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Tag: Indigenous people

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.

Telling the story of indigenous survival

In October, I received an email from the Commonwealth Foundation. It contained an invitation to participate in the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) to be held in December in Fiji.

The theme: Our Planet, Our Struggle, Our Future. My heart raced as I blinked at the phone. I only had to confirm my attendance. I told no one at first. I was sure that if I spoke it, it would be somehow taken away.

In early November, another email followed. Subject: Trip to Samoa? The Ring of Fire was calling me. My story titled Unaccounted for, in the So Many Islands anthology seen only by editors and printers, was going to come to life half-way around the world. Inside me a huge moon was beginning to wax.

For as long as I have known my voice I have thrown it to the Pacific. The area of our planet which is home to the most diverse range of indigenous cultures. I remembered reading about these islands and the Ring of Fire during my geography classes in Secondary school. The ring is dotted with 75% of all active volcanoes on Earth. It stretches from the southern tip of South America, along the coast of North America, across the Bearing Strait, down to Japan, into New Zealand and Antarctica. These islands were smack in the middle.

In July, at the Pacific Island Development Forum Leader’s Summit in the Solomon Islands, Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said the government had accelerated plans to relocate some 40 coastal villages to higher ground. The land is suffering from ‘progress’ with unsustainable and rising natural resource extraction and chemicals and pesticides contaminating rivers but communities are working together to slow the dark and rising tides. I longed to join their resistance and wanted them to join mine. Our Planet, Our Struggle, Our Future our cause, the same.

‘It was my first chance to see what life is like on these islands, stories told by their storytellers’

‘That awkward moment when you get on the plane at 9:30pm on the 27 and get off at 6am on the 29.’ I tweeted as I struggled to stay awake during the six-hour lay-over at Nadi airport before meeting with Commonwealth Writers. We would travel on to Apia, Samoa together for the launch of So Many Islands, hosted by the Little Island Press. It was exciting to think of my work being included in this collection of poetry and stories from around the world.

On the drive from the Faleolo Airport to Hotel Vaea I considered the many similarities between my homeland and the landscape. The fale stood out and when I enquired I was immediately inspired. These simple, open huts were symbols of community and tradition. An open space where all were welcomed to be humbled and heard. The very presence of these structures seemed to underline the importance of community to me. I felt welcomed, embraced and supported by Tony Murrow and Evotia Tamua of Little Island Press, and Dionne Fanoti from the National University of Samoa. Then, I met Mere Taito, a Rotuman islander with a burning passion for storytelling and Katherine Reki from Papua New Guinea, a filmmaker and mother on a mission to create a better world for her children. Mere has written a fiery poem for the So Many Islands anthology and Katherine’s film My Mother’s Blood explores the killing of a woman, who is suspected of witchcraft, in the Highlands.

Above: Tracy reads Unaccounted For at the National University of Samoa, Apia, Samoa
Above: So Many Islands anthology, a collection of literature hailing from 17 island states in the Commonwealth, had its first regional launch at a ceremony in Apia, Samoa
Above: Tracy speaks to civil society representatives at the University of South Pacific, Suva, Fiji

In Unaccounted For I tell the story of my island and my ancestors. It is one story, the land and us. Intertwined before we became labour and the land became capital. It was an emotional experience, reading my story aloud for the first time, from its published pages to the small, attentive audience gathered in the hotel fale that Friday evening. My voice cracked just at the point where I welcomed my ancestors into the room and I was encouraged to go on by my new friends, who understood my tears and understood the struggles of my journey. I had travelled almost two days to get there. As I said my grandparents’ names, I felt their presence in the room. They were there to share that moment with me.

‘My truth is my identity, my right to declare that I belong, my right to practise and preserve my culture and celebrate my heritage’

The next day, we all attended a special screenings of six films from Tonga and Papua New Guinea produced by Commonwealth Writers. It was my first chance to see what life is like on these islands, stories told by their storytellers. We talked about that during the panel discussion that followed. How people who live on those islands and ours have been framed by those telling the story as documentary, as fantasy, and how important it is for us to tell our own stories. We have all been given the opportunity through the screenings of these films and sharing our stories in the So Many Islands anthology. So many islands separated and connected by water, even the water in our tears.

On December 3, we arrived in Fiji for the International Civil Society Week. The team expanded. We were joined by Marita Davis, an I-Kiribati writer and Glenill Burua, a 19 year-old filmmaker from Matupit, Papua New Guinea. I joined Myn Garcia, Deputy Director General of the Commonwealth Foundation for a panel discussion at the University of the South Pacific on December 6 as part of the Commonwealth Writers Conversations series. From my story, Myn read the lines: ‘What did it all mean anyway? We had grown tired of the labels people had chosen to both recognise and erase us. Each label seemed to have the same purpose.’

Waxing still, we talked about recognition and cultural loss. In Trinidad, while descendants of the island’s first peoples received a one-off holiday in recognition of their presence last year, we have never been able to declare ourselves ‘indigenous’ on any census form.

My truth is my identity, my right to declare that I belong, my right to practise and preserve my culture and celebrate my heritage. With the publication of this anthology I have an opportunity to speak it out, clear across the planet. My message is clear and resonates. The indigenous story is one of survival. Our Planet. Our Struggle. Our Future.

Tracy Assing is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. 

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.

Speaking of Partition by Rita Kothari

In the summer of 2014 a panel discussion titled “Partitioned Voices, Divided Tongues?” held in Delhi, invited the panellists to think of “What happens to a language when its land and people are partitioned?”

In the organizers’ scheme of things, this comprised Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi and Bengali as languages that have undergone “the experience” of Partition. Each panellist represented, for the most part, a particular language. At the heart of the panel’s premise was the assumption of non-physical ramification of Partition – that is, the intangible costs incurred in the process.

The discussions explored whether Partition itself was a communicable experience; in other words, whether trauma is indeed expressible in words. Do we have words for instance to articulate the marginalization of Bengali in East Pakistan that led to the making of Bangladesh, the minoritization of Urdu in India as well as the hegemony of Hindi?

Were languages capable of bearing the burden of words that could capture the enormity of Partition? Words such as bantwara or vibhajan (both connoting division in Hindi); ladpalayan (migration and exodus) or virhango (separation in Sindhi) appear too quotidian to fully capture the trauma of this experience. The incommensurability of language and experience characterises the human condition, and may not be by itself a unique situation. However, loss or inadequacy of words accompanied – at the time of Partition –other forms of tangible and intangible losses such as home, territory, faith, friendships and at times, self-esteem. It is therefore clear that the relation between partition and language is complicated by a range of other experiences.

Do we have words for Partition?

In her discussion of the inarticulacy of the partition experience, panellist, Urvashi Butalia tellingly pointed out the frequent use of gibberish in some literary and oral testimonies of Partition. The discussion then veered towards specific languages such as Urdu, Sindhi and Bengali and the extent to which they were morphed, abandoned or divided during Partition.

As one of the panellists, I shared a story titled Oxen written by Muhammad Daud Baloch. Narrated by a farmer in rural Sindh, Pakistan. The story observes how beasts of burden also need to understand the language to carry out orders; Allah knows what happens to the language of humans when they are wrenched out of their history. The story captures the predicament of the uprooted – the Punjabi migrants who came from India to the new nation of Pakistan as well as the Sindhi Hindus who had left Sindh to go to a separated India.

Early one morning, I left the plough and leash in the field, and marched towards Khairuddin’s field with the three animals. I had barely gone halfway when I saw Khairuddin Punjabi coming towards me with my oxen. When we both stood facing each other, Khairuddin said to me that my oxen didn’t understand his language although he had whacked them so hard that their skin peeled off. (Oxen, Muhammad Daud Baloch)

Were languages also divided, like land? The classic example would be of Hindi and Urdu – the first associated with Hindus and the other Muslims – which, having been bifurcated and ‘communalized’, share the same vocabulary and to a certain extent syntax.

Aijaz Ahmad posits that ‘Independence and Partition were doubtless key watersheds in the chequered history of the Urdu language and its literature, in the sense that the thematics of this literature as well as reading and writing communities were fragmented and recomposed drastically in diverse ways” (1996: 191).

However, this process was already evident in the years prior to partition. In fact its roots lie in colonial technologies on which the post-colonial realities came to be fashioned. Choosing between ‘Urdu’ and ‘Hindi’ as a new form of colonial enumeration did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. This either/or framework had sown, arguably, the early seeds of division that was consolidated further by Partition.

We also know from vast, existing scholarship on Hindi-Urdu, that the divisions that appear so clearly defined today cloud the fact that pre-colonial multilingual cultures were not invested with hardened communalized identities. (See Orsini, 1).

In fact the question of whether language is divisible may be preceded by asking what is a language, and what are its borders and boundaries? This article does not provide the scope to dwell on this issue in great detail; however, I have attempted to demonstrate through a non-academic and personal experience, the changing status of language as a practice of both border-making and border-crossing.

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