Tag: Right to information

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.

Covid-19 has shown the importance of media freedom. How can the Commonwealth defend it?

Who wants to know more about Covid-19 vaccinations?

All of us.

As citizens, we deserve information that has a bearing on our lives—we should know about national plans and progress, about virus variants and the price our governments are paying for jabs.

We need to know how our governments are allocating rescue and stimulus packages. Who’s paying, and who’s benefiting? Are we indeed saving jobs and mitigating poverty, as our governments claim?

In any society, only a small handful of actors can provide this information. Those who work in the news media are among them. Journalists do the important work of enabling us to hold governments to account for their promises. Thanks to them, we can understand the world around us as events unfold. But journalists rarely work without fear or favour, and sometimes their employers require them to give favour.

This is where international organisations (IGOs) come into the picture. It falls to bodies like the Commonwealth—and to UNESCO where I work—to help uphold the norms whereby journalists can work freely and safely.

Safety—freedom from physical or moral threats—is a basic prerequisite for carrying out the work of a journalist. Without that fundamental protection, the free flow of information is restricted and a citizen’s chance of understanding what is going on badly limited.

In too many places around the world, impunity for the range of crimes committed against journalists prevails, and a culture of silence and misinformation has taken hold.

In Commonwealth countries alone, 178 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2020. The impunity rate for the killings of journalists during that same time stands at 96%—which is notably higher than the already disgraceful global impunity rate of 87%.

‘In Commonwealth countries alone, 178 journalists were killed between 2006 and 2020.’

Journalists worldwide, including throughout the Commonwealth, are too often targeted by disinformation campaigns and the aggressive discourse of political leaders. Recent times have seen a surge in attacks against journalists covering protests, an increase in incidents of women journalists facing gender-specific threats and violence, and the use of Covid-19 by governments as a pretext to stifle legitimate dissent.

So, what role can IGOs such as the Commonwealth play in reversing these trends?

As a South African, I am personally aware of the positive difference that the Commonwealth has made in advancing norms governing freedom of expression and press freedom.

The landmark Harare Declaration, adopted by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1991, roundly condemned the apartheid government and its regime of censorship; ultimately, it hastened the establishment of democracy in my country. In that same year, the Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press established a normative framework for freedom of expression in a post-Cold War world.

The Windhoek Declaration emerged out of a UNESCO-supported seminar that also led to the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day by the UN General Assembly in 1993. It was African journalists’ calls for greater press freedom that catalysed these landmark events.

Thirty years later in 2021, the global commemoration of World Press Freedom Day comes home to Windhoek (Namibia) on 1-3 May. Commonwealth organisations have a valuable role to play in joining the event and in marking this date.

In doing so, they will be riding the tide of international state-led initiatives addressing this issue. The formation of ‘Group[s] of Friends for the Safety of Journalists’ by Member States at the Headquarters of various intergovernmental organisations in Paris, New York, Geneva, Vienna and Strasbourg has virtually guaranteed that the conversation around Media Freedom is now ringing in the halls of major intergovernmental organisations and agencies.

‘Press freedom and journalists’ safety are vital to functioning democracies’

The Media Freedom Coalition, with over 40 members, was mobilised through the Media Freedom Campaign initiated by the United Kingdom and Canada in 2019 and contributed to the adoption of the Hague Commitment to Increase the Safety of Journalists at the 2020 World Press Freedom Conference.

These state-led efforts present an opportunity to firmly reiterate the norm that press freedom and journalists’ safety are vital to functioning democracies.

In addition to defending and advancing basic principles of media freedom, IGOs also have a great deal to offer in terms of supporting the effective implementation of those norms, not least by urging their Member States to monitor and report on freedom of expression, access to information and journalists’ safety. There is a multitude of relevant platforms supporting this work*.

IGOs—including the Commonwealth—can also work with UNESCO in facilitating connections and building specialised knowledge among key actors, such as judicial operators and security forces. In this regard, a soon-to-be-launched multi-language online course for judges developed by UNESCO jointly with Oxford University could be of special interest to associations and networks of judges and legal professionals in Commonwealth countries.

The development of an informal light touch task force, between UNESCO and several other IGOs will enable us to coordinate these various efforts and ensure they feed into the agenda for 2022: the tenth anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

By highlighting the issue of media freedom in its Critical Conversation series, and by ensuring that is on the agenda of the forthcoming Commonwealth People’s Forum, the Commonwealth Foundation is making an important contribution to these collective efforts.

The global pandemic’s collision with the information age has shown that good journalism can be an issue of life and death: now is the time for intergovernmental organisations and their Member States to seize the mantle of media freedom. I’ve seen first-hand the difference they can make.

Guy Berger leads UNESCO’s work on the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity

*The Sustainable Development Goals offer the opportunity of Voluntary National Reviews; there is the  Universal Periodic Review process operated by the UN Human Rights Council; UNESCO’s Director-General annually calls on states to provide information on the judicial follow-up to the killing of journalists; An African Digital Platform has been recently launched, with UNESCO’s support, to foster reinforced monitoring on the safety of journalists. Commonwealth members, journalists, CSOs and other relevant stakeholders working in this region are encouraged to contribute to these opportunities.

Message from the Directorate


Vijay Krishnarayan


Many of the challenges we face today are either too big or too small for individual governments to confront. Whether it’s climate change, rapid urbanisation, food insecurity, water scarcity, or terms of trade, institutions are looking for answers.

There was an assumed consensus that these things were best tackled by states working together on a regional or international basis. Those assumptions are being questioned. This is a moment for institutions to take a good look at the part they must play in delivering a sustainable future.

‘There is a brighter future ahead and we are part of it.’

This is as true for the Commonwealth as it is for any other system in the multilateral world. Shridath Ramphal famously said ‘The Commonwealth cannot negotiate for the world but it can help the world to negotiate.’ With its emphasis on mutuality, collegiality, and diversity—you can see how the Commonwealth can add value to a global system that aspires to work for all.

The Foundation is a cog in the Commonwealth wheel. We were established more than 50 years ago because the Commonwealth is as much an association of peoples as it is of governments. These pages show that premise remains true but they also illustrate how we have applied ourselves in a contemporary context. Since 2012 the Foundation has focussed on strengthening civic participation in governance, which now resonates with the Sustainable Development Goals.

‘The Foundation is a cog in the Commonwealth wheel. We were established more than 50 years ago because the Commonwealth is as much an association of peoples as it is of governments.’

The Foundation is showing that in addition to convening member states, the Commonwealth can bring diverse voices together, particularly the less heard so that better decisions are made. That’s how we contribute to ‘leaving no one behind.’

At a time when citizens are questioning whether institutions can deliver in the face of global challenges the Foundation has lit a candle. With our new publication we show that we are not alone and that the movement for inclusive development continues to grow. There is a brighter future ahead and we are part of it.

Editor’s note: Vijay Krishnarayan finished his second term as Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation on Friday 28 June 2019. Our current Director-General is Dr Anne Therese Gallagher.


Myn Garcia

Deputy Director-General

Over the last seven years, we have consistently reflected on our work, asking ourselves about the value we are adding to governance and development. We are committed to adaptive learning and management and have dedicated ourselves to strengthening civic voices to constructively engage in policy processes and contribute to shaping public discourse.

‘Building trust is imperative in successful engagements and partnerships in governance.’

One of the major learnings from our 2012-2017 strategy was that we must be better at integrating gender in our programme. Under the new strategy we have a stronger focus on gender equality underpinned by the framework of gender and its intersectionality. In keeping with our systems approach, this framework allows for an understanding of the different intersecting systems of oppression and recognises the different ways that gender inequality is shaped by these intersections. The direction, speed and acceptance of change in a complex social and political system are difficult to predict. We have been more mindful that using a longer-term timeframe is critical to the success of the Foundation’s strategic priorities. Strengthening civic voices means change over the long term.

Our planning now factors this in. The highest degree of change can be observed when projects are based on the partners’ own assessment; taking the lead in determining and articulating the change they want to achieve, the capacities they want to strengthen, and the effective approaches to be taken. Customising support and taking into consideration the cultural and political context is fundamental.

‘Under the new strategy we have a stronger focus on gender equality underpinned by the framework of gender and its intersectionality’

There are no short cuts for anchoring the work on local ownership and supporting a process beyond enhancing existing knowledge and skills of individuals whereby civic voices strengthen, create, adapt and maintain their capacity over time and realise their own agency. We accompany partners, acknowledging that one size does not fit all and we facilitate processes in prioritising and planning instead of imposing outside analyses and interests. We have learned that support to civic voices must address individual needs and consider how skills and abilities materialise in organisational and institutional processes. We recognise that structures and processes are influenced by system-wide issues. We have found that initiatives and programmes require a wide range of adult learning approaches that are better adapted than traditional training and workshops. These include learning by doing, peer to peer mentoring and on-site coaching. Combined with these, research, technical assistance, pilot projects, training, and evaluations have proven useful.

We have also seen how individual strengths organised in and working as a part of coalitions or alliances have demonstrated the effectiveness of collective efforts in engaging in policy advocacy and campaigning. One ingredient that features in our work is partnering with effective and strong local resource partners who know the local context and have credibility in-country to deliver the gamut of support. This approach contributes in the long term to strengthening the local enabling environment. And finally, building trust is imperative in successful engagements and partnerships in governance. One way that civil society is able to build trust is to demonstrate its technical capacity and willingness to constructively engage in policy processes in governance.

The pages of our new publication, Stronger civic voices across the Commonwealth, will give you a sense of what these lessons look like. They help us to be defiant in hope in such a time as this.

Right to Information: a success story from Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

Transparency International Sri Lanka made an Information Request of the Vavuniya Divisional Secretariat, querying the lack of updates to the Secretariat’s website.

The site in question had not been updated since 2015. Information was also requested about the steps the Divisional Secretariat had taken to help and facilitate members of the public who submit RTI Forms.

The Divisional Secretariat responded by updating their website in June 2018 . Furthermore, an information board was displayed in front of the Secretariat Office, containing details about the information officer of the Divisional Secretariat. This enabled easy access to the Secretariat’s RTI Unit for members of the public, and set a precedent for proactive disclosure.

The picture depicts the website last updated on 18 December 2014 and the update following the RTI request on 19 June 2018.

Sri Lanka marked a historic victory in August 2016 when the right to information act was passed. The law now enables all citizens to access information held by the State and was internationally acclaimed: ranking third in Centre for Law and Democracy’s RTI rating.

Even though the passage of the law was a result of 20 years of agitation by civil society, journalists, politicians and activists, beyond this circle, knowledge of the law and its significance was mostly non-existent. The grant provided by the Commonwealth Foundation enabled Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) to be one of the lead organisations in Sri Lanka demystifying the law for citizens – in Colombo, Matara, Ampara, Trincomalee and Jaffna, spanning the Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern provinces, and other districts as well.

Sri Lanka’s rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (91 ) demonstrates the challenge set before the country and hopes and were fostered that the RTI law would open up the space for transparency, accountability, and an avenue for ordinary citizens to better understand government processes.

However, since the law’s enactment little effort has been made to educate people on RTI, and it is civil society that has filled that space. Through this grant, TISL has employed several techniques aimed at doing so.

Very early on, as RTI was operationalised, TISL used an ‘RTI Van’ with a large LED screen and loudspeakers, to drive through the districts, stopping in strategic locations. It ran audiovisual content on the RTI process, with staff members interacting with the public, and in certain cases, helped them to formulate RTI requests on the spot. Notably, in the Trincomalee districts, over 150 RTI requests were facilitated covering issues of corruption, access to education and health facilities. Street dramas around International Right to Know Day 2017 , newspaper advertisements, missed call campaigns and SMS shots are among the other techniques that were used.

A Manual and information leaflets were created and mirrored on a website which was regularly updated. These described case studies and the law in local languages in a simplified and accessible manner. TISL has continued to visit communities conducting small pocket meetings, listening to people’s needs and brainstorming as to how people can use RTI creatively and at times collectively to resolve problems. TISL also facilitates constructive discussions with government counterparts.

RTI has been working in unforeseen ways in Sri Lanka. While it has in many instances led to information disclosure, government actors have been known to remediate issues causing discontent without disclosing information.

For example, the residents of Akkaraipaththu in Ampara made a complaint to the Medical Officer of Health (MOH), about garbage accumulation affecting 10 families and a school in Akkaraipaththu in May 2017. The issue was communicated to the President via the ‘Tell the President’ campaign in July 2017, but no action was taken. In January 2018, a RTI was filed, requesting information on the actions taken by the MOH pursuant to the complaint. Within four days of making the request, the garbage was cleared and the MOH even asked the citizen if he could withdraw his RTI.. The citizen has refused.

Another manner in which RTI has assisted the average citizen is that it has given them access where formerly she might have been stonewalled. The stringent timelines for disclosure stipulated in the law has ensured that citizens with a good understanding of the RTI process could follow a few simple and non-confrontational steps to hold a public institution accountable.

RTI is both weapon and deterrent, enforcer and protector. Stories of the law’s success have now begun trickling in from many parts of the country. It is eminently important that these hard-won victories continue to be used for the benefit of all.

Sankhita Gunaratne is a project manager at Transparency International Sri Lanka.

Realising rights to health care

Article 43(1)a of the Constitution of Kenya guarantees the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services, including reproductive health care.

The realization of this right is fundamental to the physical and mental wellbeing of all individuals and is a necessary condition for the exercise of other human rights. In the implementation of the right to health care, State officers are bound by Article 10’s constitutional principles of transparency and accountability.

The Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN) is a human rights non-government organization that advocates for the full enjoyment of the right to health by all, including vulnerable, marginalized, and excluded populations.

‘The project adopts a capacity building approach for communities and the media to demand increased transparency and accountability in service delivery and health-budgetary spending’

Starting this October KELIN, with support from the Commonwealth Foundation, will commence implementation of a project titled: Protection of right to health of the vulnerable through transparency and accountability. This project, which will be implemented in the regions of Mombasa, Nairobi, Kakamega and Kisumu, seeks to ensure that resources allocated to the health sector are utilized in an accountable and transparent manner. KELIN will work with community based organisations (CBOs), civil society organisations (CSOs), the media and communities of persons living with and affected by HIV and TB to monitor implementation of the right to health.

The project adopts a capacity building approach for communities and the media to demand increased transparency and accountability in service delivery and health-budgetary spending:

“The Constitution of Kenya provides for public participation in governance, health-governance included. Public participation is a powerful accountability tool that citizens can use to monitor formulation and implementation of laws, policies and guidelines by governments. This project will provide communities and the media with information, knowledge, and platforms to demand for accountability and transparency in the health sector.” – Allan Maleche, KELIN Executive Director.

An estimated 26% of the total health expenditure in Kenya is derived from development assistance. Relatedly, 72% of the total expenditure for HIV is from development partners or aid. Lack of transparency and accountability can have dire consequences, and impact negatively on realization of health rights. For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently suspended direct assistance to the Ministry of Health. Among the reasons cited for the suspension included lack of accountability.

‘An estimated 26% of the total health expenditure in Kenya is derived from development assistance’

This new project builds on a previous one named “Enhanced Protection of PLHIV Rights through Participatory Governance” which was implemented from 2013 to 2016, with support from the Commonwealth Foundation. The project enhanced and strengthened the knowledge and capacity of CSOs, PLHIV, and CBOs on participatory approaches in governance; and promoted active participation in the legislation process.

In preparation for the project, as KELIN’s Program Officer I joined the Commonwealth Foundation and other grantees, from 3-6 October 2017 at a workshop on monitoring, assessment and learning. The Workshop, held in London, brought together 14 organizations receiving support from the Commonwealth Foundation to implement projects in Commonwealth countries including Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mauritius, and Kenya. The workshop equipped us with knowledge on developing, monitoring and assessment plans that would ensure projects achieve their intended purposes.

KELIN will use the current project to give communities the knowledge and voice to demand for transparent and accountable implementation of the right to health.

To contribute to the discussion and for live updates you can find KELIN on Twitter @KELINkenya and Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kelinkenya. Image Credit: KELIN Kenya