Tag: Youth

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.

Seasonal message from the Director-General of the Foundation

On behalf of the Commonwealth Foundation I want to take a moment to extend good wishes to our supporters during this season of goodwill to all.

It has been an important year for the Foundation – marking the successful conclusion of one Strategic Plan and the beginning of a new cycle. This is a time to thank our member states for their continuing support for our work. Their approval of the new Strategic Plan indicated trust and confidence in the organisation.

That relationship is built on our achievements, which over the past year has seen us: manage 38 continuing grant funded initiatives and approve a further 14 projects in June; receive more than 5,200 entries for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize; and welcome a combined following of 19,000 for our Foundation and Commonwealth Writer’s Twitter feeds.

Behind the numbers are the stories of the partnerships that we have continued to nurture with civic voices across the Commonwealth. Voices like those of young people in Southern Africa, working together to shape employment policy on the region through the Southern Africa Alliance on Youth Employment. Voices like those of the six filmmakers from the Pacific Islands who saw their ideas go from script to screen at the Hawaii International Film Festival this year.

We look forward to 2018 and the opportunity provided by the Commonwealth People’s Forum, which will take place in April here in London. The Forum is the single largest gathering of civic voices from across the Commonwealth. It will bring more than 300 people together including advocates, writers, performers, film-makers and other catalysts for social change. They’ll be making the connections between inclusive governance and a contemporary Commonwealth. You’ll see that registration is open now.

A final word then to thank you for your continuing support for the Commonwealth Foundation. It’s keenly appreciated by staff and we look forward to working with you in the new year.

Vijay Krishnarayan is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation. Image Credit: John Stratford Flickr CC.

Gypsy in the Moonlight by Caroline Gill

I wish I had amnesia so I could forget Sally Burry. We were at school together, Sally and I, in Heart’s Pen, the coastal hamlet where we were born, on the Caribbean island of Perseverance. We were Poor White – the inbred aftermath of a long-forgotten British penal colony. Cromwell’s hangover.

Households numbering ten or twelve weighed in on the small to normal side of things in our village and this made Sally and me unique because we were from one-child families. Each of us had hair the color of overcooked pumpkin and neither of us had a father at home. But this did not make Sally and I chums. No one was chummy with her. She suffered a seeping eye condition. One pink-ringed eye cried nonstop globs of pus that left her with a faint, but persistent pong of sour milk.

One morning, as the bell rang and we formed two lines – one for boys and one for girls, Sally filed into place behind me. Her proximity and my belief in her unremitting infectiousness caused me to tread on the heels of the girl ahead.

As we settled at our desks, she approached and whispered, “Borrow me a black lead, please?”

I refused.

“Please? I would give it back after school. And, I would borrow you my radio.”

I plugged my nose and hissed, “You don’t have no radio.”

It was November 1957. Sally and I were twelve years old and half way through our second to last year in our one-room schoolhouse. On the third of that month, Russia sent a dog into space and the government of Perseverance had yet to build a bridge over a river that swelled to such proportions during raining season, that our village became cut off from the rest of the island.

The only way in or out of the Pen was by boat which meant most of us weren’t going anywhere. When the rain let up, children played rounders barefoot on the flat above the school. The bat or ball, or both, inevitably walloped Sally. I watched as she was tripped and shoved to the ground, as she wiped mineral-red earth from scraped knees and the wetness around her eye, as she hurried to smooth her dress and stand – but never in time to stop us seeing the strap marks on the backs of her legs. When someone had a new welt or bump, we would point it out and ask, “What happen?” The answer was always ‘Burry-sitis’.

At recess, when we had to play indoors, the girls formed a circle for a choral game with clapping and dancing called, Gypsy in the Moonlight. But none of us would clasp hands with Sally, so she swayed and sang along from outside the ring.

Walk in gypsy, walk in/Walk inside I say/Walk into my parlour and hear the banjo play/I don’t love nobody and nobody love me… Tra la lalala…

It was a pet prank for one of the boys to sneak up and crouch at the edge of the circle, pass gas and fan his bottom. Us girls inflated cheeks and waved hands until someone delivered the inevitable punch line, “Something smell stink like Sally Burry.”

Sally laughed off the teasing. She seemed unaware of the freckles of dried mucus stuck to her cheek. Every school day was the same; it had been like that all her life.

Continue reading…

Our shared vision: The Southern African Civil Society Forum

I graduate from law school in 18 months but since I was 16 years old I have been a child rights and youth activist.

As the only young Namibian voice at the recently concluded Southern African Development Community – Civil Society Forum (SADC – CSF), I felt strongly that I needed to make the voice of Namibian youth heard and to describe the complex issues facing Namibia’s young people and women. I attended as one of six country representatives from the Southern African Alliance on Youth Employment (SAAYE).

‘To attend meetings such as these, senior members of organisations have priority and it is difficult to source funds to participate.’

My experience at the forum was rich. I was eager to learn from delegates from a variety of civil society organisations about the work they do across the region and to engage in conversations around youth employment. The forum explored topics ranging from the rule of law, statelessness, sexual reproductive health and people living with disabilities, all of which have a huge impact on young people. Sexual and gender based violence, youth unemployment, inequality and poverty are regional predicaments, all of which are prevalent in Namibia. To me, the main lesson is that SADC needs to collaborate more, to plan and strategise on how to collectively solve the issues we all face.

The CSF is a unique platform. There are not that many events where civil society converge in the region to talk about the diverse problems we face. It was a pleasure to engage with participants that have been in advocacy for longer than I have and to learn improved ways of setting an advocacy agenda and how to engage with key players. The Forum is also a great opportunity for young people to voice their concerns, hopes and challenges. Through the stories shared, I saw many similarities in the hopes and challenges faced by my fellow youth across Southern Africa.

‘I could say I am the personification of Namibia because I am a young, black, 21-year-old citizen, which according to the 2011 census is the average Namibian person.’

It is a sad truth that young people in the region rarely have the opportunity to be participants and contributors to the development agenda of the region. To attend meetings such as these, senior members of organisations have priority and it is difficult to source funds to participate. Youth however make up 60% of the total population in the SADC region. I pointed out that a specific commission dedicated to youth might be needed.

My country Namibia, is very young and has a unique profile. I could say I am the personification of Namibia because I am a young, black, 21-year-old citizen, which according to the 2011 census is the average Namibian person. The forum added to my insight on shared identity by showing me it exists regionally too. A shared identity should help us find the right path toward creating the SADC we all want.

I am grateful to the Commonwealth Foundation and the Economic Justice Network for the collaborative effort in making it possible for me to be heard.

Emma attended SADC – CSF as one of six country representatives from the Southern African Alliance for Youth Employment (SAAYE), a project supported by the Commonwealth Foundation. 

Breaking circles through youth employment

Irene Garoës is a feminist youth activist and a member the The Southern African Alliance for Youth Employment (SAAYE) working group, representing young women, LGBTI issues and youth-led civil society in Namibia. SAAYE, an advocacy network, was formally established in February 2016 with support from the Commonwealth Foundation. SAAYE’s vision is a Southern Africa where young people have access to gainful and productive employment that enables them and their communities to be lifted out of poverty. 

As a young black lesbian woman living in a developing country, the challenges one faces are interlinked. As a young women growing up in a society that is rooted in religious and traditional believes, my voice is often silenced. Due to the apartheid element in the history of Namibia, being black can also put you in an economically disadvantageous position. I am lucky enough to grow up in a family where education for girls is encouraged but the issue is affordability. If you cannot afford quality education, you do not have access to a good paying job which in turn means you cannot afford access to health, education and good housing. Not only for yourself but for your family members. And the circle keeps going. Likewise if you are a young entrepreneur, you cannot access finances because you don’t have collateral even if you have the skills to start a business. That is why access to information is such an important aspect of living in this world for me, especially for young women who don’t know about their basic human rights or how to empower themselves and others, economically or otherwise.

“If you cannot afford quality education, you do not have access to a good paying job which in turn means you cannot afford access to health, education and good housing.”

If one takes time to listen to what’s happening in other African countries you get the sense that Namibia is in a better situation. It often is. But this view does not account for the fact that 39.2% of youth who can work are still unemployed. The women’s movement in Namibia has done a lot, evident today in the fact that 47% of parliament is female However, during the liberation struggle women in general suffered from torture, imprisonment, rape, social and economic hardship as their rights did not matter compared to the common good of the people – which was to fight for the independence of the country first. This and other factors such as religion and cultural practices has translated into a post-independent Namibia where women remain marginalised.

“How can you bring about change if your approach is not gender sensitive or gendered?”

It is therefore important that any struggle that we as young people develop and get involved with today is informed and shaped through gender lenses. Women make up more than half of our population and yet they are the ones that are most disadvantaged, so how can you bring about change if your approach is not gender sensitive or gendered? These are exciting times, young people of Africa are rising and demanding spaces in political and economic spheres, the time to rise and act is now, for the future of our continent and the world. Access to information is on the agenda, youth issues are on the agenda, women’s issues are on the agenda. And SAAYE is here to drive that. We need to be conscious of what is happening around us, develop those around us, and march on!

About Women’s Leadership Centre
Established in Windhoek in 2004, the Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) is a Namibian-based feminist organisation that envisions a society in which all women actively engage in shaping the politics, practices and values of both public and private spaces. The WLC facilitates the voice and expression of Namibian women through information sharing, education, research, writing, photography, and the publishing of critical feminist texts that we distribute within Namibian society.

Learning exchange between Citizens UK and SAAYE

My colleague, Mithika and I are looking forward to our upcoming trip to Johannesburg to work with the full core membership and Secretariat of the Southern African Alliance on Youth Employment (SAAYE). As part of the capacity development support to SAAYE, the Foundation has brokered a learning exchange between Citizens UK and the Alliance, trialling a new model of support.

SAAYE is a recently formed alliance of church-based youth organisations, student groups and activists, trade union representatives and youth development trusts from nine Southern African countries. The Foundation has supported the Economic Justice Network (EJN) in establishing SAAYE; EJN now act as SAAYE’s secretariat. Over the past 18 months, SAAYE has been bringing the group closer together, clarifying their strategic mission, and building partnerships and allies. The Foundation has provided support to the Alliance and its members as they have continued to develop their mission at the regional and national levels. Foundation support is also helping the Alliance to enable working relationships between members.

The learning exchange will take SAAYE’s work from strategic planning to the next step: to formulate their actions for change, over a two-year period. We have linked them up with Citizens UK because of their expertise in organising and building the power of civil society to advocate and act. The sessions will be led by Lead Organiser, Emmanuel Gotora and Yasmin Aktar from the East London Community Organisation (TELCO). In addition to Citizen’s skills in developing the capacity of civil society leaders to constructively engage with people in power, the Learning Exchange will draw on Citizen’s work around employment and work such as the Living Wage campaign and the Good Jobs campaign which directly address youth unemployment using a multi-stakeholder group of leaders from London’s community groups, industry employers and training institutions. These experiences will provide some relevant lessons and ideas.

It is our hope that at the end of the four-day exchange, SAAYE national teams and the Secretariat will have analysed where, with whom and how, in each of their theories of change, they should target specific actions to have the greatest potential impact. Key questions like: Where can SAAYE have most relational power in making change on youth employment in each country? Who has power inside and outside the formal structures regarding youth employment policy nationally and regionally? How do the people who can make decisions relate to each other and how can SAAYE influence them? The outputs from the learning exchange will be available on the Foundation’s website.

The learning exchange between SAYEE and Citizens UK takes place in Johannesburg from 24 to 31 March, 2017. Photo Credit: Alan Levine Flickr CC