There is no universal template for achieving fairness within the Commonwealth’s broad vision for plural democracies where all can expect equal treatment. Any definition of fairness should respond to an articulation of people’s needs regardless of their status. The road to fairness is culturally situated and negotiated.
Civil society is an essential part of this mix. It is these voices that can bring the interests and concerns—particularly from those that aren’t usually heard—into the public arena, where institutions and policies can respond. The architecture of the SDGs acknowledges that fairness doesn’t just happen—it requires foundations. SDG 16 calls for peace, justice, and strong institutions. These are the essential building blocks for sustainable development. Policies can signal the intent of institutions to encourage this kind of environment; at their best these policies are driven by or engage with civil society.
The Southern African Alliance for Youth Employment is bringing together organisations from seven countries, including trade unions, churches, and wider civil society to develop their ideas for policies that get young people working. The Eastern African Sub-Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women is monitoring the commitments of East African governments on gender equality and has been advocating for a regional Gender and Development Bill.
‘An environment that encourages creative expression also has a part to play in enabling citizen voice and establishes a climate for fairness.’
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative from India and the Katiba Institute from Kenya are learning from each other to establish and strengthen Right to Information legislation. Transparency International Sri Lanka is doing the same, while the Network for Non-Governmental Organisations is informing the regulatory for civil society in Nigeria.
The Commonwealth Foundation supports these initiatives but also recognises that not all voices get heard through established and institutionalised ways and means. An environment that encourages creative expression also has a part to play in enabling citizen voice and establishes a climate for fairness. Anthologies of writing on small states or the experience of indentured labour encourages each of us to see through the eyes of others. Short films from new directors from Pacific Islands reveal issues of concern to new audiences.
These examples illustrate the ways in which civic voices help to determine what fairness looks like. They deepen our understanding of what fairness needs to deliver and shape the policies that will make it happen. Most importantly they help us to be true to the commitment to leave no one behind by amplifying those that are less heard. Without less-heard voices, ‘fairness’ only works for those powerful enough to define it, leaving others with a sense of grievance and injustice. ‘Governance that is inclusive and delivers development that is inclusive’: that’s what we mean by ‘A Common Future’ and it signposts Commonwealth renewal.
Vijay Krishnarayan is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.