Vijay Krishnarayan reviews the significance of the Commonwealth People’s Forum held in the wings of CHOGM Malta 2015, and its implications for the future.

Commonwealth Foundation colleagues travelled back from Malta last November quietly happy with the job that we had done together with our Maltese partners to bring civil society organisations together on the subject of resilience. We saw nearly 350 delegates from 44 countries immersed in 19 sessions getting under the skin of the concept of resilience over three days at the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF 2015). An initial sense of having done something good was borne out as the results from the delegate survey came in. They scored the Forum highly – particularly as a space for fellowship and learning, but with the benefit of a few months distance it is a little easier to appreciate the significance of the gathering and start to think about the implications for the future.

The Forum’s theme was ‘What Makes Societies Resilient?‘ and it struck a chord with many in civil society. With ‘resilience’ being invoked at every opportunity and in every development arena, CPF 2015 aimed to provide civil society with an opportunity to define the term based on the realities they witness. The development discussion on resilience to date has been confined to economics and the environment but the Forum heard that the concept has much wider application. The theme also provided an opportunity to acknowledge the leading role that small states have had in making the case for resilience, using the Commonwealth as a platform.

The complexity of the challenges and the consequent need for sophisticated strategies was reflected in the outcome statement – The Malta Declaration on Governance for Resilience. It provided analysis and recommendations as well as an annotated record of the proceedings. Credit is due here to the team of session producers, chairs, rapporteurs and the Chief Rapporteur.  Together they produced a focussed document that makes an important contribution to the continuing global discussion on the inter-relationship between governance and development. It is already being cited (either as a whole or its specific sections) as an agenda for dialogue by civil society organisations.

In delivering the Forum there were a number of successes and firsts, which are worth recounting. The most significant of these was the space made for policy dialogues. For many years civil society organisations have been asking for room to engage directly with ministers and government policy makers. This call has been loud when it comes to the biennial Heads of Government Meeting. While that issue remains on the agenda, the Foundation has sought to create new spaces where dialogue can take place. In Malta policy forums were set up, which brought civil society and government representatives together. The agendas for these interactions were designed by civil society organisations. These constructive engagements focussed on transformative education and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Inter-sex (LGBTI) rights and resulted in policy recommendations that were presented to Ministers. In turn this meant that the set piece dialogue between civil society delegates and Foreign Ministers was much more focussed and constructive that they have been in the past.

There was also a new emphasis on hearing non-Commonwealth perspectives. While encouraging a Commonwealth audience and acknowledging the emphasis delegates placed on learning we brought new perspectives that had not been heard in a Commonwealth setting. For example colleagues from Latin America gave insights on a colonialism that resonated with Commonwealth listeners and yet added something new. These voices helped bring substance and added a new depth throughout the agenda.

The question time assembly that was held between the three candidates vying to become the next Secretary General of the Commonwealth and civil society delegates was also a highlight. The idea was warmly embraced by the Speaker of the Maltese House of Representatives who graciously hosted and chaired the session on the floor of Malta’s Parliament. Delegates welcomed the opportunity to find out more about the candidates’ vision for the Commonwealth and how each of them saw civil society. This was a first and demonstrated that the Commonwealth can respond to the need to include civil society in its political processes. It must to stay true to the Commonwealth Charter’s vision of civil society as partners in promoting and supporting Commonwealth Principles and Values.

Reflecting on the Forum as a whole, if there was one overarching message it was on the need for equitable development. A consistent refrain at the CPF echoed the commitment behind the Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind. The Forum understood the ways in which for example women, migrants, indigenous people and LGBTI people are not heard or included in policy discussions that have a direct bearing on their lives. The Heads of Governments’ 2015 communiqué is encouraging as is the designation of the Commonwealth theme for 2016 as ‘An Inclusive Commonwealth‘ but civil society will continue to ask for and expect governance that delivers development and dignity for all.

Any objective observer at the CPF in Malta could begin to perceive that reform of the Commonwealth’s ways and means is underway. These changes are not waiting for a report or an expert panel but are being driven by member states that want to see the Commonwealth add value to democracy and development and by civil society organisation’s that subscribe to its principles. The Commonwealth Foundation is a willing partner. We look forward to working with our member states to make change happen and to supporting civil society organisations putting life in to a Commonwealth of the People.

Vijay Krishnarayan is the Director of the Commonwealth Foundation. 

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