Tag: Global agreements

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.

Commonwealth civil society roundtable at the 12th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting

At the 11th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting (11WAMM), held in September 2016 hosted by the Government of Samoa, Kenya was selected to host the 12th Women Affairs Ministers Meeting (12 WAMM).

The meeting will be held on 19-20 September 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya with the theme: ‘From Commitment to Action: Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for Sustainable Development.’

Kenya’s Big Four Agenda is effectively aligned to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, at the continental level with Africa’s Agenda 2063 ‘The Africa We Want’, and at the national level, it is anchored to the Kenya Vision 2030.

In 2020, the global community will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing +25) and the fifth year of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Moreover, the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) and Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) will be held in Kigali, Rwanda in June 2020.

In consideration of several parallel processes in support of Beijing +25 Platform for Action, amplifying the voices of women’s rights and women-led organisations will be prioritised. In this spirit and as a way to contribute to the advocacy and discourse on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the lead up to 12 WAMM and Beijing +25, the Commonwealth Foundation will organise a civil society roundtable in partnership with the Government of Kenya as the host country for 12WAMM on 16-17 September 2019. The Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya) will be the co-convenor of the roundtable.

In consultation with FIDA-Kenya and the Government of the Republic of Kenya, the criteria for the selection of organisations and participants from across the Commonwealth in the civil society roundtable is as follows:

  • Representative networks and organisations working at the regional level which are already members of the women’s major group[1] and/or actively representing civic voices of women throughout the Commonwealth. This includes those that are working on policy and advocacy on the four priorities of the Commonwealth: Women’s economic empowerment, Women in leadership, Ending violence against women and girls, and Gender and climate change  
  • Organisations and/or networks involved in national reviews and regional consultations on the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) and/or involved in the development of shadow reports of civil society consultations and/ or in annual consultation of Commonwealth National Women’s Machineries
  • Organisations and/or networks showcasing intersectionality in their membership: women from rural areas, young people and elderly generations, less privileged socio-economic backgrounds, among others, and are inclusive of voices in the margins/less heard voices in their internal governance
  • Representatives of women in media and leading feminist thinkers who have participated in critical reviews progress on women’s rights and gender equality, informing the Beijing +20 debate including feminist economists who can support governments with advice on accelerating results.

The Women’s Major Group is self-organised and facilitated by a team of 8 Organising Partners, including WEDO. The WMG has the mandate to facilitate women’s human rights and gender equality perspectives into UN policy processes on sustainable development. In recent years, the WMG program and project has been designed to influence two distinct phases in global sustainable development: (1) finalising a universal Post-2015 Development agenda that is grounded in national and regional realities, in particular realities for women; and (2) ensuring its robust implementation at the national, regional and global levels.

Expected outcomes of the roundtable:

  • Civic voice collectives across the Commonwealth effectively communicate policy priorities and recommendations on accelerating results for the delivery of SDG 5 to governments including recommendations to address the intersectionality of gender
  • Sustained engagement of civic voice collectives across the Commonwealth in the Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting process with the active co-convening role of women’s rights and women-led organisations in the host country.
Download the latest update


Seasonal message from the Director-General

As we start to look forward to a seasonal break, we pause to reflect on the year that’s passed.

For the Commonwealth Foundation, one of the highlights of the year was the Commonwealth Summit held in London. This biennial gathering of Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers, civil society, and business naturally focusses the system’s energies. We played our part, convening diverse civic voices at the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF 2018), which placed inclusive governance at the centre of Commonwealth renewal.

Creative expression helped to animate the discussions and dialogues at CPF 2018 and made a real impact on the delegates. Seeing Karlo Mila deliver the poem that she wrote for the occasion to more than a thousand people was electric. She used the form to bring issues from Oceania to London, including colonial legacy, inequality, and climate change.

We were able to take some of those messages from civil society to the climate change talks taking place in Poland. Indeed, I write from Katowice, where 33,000 people are gathered at COP24. Here the Foundation is driven by the need for international processes to listen to and hear less heard voices. We gathered 40 of these in Barbados earlier this year in partnership with UNDP Global Environment Programme to explore the intersectionality between gender and climate change.

Our grant making continues to illustrate the ways in which participatory governance shapes people’s lives. Since 2012-13 we have invested nearly £6 million in projects that span a wide range of sectors but have one theme in common. They show how people’s participation in a wide range of governance processes can enhance development outcomes. We were able to add a further five projects to the portfolio this year.

One of the Foundation’s defining characteristics is a commitment to South to South and South to North knowledge sharing and learning. We saw a good example of this in action at the learning workshop that we convened for new grant projects in October. This annual activity aims to help project leaders to refine their approach to monitoring and assessment. This year we included sessions on gender sensitivity and its intersectionality, which helped underline the importance of holistic and integrated approaches.

These highlights give a sense of the busy and productive year that we have enjoyed at the Commonwealth Foundation. On behalf of staff I would like to thank our member states for their sustained support as well as our civil society stakeholders for continuing to walk with us.

Vijay Krishnarayan is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

SDGs: it’s NOT just about data

It has been buzzing in development circles. But it seems stronger now in certain places. It’s the buzz on the data revolution.

And there is also a lot of talk about the need for people in the margins to participate in the monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But what does the data revolution mean? And what would it take for citizens to be interested in monitoring the SDGs?

The Participate Initiative’s Policy Brief, Using knowledge from the margins to meet the SDGs: the real data revolution says that ‘the ultimate success or failure of the SDGs depends, in large part, on inclusion.’ Indeed, inclusion is key. But what does inclusion look like? What does it take for the SDG process to be genuinely inclusive in a governance context? SDG 16 is regarded as the goal that would ‘unlock’ the SDG framework and fulfil the ‘ambition to leave no one behind.’ But how?

‘Arguably, localisation is about taking the SDG agenda back to its roots, where the difference matters and where it actually matters most.’

Domestication and localisation of the SDGs is an effort that is currently underway in many countries. Dissecting how it works allows us to understand facets of inclusion. To say localisation gives one the impression that the process now should be driven from the top to the ground after a set of global goals have been agreed. Lest we forget, the goals were arrived at after civil society, community-based organisations and NGOs were consulted (perhaps over consulted) in developing the architecture for the Post 2015 Development Agenda. Arguably, localisation is about taking the SDG agenda back to its roots, where the difference matters and where it actually matters most.

One of the tasks at hand for the sustainable agenda “unanimously adopted by 193 UN members” is to ensure the domestication of the agenda into national development plans and / or poverty reduction strategies of countries and that these are informed and influenced by local development plans developed through processes that are participatory, formal and informal.

‘Inclusion in governance undeniably requires political will and is complex, embedded in a system.’

A decentralised structure of governance allows for people’s participation at the local level with citizens engaging with local authorities and councils. Conversations with civil society, local authorities and local councils in some Commonwealth countries raised the challenges to decentralisation. But they also pointed to some of the enabling processes:

  1. Formal, institutional spaces designed for citizen to engage and have the authority to input in or influence decision-making processes such as local planning and budgeting. This may come in the form of membership in local councils and service delivery committees, among others
  2. Informal engagements such as citizen led mobilisation, advocacy campaigns and community-based dialogues on issues that policy makers would be able to consider for the agenda of both the executive and legislative council, for example
  3. Raising awareness of citizens’ rights in areas that matter to them such as delivery of services; enabling citizens to engage more constructively and confidently
  4. Citizen-generated and evidence based data which includes citizen scorecard and gender barometer and individual or collective stories and testimonials which would facilitate dialogues and other inclusive processes between government and citizens
  5. Citizens access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms
  6. Collective action and social movements that connect people in the margins to people in power- in government, civil society and wider society including the media, donours and the private sector

Inclusion in governance undeniably requires political will and is complex, embedded in a system. Inclusion engenders accountability which should be understood within a system characterised by the nature of power and economic, cultural and social contexts. It requires an integrated approach at different levels in a web of interconnections. It certainly can’t work through ‘one-off processes of consultation or narrow citizen-monitoring mechanisms‘. It is definitely not just about data.

Myn Garcia is the Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation. Image credit: Flickr CC Judson Weinsheimer

Adaptation, or justice? Climate action in the Pacific

ABOVE: Butaritari, Kiribati – Islands in the Pacific are particularly venerable to the effects of climate change.  Photo Credit: KevGuy4101

What does ‘climate justice’ mean for Pacific Islanders? This was one of the main questions the Foundation aimed to understand with colleagues in Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand earlier this year.  Because of climate change’s cross-cutting impact on people, society and livelihoods, our small delegation met with a range of actors: leaders of civil society organisations, writers and other creative practitioners as well as staff of government agencies and academics working on climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) programmes.

The immediacy of the impact of climate change to Pacific Islanders was clear after my first few meetings. It is happening right now – yesterday. Coastal communities in Fiji have already been relocated due to sea-level rise, with many more communities on the list. Many of the legal ramifications related to relocation such as title and ownership rights, and compensation have yet to be worked out. Some of the existing information on land ownership is ambiguous and if title deed goes way back, perhaps doesn’t exist.

The situation of Kiribati is particularly dire.  Kiribati occupies a total territory of 370km, but of that, 2% is land – low lying coral atolls; the rest is sea – its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone.  Kiribati’s main economic industry is its tuna fishery. At current emissions rates and sea level rise, Kiribati predicts that many of its islands will be under sea by 2080 and they would be uninhabitable well before then. The Kiribati President has already sanctioned the purchase of land on Fiji to relocate the entire Kiribati population of 100,000+ people. If this happens, it would be the end of a sovereign state due to climate change.  Another dilemma facing the nation of Kiribati is how to secure continued access to its tuna fishery for the economic and social development of its people. However, because the Law of the Sea states that the EEZ is determined by distance from land it is unclear what will happen to its EEZ if the land is underwater.[1]

“The immediacy of the impact of climate change to Pacific Islanders was clear after my first few meetings. It is happening right now – yesterday.”

For people whose link to the land is closely tied to their livelihood and identity, relocation could have far deeper ramifications. Fijian writer, Mary Rokonodravu, shared her concerns with me on the lack of attention given to the social and cultural implications of relocation. She referred to the historic case of the displaced people of Banaban from whom we could learn many critical lessons on the complexities and pitfalls of relocation. Back in 1945 when the island of Banaba was mined of its phosphate resources by the British Pacific Phosphate Company, the Banabans were forcibly relocated to the island of Rabi over 3000 km away. The provision for their re-settlement and adjustment to an entirely new environment and lifestyle was inadequete, leading to high levels of poverty.[2]

The response from the international community towards the impacts of climate change on Pacific islands has been to put vast amounts of financial support into the Pacific Islands for adaptation and risk reduction. Most of the bilateral and multilateral donors have funded large scale projects. This has created a highly complex landscape of agencies, donors and projects spending significant amounts of money, particularly at the regional level – so much so that those working in the sector seem fatigued by the complexity of the landscape. While there is immense capacity for the technical aspects of implementing CCA and DRR in the regional hub-countries, there is equally enormous and growing demand. The Green Climate Fund, which will bring millions in funding, will bring additional challenges for delivery.

The dominant narrative of climate change has therefore become climate change adaptation and risk reduction. Civil society, for the most part, has also had to frame its participation in the climate change response within the narrative of adaptation. However, none of the funding available from the main climate change adaptation funding pots is available to civil society. According to Krishneil Narayan, Coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), currently no civil society organisation from the Pacific, arguably the region most impacted by climate change, is involved in the Global Climate Fund Board – or as observers, where decisions and assessments are made on what will be funded nationally. So even where Pacific civil society could help influence the adaptation agenda and to determine how funds might be spent for the potential benefit of vulnerable communities, they are excluded from the decision-making table. Pacific civil society seems confined to the ‘consultation’ box for adaptation programmes and CSOs viewed as deliverers for climate change awareness projects.

“The narrative of adaptation and risk reduction is ‘crowding out’ the space for questioning the inevitability of climate change.”

Coastal communities at the frontline of climate change impacts undoubtedly need support for adaptation.  But where is the discussion of climate justice? Although climate justice is not a static concept and still evolving, a crucial aspect is the discussion of systematic transformation to tackle the root causes of climate change. But within this dominant narrative of adaptation and risk reduction, the inevitability of climate change becomes accepted. The narrative of adaptation and risk reduction is ‘crowding out’ the space for questioning the inevitability of climate change.

In addition, the space for solutions is limited to those with geopolitical and financial power and transformative change becomes obfuscated.  In discussing the case of Kiribati, one of the technical staff at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat said something that stuck in my mind. Rather than focus on relocation, support should be on development – so that Kiribati has the prosperity to make innovative solutions and be resilient to the changes ahead. However, within the current framework of climate change adaptation and relocation, those on the frontline become portrayed as always in need of humanitarian relief – needing to be helped rather than as co-creators of the solution.

So, what does climate justice mean for Pacific islanders? I wasn’t convinced that the question of ‘justice’ which challenges and advocates for transformative change of fossil-fuel based, consumption-hungry economies was foremost on the minds of civil society. However, what I did find was that civil society in Tonga were challenging the dominant narrative of adaptation and risk reduction in another way. They were considering the response to climate change not as an adaptation question but as one of resilience and ‘green growth’. Although it is still early days and small scale, for Tongans, green growth means building prosperity for people in Tonga through the sustainable use of their resources.

In November 2016, in a meeting organised by the Civil Society Forum of Tonga (CSFT) and the Oceania office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Tongan government representatives, civil society and regional organisations identified seven principles of a green growth strategy: (1) development (2) justice (3) dignity (4) earth integrity (5) inclusion (6) governance (7) resilience (8) efficiency (9) inter-generational. Enhancing Tonga’s organic agriculture and the productivity of its fisheries through the protection and management of critical fisheries habitat are some of the first steps to realising their vision. A proposed local governance structure to establish structures and processes for a resilient governance arrangement is also being trialled. The challenge however is ensuring that green growth doesn’t just remain a niche but that it becomes the driver of the national adaptation response.

Studies have already shown that despite the commitments made by industrialised countries at the UNFCCC’s Paris COP21 in December 2015, to do all they can to limit temperature rise to 1.50C, just burning fossil fuels from projects presently in operation will produce emissions that will put the globe well past 20C of warming this century. Fiji is the chair of the next COP23 to be held in Bonn, Germany.  Pacific civil society already see this as an opportunity to raise the profile of the climate change struggle in their region[3]. But will the issue get the attention it deserves? Can the stories of relocation and loss in the Pacific Islands help promote a more meaningful conversation from mainstream media in countries of the Global North about transformational change? Or will it reinforce perceptions of humanitarian need and climate change inevitability in current mainstream media discussions?

The Suva Declaration[4] prepared by PICAN and taken forward by the Pacific Islands Development Forum prior to the Paris COP21, is perhaps one of the clearest statements of asks from civil society and Pacific Island governments targeted at industrialised countries. But in addition to the asks, the narrative also needs to change. To do this, civil society needs to build its constituency to shape people’s world view.  This is a challenging task across the islands of the Pacific, but it’s something that PICAN has begun – to strengthen its network of civic voices across the frontline countries of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Fiji. Linking with other networks and movements in high CO2 emitting countries, who are putting pressure on their own governments for systemic change, will help to build their power, influence public discourse and change the narrative from a discussion around adaptation to one of systemic change.

[1] For more on this, see: https://www.ted.com/talks/anote_tong_my_country_will_be_underwater_soon_unless_we_work_together

[2] See more: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2015/10/14/our-heart-is-on-banaba-stories-from-the-forgotten-people-of-the-pacific/

[3] http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=391260

[4] http://pacificidf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Suva-Climate-Declaration-final_USB.pdf

Bringing the sustainable development goals home

The Commonwealth Foundation (CF) spoke to Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso about her role in domesticating and implementing the sustainable development agenda in African countries. Namhla is the Director of Africa Monitor, which currently acts as the Africa Working Group (AWG) secretariat, a broad regional coalition of African civil society organisations. The Commonwealth Foundation has funded and supported AWG since 2014.

CF: Namlah, welcome to the Foundation. Could you start by introducing Africa Working Group (AWG) and the Africa Monitor’s role as secretariat?

Namlah: Thank you so much for having me. Africa working group is a coalition, or let me say it’s a platform, of well over 150 civil society organisations operating in Africa, working on various aspects of sustainable development. We’ve been in existence for the last 4-5 years and working to make sure we can inform and shape the evolution of the sustainable development agenda in Africa. We started during the negotiation process and now we are very well positioned as civil society […] to influence the accelerated implementation and domestication of the sustainable development goals [SDGs]. African Monitor is one of the founding members of the working group and is also the secretariat. Our work at the organisation is to enhance sub-Saharan African citizen agency […] to build the capacity of ordinary citizens to engage well with their governments. And so there is a complete alignment with what we do and the intentions of the African Working Group in making sure that African Civil Society is engaged and influences the policy direction that Africa takes as it correlates to the sustainable agenda.

CF: What are the benefits and constraints of the work of the AWG as a loose association of organisations?

Namlah: It is a loose network. We did not want to institutionalise it and turn it into a [formal] organisation: it is a coming together of a multitude of organisations. […] We wanted the likeminded to come together, as long as they care about sustainable development and as long as they cared about improving the real lives of people on the ground in Africa. I think the benefits have been the automatic commitment that organisations have to the cause because it is the coming together of the likeminded. The way that things happen in the African context is that there is a lot of influence in the collective […] you can achieve a lot more if you operate as a collective than if you operate as individual organisations. […] The challenge I think has been to work through how then do you put in place systems for accountability, governance and transparency. How then do you make decisions? Particularly the strategic [decisions] around what you focus on. And I think we had to be very careful in […] how you govern and coordinate, how you spread the responsibility of doing the […] work throughout the members. But I dare say that we’ve done much of that now. The AWG has a secretariat, there are core group of organisations that are Founding advisory members, there are working groups within the AWG, and there are co-chairs within those working groups. And so there are continuous processes of engagement, we do [web conference] calls and those kinds of things, so that we are continuously talking […].

CF: The Commonwealth Foundation supported AWG engagement with colleagues at the UN in New York while the SDGs were being negotiated – could you describe that and tell us about the impact of that work?

Namlah: Let me contextualise New York a little bit. When we did the New York mission […] at the time the negotiation around the SDGS were starting and […] accelerating. The United Nations (UN) system is set up in such a way, that the African Group [AG], in other words the African ambassadors [had] no systematic engagement with […] African civil society, in fact there was barely any presence of independent African civil society within the UN system. And so the Commonwealth Foundation came at the perfect niche, the perfect time in terms of the support and the boost we needed to get going with what turned out to be a fairly important relationship that we established with the African Group. And that was about three years ago already now and I think since then, not only were we able to continuously engage with the African Group in New York to the extent that they now know who the AWG is, which means that we continued to have the political space to shape […] the sustainable development goals. What that means for us is that the perspective of African people, our constituents, found voice and space. We wanted to make sure that the agenda on the SDGs is about people, is about the poor, is about the excluded and the vulnerable. The terminology of ‘leave no one behind’ was at the core of some of the things that we were negotiating for. We wanted to make sure that there is a very strong focus on young people, because Africa is a young continent. And we wanted to make sure that there were real conversations around structural issues, that make economies function well, […] inclusive economies, economic justice and so on. And then we wanted to make sure that governance was a central part of the agenda and so some of the big, big achievements I think [reflect] what we had been fighting very hard for. So New York was the beginning of something that continued up to December 2015 where we continued to engage. What that meant was is that we had impetus, as the civil society network, to continuously position ourselves and get ourselves organised [and] to go back as civil society leaders and say there is a real need for our continued engagement in this space, and so how do we shape that engagement with the African Union [AU], how do we shape that engagement at the national level with our presidents and our ministers and so on and I would say that moment was a really important accelerant to the work we’ve been able to do since then, […]. I think once the negotiations were completed and September 2015 happened a number of other amazing things and big milestones were achieved, I can sit here and say in most of the countries that we work there are SDG civil society platforms that exist, that have in large part been initiated by African Working Group members. So whether you are thinking about Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana or South Africa, the SDG platforms that exist in those spaces are in fact initiated and co-coordinated by AWG members. Beyond that civil society networks at the national level are actively engaging with their own governments to ensure that the SDGS are domesticated, that accountability and review mechanisms [are in place] to ensure that the SDGs are going to be implemented. Another angle that I think AWG are working very hard on is around the issue of data. In other words, what’s the role of citizens in producing the kind of data and knowledge that can actually inform and influence review processes? So citizen driven data is a strong element of what we’re working towards both to improve national accountability systems and therefore improve national governance mechanisms, but also to improve global and regional accountability.

CF: Why were Cameron and Tanzania selected to localise the SDG agenda and what have the successes and challenges been?

Namlah: So both Tanzania and Cameroon exist within the context [of] AWG […] working across all the major countries to ensure that the SDGS were domesticated. The civil society organisations both inside Tanazania and Cameroon are a part of the Africa Working Group, so we already had very fertile ground in relation to the engagement of civil society in those spaces. When we started last year we said that we wanted a pilot programme, something that essentially would give us a model on how civil society can engage in the domestication agenda. Now you must remember that the background to this is that we had spent three years in policy advocacy trying to shape the agenda, and then we were realising that it was time to implement and to make sure that it comes back to the national level. That meant a couple of things. It meant that there needs to be policy integration, that we need to take the 17 SDGs and make sure that they are integrated with the national development plans. There [also] needs to be the institutionalisation of multi-stakeholder systems that would make sure we can jointly plan and jointly make decisions and review the SDGs. And then implementation approaches so the SDGS can be implemented […]. Tanzania being in East Africa and Cameroon being in West Africa … also gave us a really nice spread in terms of the geography of the continent. We also wanted to make sure that we could learn from the results of what was happening in both of those countries and it’s been exciting because I think there are a couple of milestones that we can look at that have happened. The first of those, was can we make sure that civil society gets its act together and positions itself well to engage as a value creating partner in the SDG agenda? What does that mean? That essentially means the establishment of the civil society SDG platforms… this idea of saying that all of civil society […] engaged in the SDGS must come together and think creatively about how to effectively engage.

Interestingly in most of the countries, civil society has come to the same conclusion about their role in monitoring and review in the data processes, […] in joint planning, joint decision making processes… and that’s the first milestone that I think we were able to achieve in each of the countries. In Cameroon they developed what I think they called the civil society chatter that essentially was a framework of how civil society would engage with other stakeholders, particularly government in the SDG process both from the policy integration perspective and the joint planning perspective as well as the monitoring and review perspective. Interestingly in Cameroon, the government hadn’t begun to think about how it was going to engage with other stakeholders, and so the process that civil society started, with the support of the Commonwealth Foundation, eventually ended up being endorsed by the planning ministry as a way forward in terms of making sure that there was going to be multi-stakeholder engagement.
In Tanzania, a similar process unfolded where civil society set-up what they called the civil society SDG platform and developed a monitoring and evaluation framework that then was the basis for negotiations with government. Because the Tanzania government decided that the institute for sustainable development would be the lead agency for the domestication of the SDGS, they’ve got political commitment to establish a multi-stakeholder forum, where government, business and Civil Society Organisations come together to work on the SDGs. The AWG members that are presented as a part of the CSO collation.

So [these are] huge millstones that would not have happened if civil society wasn’t organised and hadn’t positioned themselves well. The big task is that it’s not enough to have the institutional systems in place, the SDGS are about implementation. What do you prioritise? How do you budget in such a way that those that are in the frontline are now in the position of benefiting from implementation and services? That’s what we are engaged in now […] now the institutions are in place, how do we prioritise, plan properly and implement so that we leave no one behind. The next 13 years is going to tell us how successful we are.

CF: What aspects of partnership with the Foundation have been valuable to the AWG and the localising process? What distinguishes the Foundation as a partner?

Namlah: I think probably the most important characteristic is something that we’ve found very difficult to get funders to understand, because funders work in very traditional ways […] they look for an organisation and they look for established track records and there is usually very little understanding of how change works in the African context: that you need to operate by coalition […] and the model of the African working group is very unique in that sense, because we are not an institution, we are the coming together of different organisations and networks that want to make an impact in Africa. I think what, for me, distinguishes the Foundation has been the ability to understand those organic processes and the willingness to listen to what would work and why we are organising this way […]. I think this fits in very well around the new strategy of the Foundation, which is around civic voices because it’s about understanding the very many ways citizens can organise themselves, in order to improve governance and in order to improve democracy, not for its sake but to make real impact in the lives of people. Being able to work together in that space and being able to co-lend and co-create together has been wonderful, and we talk about development effectiveness and the idea that the solutions for problems must come [from those] at the helm of those problems and I think that the Foundation has an amazing ability to come in, listen in, and say what are the big problems, what aligns with our strategy, what can we add value to, while leaving the decision making powers to those that are involved and I think that has been our experience. I mean we are talking about a modest sum of resources, but I think it has given us the impetus that we needed at critical moments […] to make important impact. I do hope that becomes the example [for] more funders […]. […] It is important to safe guard civil society and civic space in Africa, we can’t talk about democracy in Africa without talking about how you protect civic space […]. [Funders] understanding why that’s important, I think would make a huge difference.

CF: What does the future hold for the AWG in the context of civil society supporting SDG? Could you identify gaps and potential gains?

Namlah: The bottom line is that we want the lives of African people changed in radical ways, and […] while we are still in the continent with the most young people in the world, the most resources under the ground, we still are faced with absolute poverty, huge unemployment issues and huge problems with governance. The SDG framework provides an opportunity within which that can change, but that’s not going to change by having the right policies in place, it’s going to change by implementation. And it’s our job, because we are civil society and we are independent from governments, [that] we work as a value creating stakeholder within the sustainable development agenda. It is our job to hold our governments accountable, to make sure that the resources that belong to the peoples of Africa are actually used to benefit Africa. […] so we’re not just going to challenge the status quo at the national level, we’re going to challenge it at the regional level [and] you can be sure we are going to challenge it at the global level because we know that it is the global dynamic that creates the mess in Africa, in terms of global resources [being] used and stolen and hidden […] and I think that the responsibility of the network is to be useful, directly in the lives of people, but also […] in giving voice to Africa’s aspirations globally and regionally.

CF: Namlah, thanks for giving us this insightful interview.

Namlah: Thank you.


The Commonwealth theme for 2017: all we are saying…

It is right that the Commonwealth’s theme for 2017 “A Peace-building Commonwealth,” follows from last year’s “An Inclusive Commonwealth.” The explicit and logical connection between inclusion and peace is important.

It takes on the notion that peace might be threatened by diversity and compels us to understand the relationship between pluralism and peace. It also encourages us to acknowledge the importance of governance in creating an environment for peace. Institutions that are not able to engage with the people they purport to serve are increasingly likely to get a loud wake up call.

The events of 2016 put peace back on the agenda. The Global Peace Index published its tenth anniversary report last year analysing the main trends. It charted the continuing deterioration in the overall global levels of peace. Among the 163 countries mapped, it found a widening gap between the most and the least peaceful. Of the index’s chosen indicators “the impact of terrorism” and “political instability” showed the sharpest decline. The report attributes the global deterioration to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and the associated international repercussions. The number of refugees and displaced persons doubled between 2007 and 2015 to nearly 60 million, accounting for more than 10% of the population in nine countries.

What these global figures do not document is the heightened exposure to the fallout from conflict and instability, experienced by specific sections of society including women, young people, minority ethnic peoples and sexual minorities. Between 2008 and 2014, the homicide rate in developing countries was twice that in the developed world, and further increased in the least developed countries.

Multilateral institutions, including the Commonwealth, have their part to play in addressing this prevailing climate but they should proceed with humility and caution. Multilateral institutions come with moral baggage that also needs to be handled. The Commonwealth has a colonial history, which is relevant to its role as an agency for peace-building. This is acknowledged in the seminal publication “Civil Paths to Peace – the report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding,” which reminds us that “The history of the world matters to contemporary problems, since the effects of past maltreatment and humiliation can last for a very long time.” The colonial legacy should not prevent the Commonwealth from being an active agent for peace, but it must be one of the elements that informs our work in this field.

The Commonwealth consistently flags the importance of civil society in peace-building. This gives the Commonwealth Foundation – the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society – a place to stand. The Foundation’s Vision is for a world where every person is able to fully participate in and contribute to the sustainable development of a peaceful and equitable society. We recognise the opportunity provided by the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals to place peace in the context of development. When they met in Malta in 2015, Heads of Government noted the consonance between the Commonwealth Foundation’s mission and Sustainable Development Goal 16 with its emphasis on peaceful and inclusive societies and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels. How does the Commonwealth Foundation turn this mandate into practical action?

There are around 11.5 million children worldwide still thought to be working illegally. In South Asia there is an increasing willingness to address their plight. With Commonwealth Foundation support, Global March has been working with partner organisations to build on the experiences of Bangladesh’s Shishu Adhikar Forum, India’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan, and Pakistan’s Grassroots Organisation for Human Development to raise awareness, advocate for policy change and build the capacity of civil society, government and law enforcement agencies to work together against child domestic labour. The project has supported the development of national intervention plans with guidance for those working to address the causes of violence against children as well as secure fair and sensitive judicial processes. There have been compilations of legislative literature, expansive regional and national consultations, and extensive analysis of existing structures – all aimed at enhancing advocacy for stronger policies that will contribute to a peaceful childhood for millions. We were delighted when the Chair of Global March, Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with Malala Yousef Sai) in 2014 for his work in this field.

Port Harcourt has grown rapidly over the past forty years and is now one of five Nigerian cities with a population of over a million. It is estimated that between 20 and 40 per cent of the people in Port Harcourt live in self-built waterfront settlements. With Commonwealth Foundation support the Stakeholder Democracy Network and its partner Human City Media Advocacy is encouraging communities to exchange experiences and engage with the State authorities as plans for the redevelopment of their city are made. This new project will develop the ability of young people to use art forms such as music to express their vision for their city. Radio programmes will be produced, shows and performances will be staged and public discussions convened all with the aim of bringing people and institutions together on the future of Port Harcourt.

These two examples articulate the Commonwealth Foundation’s approach to peace-building, which emphasises the importance of civic voice and agency. They illustrate the centrality of young people to peace-building and show how creative expression can provide the means to express a desire for peace and inclusion. Other Commonwealth Foundation programmes show how those previously side-lined can come to play a leading role in making the case for peace – most notably women.

Abuse, threat and grievance fuel and sustain instability, conflict and violence. It’s easy to see how these can compromise social and economic progress and this underscores the importance of a Sustainable Development Goal that focuses on peace. The Global Peace Index estimated that in 2015, violence cost 13.3% of global GDP and pointed out that the economic loss from conflict far outweighs investment in peace-building and peace keeping.

The Commonwealth Foundation seeks to help create and support an environment where people who are not heard can engage effectively in the processes that shape their lives. We believe engagement of this kind has the power to shape a peaceful existence for all. The Foundation’s programmes highlight the importance of human dignity for all, as both a requirement for and characteristic of a peaceful society. It’s a timeless theme that resonates particularly loudly in 2017.

A full length version of this article features in the Commonwealth Ministers’ Reference Book 2017. Find out more about this year’s Commonwealth theme at the Commonwealth Secretariat’s website. Photo credit: Flickr CC ResoluteSupportMedia