We are looking for Commonwealth citizens to share their views ahead of the 2024 Heads of Government Meeting. Sign up to take part

Tag: Disability rights

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.

There is no movement without media: 12 tips for successful engagement

Back in the 1990s, when Akhila Sivadas was part of a growing women’s rights movement in India, she and other activists, frustrated with the lack of attention to their cause, recognised that their movement needed effective engagement with the media to grow and succeed.

Akhila now leads the Centre for Advocacy Research in New Delhi, which helps civil society organisations to craft media strategies. They also track and monitor the media on behalf of their stakeholders across India.

‘Akhila reminded civil society partners that they needed to take “media advocacy” as seriously as their policy advocacy goals.’

Akhila, alongside Ambika Raja, a reporter with disabilities at The New Indian Express, led a session on media engagement at a Foundation learning exchange on disability rights. In the presentation, Akhila reminded civil society partners that they needed to take ‘media advocacy’ as seriously as their policy advocacy goals.

Akhila Sivadas (left) and Ambika Raja share their media engagement tips at the disabilities learning exchange in Bengaluru, India

Participants at the exchange expressed scepticism about whether to trust the media, given the current political climate and a tendency toward distortion. There was also understandable confusion over the dizzying array of media channels to choose from.

Here are some of the strategies and tactics that Akhila and Ambika shared in response:

  1. Find kindred spirts in the media. They are certain to exist, but it takes time and research to find the journalists and bloggers who share an interest in your advocacy issue. Interact regularly with reporters whose work you like and understand the kinds of stories they want. This knowledge can be helpful when crafting story ideas.
  2. Clear, confident messaging. A single, compelling idea is more likely to attract attention. Be ready with background information and data to back up your points. Remember that journalists and editors want to get to the heart of the issue, so do not overburden them with all the issues and causes you are working on.
  3. Pique their interest. Remember that media houses have a commercial imperative. They want to feature important stories, but they also want to increase their readership. Prepare your stories and press releases with attention-grabbing titles and clear, well-written messaging. Present an interesting angle to your story—one that discusses not just the issue at hand but also how it might affect the everyday person. Journalists and audiences in particular like ‘human interest stories’: so move beyond events and look for stories.
  4. Track the issues covered in the news. Journalists will be encouraged to write about your issue if you can show evidence that it is under-reported. Providing that evidence takes time and research but it will be worth it.
  5. Social media influences mainstream news. If the mainstream media is ignoring your cause, consider ramping up your social media output, or using alternative media. Journalists are constantly trawling through social media for stories and to identify trends. Create a short video about your cause and tag relevant media and influencers. This may grab the attention of those who can get your story out to a wider audience.
  6. Don’t give up if ‘breaking news’ drowns your story. Let the dust settle on the big story of the day and go back tomorrow—or next week—and try again. Revamp the story, refresh the title, add some new quotes, and continue to nurture your relationships with journalists.
  7. Try newsjacking. If there is a compelling story that has dominated the news, show how the issue you are working on connects to it. For example, if your organisation is working to advance the rights of persons with disabilities and there has been a natural disaster somewhere, build a story on persons with disabilities affected by the disaster, or how you are trying to help them. This is a clever way of amplifying your voice and showing how your issue is relevant to current events.
  8. Choose the best spokesperson for your story. Ensure your spokespeople understand your issue thoroughly and will not distort your message. The best spokespeople are often those with a lived experience of your issue who can articulate it clearly and concisely. Different mediums might require different spokespeople – or a range of different people with different viewpoints.
  9. Data and evidence improve credibility. In the print press, a local story will go to the national bureau and then to the chief editor for final approval. When you pitch your story, include key data and evidence in your pitch. This makes your story more credible and likely to grab the attention of editors. Citizen data from scorecards and audit reports are good sources of local-level data.
  10. Run a fellowship programme for journalists. If there is a lack of sensitivity and awareness of your cause, you need to build the media’s awareness yourself. Consider running a fellowship programme or providing support for young journalists to write about your cause.
  11. Track the work of journalists you like and have worked with already. If a journalist has featured a story on your issue in the past, keep track of their work. You may see the opportunity to interest them in a follow up story to review progress made over the year on your issue.
  12. Use politicians and celebrities to attract newsmakers, but also invite journalists who focus on substance. Inviting Ministers and high profile public figures to your events can attract the mainstream media; however, their presence can eclipse coverage of your issue. The media is likely to be more interested in what the Minister or celebrity has to say than what you have to say. While this is frustrating, civil society can use these events to invite a range of journalists—those focusing on the sound bites as well as those focusing on more in-depth pieces. Both give your issue coverage and reach a range of audiences.

In summary, Ambika reminded us that journalists are doing their best in a challenging climate and that there are journalists out there dedicated to just causes; it is simply up to us to build a relationship with them. Akhila encouraged participants not to give up: ‘Our issues are a struggle and if you start from that premise, you’ll be reminded to just keep at it until you find success.’

Gillian Cooper is Programme Manager of Knowledge, Learning, and Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation. 

Women with disabilities advocate for their rights in Geneva

In February 2019, the Women with Disabilities India Network (WWDIN), coordinated by the Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, submitted an Alternative Report on Article 6 of the UNCRPD to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Our report was prepared in response to the Initial Report submitted by the Government of India on progress towards meeting its commitments to the UNCRPD. In April, a team of four women with disabilities from WWDIN travelled to Geneva to present the report’s findings. This was the first such engagement of its kind for women with disabilities in India.

The Alternative Report is the product of two years of data collection (2017 and 2018) from consultations with 441 women with disabilities in 23 states of India. Women with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable and invisible sections of society in India. Women with disabilities are marginalised in different ways related to education, livelihood and access to health and other services leading to different forms of gender and disability-based violence within families and communities.

‘…the distance of educational institutions from home also has a specific effect on girls’

The report appreciates the positive initiatives taken by the Government of India such as the passage of the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. The India Country Report has extensive listings of legal provisions, schemes and programmes for persons with disabilities in India. However, little data is provided about differential access women with disabilities have to these provisions. One of the reasons for this is that there is no coordination on issues of women with disabilities, who are relegated to the Disability Department by the Women and Child Development Department and often times overlooked. As a result, women with disabilities continue to remain far from achieving either de-facto or de-jure equality. The recognition of the legal capacity of women is partial, and this can be seen in old and even new legislation such as the newly introduced Mental Health Care Act (2017).

The Women with Disabilities India Network deliver the alternative report in La Salle des Emirates in the Palace of Nations, Geneva

Our research revealed that women with disabilities are consistently marginalised in education and employment, with low enrolment and work force participation. An insufficient number of schools in rural areas, where the vast majority of disabled people live, affects access to education; in particular, there are low enrolment numbers for girls with disabilities.

‘In practice women with disabilities have effectively no access to the justice system.’

Education of disabled girls is also affected by factors like poverty, adolescence and puberty; the distance of educational institutions from home also has a specific effect on girls as they are thought to be more vulnerable during long commutes than their male counterparts. The distance between home and school along with poor commuting facilities is a crucial factor in determining dropout rates among disabled girls from educational institutions. This is compounded by lack of accessible infrastructural and residential facilities.

Persons with disabilities protest for their rights in India

Our findings show that women with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable to violence both in domestic and public spaces. Much of this violence is undocumented and unrecognised as policies and practices in India fail to address specific barriers faced by women with disabilities, particularly in response to gender-based violence and violations of sexual and reproductive rights. Gender-based violence against women with disabilities takes many unique forms and includes violence that is perpetuated by stereotypes that attempt to dehumanise or infantilise, exclude or isolate them, and target them for sexual and physical abuse. Many women with disabilities experience gender-based discrimination in the private sphere, ranging from harassment and emotional abuse to rape and physical violence. Women with disabilities in India also face violence at the hands of intimate partners, including husbands and their families.

The Women with Disabilities India Network sat opposite the United Nations Committee on Persons with Disabilities as they delivered their alternative report

Women with disabilities—particularly women with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities—are disproportionately subjected to practices such as forced or coerced sterilisation, contraception, and abortion. Frequently, when these women are minors or are deprived of legal capacity, guardians, parents, or doctors may make the decision on their behalf. Women with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities face discrimination in the form of continued institutionalisation in state- and privately-run care homes and hospitals. Indian Laws however do not take cognisance of the special types, intensity and magnitude of violence perpetuated against women with disabilities. While some laws address violence against women with disabilities in institutional settings, in practice women with disabilities have effectively no access to the justice system.

The most obvious barriers to equality before the law in terms of disabled women’s access to the justice system are physical access, communication barriers, and financial constraints. Current policies and practices in India addressing violence against women fail to address the unique causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women with disabilities. For instance, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 does not address violence against women with disabilities.

While in Geneva last month, the WWDIN team presented our findings during two interactions with the CRPD – one with the entire committee and a second meeting with committee member Mr. Jun Ishikawa. In both our engagements, we were able to impress on the CRPD committee members the violations of the rights of women with disabilities in India, the roots of these problems, and their varied nature. The committee members asked pertinent questions, asking for clarification on several points and duly noted that there is a need to engage more proactively on issues of violence against women with disabilities. The outcome of the pre-session has been favourable as the List of Issues mentions the violations of rights of women with disabilities and enjoins the Indian state to be more proactive in addressing the concerns of women with disabilities across the country.

This article was written collaboratively between Nandini Ghosh, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, and Reena Mohanty, Programme Officer, Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, Odisha.

Following the money: cash transfers

(Above) Helen Mudora presents project results at the Foundation’s annual grants workshop. The workshop shares monitoring and evaluation techniques with new grants partners and provides opportunities for networking and knowledge sharing.

Earlier this month, Helen Mudora, Programme Manager at Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP), presented the results of her organisation’s project ‘Enhancing accountability for cash transfer programmes’ to our new cohort of grantees and our Board members at the annual Commonwealth Foundation grants workshop.

APSP’s project is being delivered in the counties of Busia, Kilifi and Kajiado in Kenya. In this interview, Helen discussed some results and lessons the project has generated with Gillian Cooper from the Knowledge, Learning and Communications team.

Gillian: What are social protection cash transfers?

Helen: The Africa Union defines social protection as: ‘responses by the state and society to protect citizens from risks, vulnerabilities and deprivations. It also includes strategies and programmes aimed at ensuring a minimum standard of livelihood for all people in a given country. This entails measures to secure education and health care, social welfare, livelihoods, access to a stable income, as well as employment’.

Social protection is largely seen to have three pillars: health insurance, social security, and social assistance.  In Kenya, the three most common social assistance programmes include the Orphans and Vulnerable Children cash transfer (OVC-CT), the Older Persons cash transfer (OPCT) and the Persons with Severe Disabilities cash transfer (PWSD-CT).

‘Cash transfers have transformed the lives of thousands of people who would ordinarily find it a challenge to meet even their basic needs.’

The orphans and vulnerable children cash transfer programme was started by UNICEF as a pilot, mainly as a response to the crisis of HIV orphans. It is now funded by the government and gradually over time has included all children who face poverty and vulnerability.

Cash transfer programmes for older persons respond to the unique challenges faced by older persons including low income levels and destitution.

The Persons with Severe Disabilities cash transfer programme was started to meet the basic needs of carer families who may not be in a position to find time to generate income because of caring responsiblities for a family member with a severe disability.

In many countries, the poorest of the poor are PwDs. They face multiple barriers – the system disadvantages PwDs from earning an income. They don’t have access to services and there’s no transport to take them to school. Without schooling there is a close correlation to poverty – only about 5% of PwDs in Kenya make it to university – and so the PwDs cash transfer helps to redress this imbalance. Cash transfers have transformed the lives of thousands of people who would ordinarily find it a challenge to meet even their basic needs.

Gillian: What did APSP’s community sensitisation and social audits uncover about the cash transfer programme?

Helen: APSP works with communities to promote citizen engagement in the delivery of cash transfer services through social audits. We identify community organisations to work with, who in turn identify community monitors who form the link between government programmes, citizens, and beneficiaries.

APSP trains the community monitors in social protection, rights-based approaches and advocacy.

Community sensitisation forums are held to increase awareness levels of the communities and citizens about existing social protection programmes. APSP, in collaboration with community groups, then conduct a social audit of government programmes.

The social audit is a deeper way of generating evidence to inform policy.

This entails collecting data on various parameters of the government service charter, including timeliness of payments, distance to collection points, dignity in service delivery, awareness of existing government programmes, as well as impact of the cash transfers.

‘APSP is conscious to strike a balance, making sure not to undermine the relationship with government and manage the politics so it does not become confrontational.’

Our audits have found that some people in rural areas have to walk more than 6km, sometimes 7km, to collect the cash.  In the urban areas this is not a problem as the service has been more decentralised and the road infrastructure is good. In rural areas beneficiaries walk longer distances to access the cash. We also found that the timeliness of payments varies. 50% say they get their payments on time. 33% have to wait about 6 months. For the rest, the time varies, some have delays more than six months.

We also looked at the length of time it takes to receive the cash at the bank. It was noted that because those who receive the cash are few in number, there is often a long line especially considering people have a short two week window within which to be paid.

Finally, the audit looked at the complaints and redress mechanism. We found that this has been poorly publicised as not many people know about the government toll free number, where they can report any challenges or issues. Currently the complaints process is still centralised at the headquarters in Nairobi, but the complaints might be made from 400km away! We are recommending that the complaints mechanism is decentralised so that people can lodge complaints and have it resolved at the community level.

Social accountability is about pushing for effective service delivery. What the government says it’s going to do should be done within the promised timeframe. That’s what it means to provide cash transfers as a right. APSP is trying to discourage tokenism and help community members realise that the cash transfer is a right. We’ve worked to build the confidence of the community so that if they find a problem, they have a right to complain and the government has an obligation to listen.

Gillian: What have been the most effective ways to track progress and ensure government accountability?

Helen: Evidence. You must generate evidence. For a long time, individuals would make complaints, but when you make a complaint as an individual, it’s not sufficient. But it becomes evidence when you bring in a bit of science, and present it as a research finding which shows that a particular phenomenon is a part of a bigger picture. And so, this project has helped us to move from individuals complaining, to a collective approach that generates evidence to inform policy.

‘Building capacity is about supporting marginalised groups to make their voice heard in a way that makes policy makers listen and respect them.’

Gillian: How has the project addressed gendered needs?

Helen: This is a work in progress. For starters, whenever we do community mobilisation, we always ask for a specific number of women and men. At the beginning, when you mobilise people to come together, you must make sure you get both men and women. You might not get a 50-50 ratio, but it’s important to set this as a target so that at least you will get a considerable number of women. For trainings we go the extra mile to get women to participate; we might need a sensitisation meeting to encourage participation.

We respect and are conscious of the triple roles of women. So for the community sensitisation forums, our starting time must take account of when women have completed their morning routine. We start at 9 or 10 and by 12:30 we must finish. If the timing is not right they will not come at all.  We have also built the capacity of women to articulate their issues in different fora. For APSP’s international meetings, we make sure women from project communities are on the programme to speak.

Gillian: How does APSP engage with government to make change?

Helen: We seek opportunities to sit with government and meet in their Boardroom. We always request meetings with the Permanent Secretary in her/his Boardroom so that we share these findings with them first before it goes public. APSP is conscious to strike a balance, making sure not to undermine the relationship with government and manage the politics so it does not become confrontational. APSP is part of the National Steering Committee for Social Protection, which is a government constituted committee. This shows they have faith in our work.

Our engagement has paid off; APSP’s research has influenced the process of cash disbursement. In 2018, the government started a universal cash transfer for older people. Previous cash transfers were provided at only two banks. Now there are five banks from which to choose from. In addition, clients are given an ATM card, so they can access the money at any time.

We also engage in the legislative process. Social protection is in the constitution but there is no subsidiary law to enshrine the cash transfer system. APSP has been working with both Parliament and the Executive arm. We try to balance our engagement so we are not leaning on one side. Parliament now invite us to the departmental committee meetings and we are working with them to pass that law.

Gillian: How should marginalised groups be included in decision-making about policies that affect their lives?

Helen: Capacity building is very important. Building capacity is about supporting marginalised groups to make their voice heard in a way that makes policy makers listen and respect them. The voice is there but how they voice it may mean nobody can listen to them. They may be voicing it through complaints or in anger or desperation.

Evidence generation is one way. People are less likely to doubt statistics – you don’t have to bang tables when you have data. The skills we’ve been able to build for the community has been intense but transformational.

We have developed an advocacy tool. It provides steps for engaging and how to make your message hard-hitting. The advocacy tool includes a monitoring guide to help track meetings and progress so you can attribute the impact of your work to a policy change.

Gillian: What are the next steps for your project?

Helen: We are hoping our experiences can be used to replicate the project in other counties in Kenya.  We can also replicate it in other countries – APSP works in 27. The project provides a very good basis for knowledge sharing. When we have our delegates meeting in August, grassroots representatives are part of the programme. We can show it as a model of citizen engagement in decision-making.

Beyond that our long term goal is for sustainability of social protection programmes. Our bigger advocacy agenda is around national budgets and processes. In many countries, social protection is funded by donors. In Kenya it is now 97% government funded but in other countries it is 100% donor funded. So where is the government commitment? We aim to push for social protection allocations from national budgets to meet the African Union  Social policy framework – which states that every government should use 2% of its budget on social protection so that it is sustainable and not dependent on external donors.

Helen Mudora is Programme Manager at Africa Platform for Social Protection

Grants roundup: helping civic voices to be heard

Five grants projects were approved by the Grants Committee on 13 June 2018.

In line with the Foundation’s strategic goals, these projects will help ensure that policy, law and government institutions are more effective contributors to development through the influence of civic voices.

This year’s cohort features two projects focussed on disability rights.

The first is to be implemented by the Access Bangladesh Foundation (ABF), a leading Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) that has a strong track record of working to empower persons with disabilities through community based approaches. Bangladesh signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007 and passed the national Disabilities Act in 2013. This project aims to crystallise the government’s commitments by building on the advocacy capacities of people with disabilities.

This will be done by organising self-help groups in 20 union parishads (local constituencies) that are spread across three districts in Bangladesh. It is expected that by the end of the project, the self-help groups will be better integrated into planning processes and that government officials will have mainstreamed disability concerns into their programmes.

‘Carers often face a number of issues including deterioration in their own health, financial strain, isolation, and social stigma.’

In a project by ChildLink Inc, efforts are being made to support children with Disabilities in Jamaica and Guyana. In 2007, Jamaica became the first country to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which was followed by the adoption of the (national) Disability Act in 2014. ChildLink Inc. will focus on developing the skills of parents to engage the education system and hold it accountable to the act’s provisions.

In Guyana, ChildLink Inc will work with parents, teachers, children with autism and child-focussed Civil Society Organisations to support special education needs in Guyana. Guyana became a signatory to the UNCRPD in 2007. This was followed by the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2010 which involved a commitment to the special education needs policy (SEN). It is expected that by the end of the project SEN could be mainstreamed into government schools.

Two projects from this year’s cohort will be implemented in India.

The government of India has accorded high priority to building sustainable, smart cities that are resilient and able to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation. A project implemented by Gujarat Mahila Housing Sew Trust (GMHST) will support government efforts by amplifying the voice of women in planning processes to bring about community participation in city-level development. The projects will take place in Ahmedabad and Surat: two of the cities covered by the Smart City Mission.

‘Occasionally the Commonwealth Foundation sees the value in building on the success of former projects.’

Occasionally the Commonwealth Foundation sees the value in building on the success of former projects. There are 26.8 million disabled people in India, many of whom need to be cared for by an unpaid family member. Carers often face a number of issues including deterioration in their own health, financial strain, isolation, and social stigma. From October 2014 to September 2017 Carer’s Worldwide UK sought to tackle this problem using funding from the Commonwealth Foundation.

They used the funds to: raise awareness of local authorities in Jharkand, Andra Pradesh and Karnataka to the needs and rights of carers; enable their inclusion into local authority welfare schemes; provide carers with greater access to medical care; and improve their ability to take up new or additional livelihood activities leading to increased income levels. In a new project starting in 2018, Carer’s Worldwide will build on results achieved at local government level, strengthen civic voice in advocating for the rights of family carers and support the passage of favourable policy and legislation.

Following an uptick in applications from the Pacific, amongst this year’s grants partners is The Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), a regional coordinating body and network of umbrella NGO bodies in 24 Pacific Island countries and territories.

It is well understood that climate change represents the most serious challenge to the future of the Pacific Island countries. Low-lying atolls such as Kiribati are among the countries most vulnerable to its adverse impacts. PIANGO is proposing to work with one of its members, the Kiribati Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (KANGO), in order to collaborate and dialogue with the i-Kiribati government and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to help shape policies that reflect the needs, priorities, and voices of local i-Kiribati communities on migration and climate change.

For information on our next grants call and all other updates on our grants programme please sign up here. Profiles for each newly endorsed project will be available on the Commonwealth Foundation grants pages soon.

Mental health policy reform: time to decolonise our minds

Mental health legislation in 20 per cent of Commonwealth countries was passed before 1960.

The term “idiot” remains on the statutes of 10 Commonwealth countries. The law in many Commonwealth countries is in conflict with contemporary international human rights obligations towards people with mental illness. The roots of mental health legislation can often be traced to a bygone era. It’s time we de-colonised our minds.

‘The roots of mental health legislation can often be traced to a bygone era.’

The Commonwealth Foundation is not a mental health focussed organisation but we are committed to strengthening civic voice in policy reform. We funded a review of mental health laws across the Commonwealth five years ago. The final report – produced by the Commonwealth Health Professions Alliance (CHPA) and written by Dr Soumitra Pathare and Dr Jaya Sagade of the Indian Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy highlighted the dichotomy between existing laws and human rights. The CMNF identified two countries where policy reform was being considered. They applied to the Commonwealth Foundation for a grant to help make change happen and were successful.

One of the project’s countries is Seychelles and I was privileged to see for myself the way they are going about the process of reform. Seychelles was identified because of the willingness of lawmakers, and civil society (mental health and allied professionals and people with mental illness) to work together to address the policy challenge. The inclusion of people with mental illness in the process speaks to the Foundation’s core purpose of strengthening less heard voices.

Civil society has provided the impetus for reform but it has drawn strength from the support of the Minister for Health who impressed upon me the need for civic-state dialogue to make health services responsive to contemporary demands. The need for change is evident. The existing law is the Mental Health Act of 2006. Although relatively recent the legislation was passed before Seychelles signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I heard from mental health professionals that the law emphasises retaining people with mental illness in institutions rather than the treatment and rehabilitation of patients. As one mental health professional critiqued it’s about protecting “us” from “them.”

‘the law can help to either re-inforce or deconstruct social attitudes.’

A Mental Health Advisory Committee was established to steer the project in-country. It is chaired by the Chief Medical Officer and it brings together health professionals, policy specialists and service consumers. The Committee is supported by the CMNF and Dr Pathare and during my stay I sat in on their discussions. I heard how hard it is for people with mental illness to enjoy rights that we take for granted – to gain employment or to get insurance. I also heard how easy it is for people with mental illness to be incarcerated or restrained. The particular challenge of the stigma associated with mental illness in a small state was never far from the surface and it was recognised that the law can help to either re-inforce or deconstruct social attitudes.

Essential to the process of reform was the engagement of the Attorney-General’s office. I had the chance to meet with the newly appointed Attorney General and I was struck by his recognition of the importance of bringing his office nearer to people. His representative sat with the Committee as they pored over the new draft Act, line by line. The draft Act was then presented at an open meeting at the Seychelles Hospital. About forty people from all walks of life gathered: patients, politicians, police and practitioners. They attested to the need for change, called for more and targeted dialogue with particularly affected parts of society like young people. They want to see the Act passed and fully implemented. They want to see the new law make a difference and all were optimistic about the chances of the Act going before Parliament by next April.

Our colleagues on the Advisory Committee – public officials and civil society alike are committed to change. They agreed that there was no point in trying to change elements of the existing 2006 Act and are developing a national policy that will provide a framework for the new Act. They recognised that the spirit of the existing law was a ghost from a time long past. This was a time when administrators wrote laws to suit themselves and when it was presumed that people with mental illness were objects of charity rather than agents of their own destiny.

Colonial institutions are not just fine buildings that are well preserved but they are laws and practices that have also endured. While I’ve been here, discussions with Ministers, senior officials and civil society have all touched on the continuing relevance of the Commonwealth. In Seychelles they’ve taken a problem left behind by empire and addressed it using the empathy and solidarity that are the hallmark of the People’s Commonwealth.

Image credit: Flickr CC darkday

Grants roundup: steps to a fairer future

The Commonwealth Foundation’s Grants Committee recently approved 14 projects. This new cohort of initiatives complements the Foundation’s key 2017-2021 strategic objective: to strengthen people’s voices so they can engage with governance.

Following a rigorous, multi-stage selection process, the newly endorsed projects are as ambitious as they are regionally varied, with initiatives being implemented from the Pacific islands to East Africa.

Here’s a snapshot of a few:

Find Your Feet are working towards the realisation of the rights of India’s 104 million indigenous people. The Indian government has introduced a number of laws and policies that are specifically designed to promote the rights of tribal communities. Find Your Feet have focussed on the need to adequately monitor the implementation of legislation and policy at the central and state levels of government. The Tribal Rights Fora (TRF) was established by civil society to do just this—but as new entities, they need support if they are to engage policymakers and make recommendations to the institutions responsible for implementing legislative changes.

Find Your Feet of India are going to design and implement a tailored programme of capacity development with TRF members in leadership, advocacy skills and engagement with governance and the media. Its key utility will be to focus on assisting, influencing and engaging with the government’s implementing bodies, particularly the National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs).

AbleChildAfrica are paying close attention to the parliamentary cycle as they form alliances between Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) and government officials.  The Government of Kenya has demonstrated its commitment to the right of Children with Disabilities (CWDs) by ratifying both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). With the Children’s Act due for review in the Kenyan parliament, AbleChildAfrica will facilitate meetings, the attendance of national parliamentary review sessions and develop the coalition’s ability to advocate using awareness-building campaigns. A series of evidence-based reports and the involvement of policymakers throughout will help to better inform the Children’s Act review process.

In Mauritius, Prevention Information Lutte contre le SIDA (PILS) are taking action on HIV. Despite the success of recent harm reduction programmes in reducing the occurrences of the virus among adults, progress has rolled back with a recent spike in cases among people who use drugs (PWUDs), a community with limited awareness of health care options. By facilitating their access to services and raising awareness of prevention techniques, PILS hopes to tackle the spread of the virus while at the same time demonstrating the value of the harm reduction approach to national drug policy.

A welcome upsurge in the number of grant applications to the Foundation from the Pacific region has led to the endorsement of some important new initiatives. The Tonga Strategic Development Framework 2015-2025 provides a roadmap for the localisation of commitments made in international treaties, particularly on the environment. The Civil Society Forum of Tonga (CSFT) plans to work towards a constructive working relationship with the Tongan Government so they can jointly monitor the progress of the Tonga Strategic Development Framework. Crucially, the CSFT will begin the process mapping the alignment of civil society and government priorities. These form solid foundations that make a partnership between civil society and government more likely to work.

In Papua New Guinea, the Centre for Environment Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) have linked the issues of environmental legislation and indigenous rights. They will engage government agencies to deliver changes to legislation and policies that govern the use and management of natural resources to benefit indigenous customary landowners. This will involve conducting a detailed review and analysis of existing policies and legislation, and working with government agencies directly to present and propose changes to the First Legislative Counsel and advocate with Parliamentarians for these changes to be adopted.

In this latest round of grants projects, there is a discernible sense of civil society cooperating with governments and building on their work. Constructive engagement and adding value to development lie at the core of the Commonwealth Foundation’s strategic objectives. Many of the new projects do this by broadening and deepening participation to make national legislation effective. They are aimed at achievable, sustainable and institutionalised change and highlight the importance of including marginalised voices that offer a worldview from which there is much to learn.

Grant calls for the 2017/18 period will open in December 2017.  For information on our next grants call and all other updates on our grants programme please sign up here. Profiles for each newly endorsed project will be available on the Commonwealth Foundation grants pages soon.