The People’s Commonwealth

Posted on 31/10/2019
By Anne Therese Gallagher

The Commonwealth of Nations was established in 1949 as an intergovernmental organisation: tasked to promote the common interests of its Member States.

But from its earliest days members recognised that, in order to fulfil its great ambitions, this new body needed to become much more than a forum for governments. It somehow had to be (and be seen to be) truly of and for the people. In 1966 Heads of Government set up a foundation charged with bringing the voices of their citizens into the Commonwealth and its work.

‘A functioning civil society contributes, in myriad ways, to the community within which it is operating.’

More than half a century later, the Commonwealth Foundation stands proud as one of the central pillars of the Commonwealth: its existence and steady growth sending a strong signal that members acknowledge and appreciate civil society as an essential, legitimate partner in the business of governance. Of course, that relationship will never be completely smooth. A functioning civil society contributes, in myriad ways, to the community within which it is operating. But it also questions and challenges: pushing leaders and public officials to deliver the inclusive, transparent, and accountable governance that is the right of everyone, everywhere. The Foundation exists to support civil society in that noble goal: encouraging new ways of thinking and working so that those who are most affected can contribute to policies, decisions, and actions that directly affect their lives.

At the heart of the Foundation is our grants programme. Each year we offer grants, mostly to small organisations, of up to £200,000 over four years. We look for innovative project ideas and approaches that are seeking to strengthen the capacity of civic voices to engage with governments in ways that will lead to better governance and better development outcomes. The inspiration for this and much of our other work is Sustainable Development Goal 16: the promotion of just, peaceful, and inclusive societies. The 2019 grants call opens on 1 November, and we are looking to build on what has become a strong and diverse portfolio. Our last call, for example, brought the Foundation a wide range of new partners: from a UK-based group working with Bangladeshi partners to bring the voices of street children into decision-making about their futures to an organisation in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu that is supporting women who are trying to enter a Parliament that, like so many others, does not fully represent the communities it exists to serve.

‘Our umbrella Writers programme [is] aimed at elevating the creative voice as a force for positive change throughout the Commonwealth.’

Another flagship programme of the Foundation is the annual Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction submitted by a Commonwealth citizen. The prize explicitly aims to identify and support talented writers who go on to inspire their communities. It unearths and promotes the best new writing from across the Commonwealth, developing literary connections worldwide. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to lesser heard voices we have, over the years, opened the prize up to translated stories, as well as entries in a range of languages other than English. And our umbrella Writers programme makes sure that the prize is just one component in a much broader initiative aimed at elevating the creative voice as a force for positive change throughout the Commonwealth.

And then there is the difficult, but essential task of bringing civil society, the people of the Commonwealth, into its own governance. The Foundation has prioritised this area of its work, recognising its powerful, amplifying potential. In September for example, we supported the convening of a civil society roundtable prior to the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting. The outcome document of that meeting reflects the direct line that women’s rights and women-led organisations had into the deliberations of ministers. Even more significantly, civil society has now been accepted as standing partners in future meetings.

‘How do we build and sustain the structures and processes that will secure the kind of governance capable of delivering for all of us: not just for those who are already abounding in wealth and power?’

For at least the past decade, all Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) have included parallel events that bring the citizens of the Commonwealth directly into the process. The best known of these are the People’s Forum and the Youth Forum. Since CHOGM 2015, a Women’s Forum has also become an official part of the programme. While all have a different focus, the three forums are united in their commitment to amplifying the voices of those who are too often unheard when decisions are being made about their lives and their futures. The Foundation is responsible, along with the host government, of convening the Commonwealth People’s Forum which, in 2020, will be held in Kigali, Rwanda, over three days leading up to CHOGM. If 2018 is anything to go by, the People’s Forum will not shy away from tackling some of the most important, urgent issues of our time: from economic injustice, to environmental issues including climate change. CHOGM and its forums must also address the big question: how do we build and sustain the structures and processes that will secure the kind of governance capable of delivering for all of us: not just for those who are already abounding in wealth and power?

As its incoming Director-General, I am committed to maintaining and building on the proven strengths of the Commonwealth Foundation—most especially its role in helping to ensure that the Commonwealth itself evolves into the inclusive and brave institution that this fractured and uncertain world so badly needs.

Anne Therese Gallagher AO is the Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.