An alternative agenda for CHOGM

Global asked leading figures in a number of prominent Commonwealth organisations what issues they would like to see on the table at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia. 


Increase access to education

Sir John Daniel, President and CEO, Commonwealth of Learning (COL) 

COL would encourage discussions on open educational resources (OER) at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2011. Specifically, COL would like to see all Commonwealth countries make educationally useful material that has been developed with public funds freely available for use and adaptation under open licences. 

COL was created more than 20 years ago by Commonwealth heads of government, who believed that media and technology had an important role in advancing education, training and learning. Today, millions of people throughout the Commonwealth are involved in open and distance learning. An exciting development in recent years that now merits the attention of Commonwealth leaders is the increasing development and use of OER; these are materials that are offered freely and openly to use and adapt for teaching, learning, development and research. 

In recent years, a global community of OER producers has emerged, and institutions are incorporating these resources into their teaching and learning strategies. Nevertheless, knowledge of OER and their potential is still sparse among leaders and policy-makers in governments and institutions. Until these bodies adopt policies and practices to encourage open access to educational materials, OER will remain outside the institutional mainstream. 

COL is working to encourage governments in all regions of the world to accept the principle of open access to educational materials that have been produced with public funds. This single important step could vastly improve access to education.


Listen to the voice of the people

Danny Sriskandarajah, Interim Director, Commonwealth Foundation 

The people’s Commonwealth – what we now call civil society – has been at the heart of the Commonwealth project since its outset. The Commonwealth is as much, if not more, an association of 2 billion people as it is a group of 54 governments. 

Yet, as we head into another CHOGM, there is a fear that the voice of the people will not be heard by their leaders. As the Commonwealth enters a period of revitalisation, now is the right time to strengthen the interaction between civil society and governments within Commonwealth processes. The presentation of long, formal statements during rushed ministerial meetings no longer cuts the mustard. 

Over recent months, as the Commonwealth Foundation has facilitated civil society consultations, it has become clear that we need a new paradigm for the interaction between civil society and governments; one in which leaders listen to and engage with civil society voices. If Commonwealth members are to meet the objectives embodied in the 1991 Harare Declaration or the Millennium Development Goals, the views of the very people those conventions were set up to protect have to be taken into account. Otherwise ratifying them is a nonsense. 

In the Civil Society Statement that was presented to Foreign Ministers on 22 September – in a five-minute slot – people demanded change. They asked for all governments to ratify and implement all international human rights conventions and to commit to progress reviews. But they also asked for governments to arrange a comprehensive engagement plan with their people. 

As we enter a new phase in the life of the Commonwealth, there is a real appetite from civil society to use this unique association as a laboratory for testing new partnerships between state and non-state actors. 


Human rights “front and centre”

Maja Daruwala, Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) 

CHRI would like to see human rights featured front and centre at CHOGM 2011, and a demonstrable commitment to the letter and spirit of the association’s fundamental principles, as laid out in the 1991 Harare Declaration. Belief in these principles must be affirmed in the prioritisation of the issues that the heads take up for discussion. It must come into play when deciding where the next CHOGM will be held, or when setting out the main criteria for Commonwealth membership, or when deciding the biennial mandate for the Secretariat. 

CHRI would like to see a clearly articulated commitment to expanding the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), so that it can monitor “serious and persistent violations” of human rights by all member states bar none. We would welcome the creation of an independent commissioner for human rights, equipped with sufficient resources, a strong mandate and clear undertakings by the heads to act promptly on their recommendations. We want to see much more support mandated for human rights via the Commonwealth Foundation and the Human Rights Unit. The Unit must be elevated to a much higher standing and afforded sufficient human and financial resources – its present lowly status and confined capacity reflects the Commonwealth’s equivocation about human rights. 

Finally, CHRI would like to see more transparency and engagement with civil society at this and future CHOGMs, as well as the months in between. The belief in democracy must come alive in the willingness of the heads of state and official entourages to engage – and even mingle – with civil society representatives. Distance does not lend enchantment to the view.


Take the enterprise initiative

Dr Mohan Kaul, Director-General, Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) 

The CBC would like to see the Commonwealth heads of government put increased trade and investment with Commonwealth countries at the heart of the agenda in Perth. As the world struggles to recover from the economic crisis, and the balance of the global economy continues its shift to the East, now is an opportune time to focus on the role the Commonwealth can play in trade and investment. This is not a move away from the Commonwealth’s traditional areas of expertise on good governance and human rights, but a focus on the other side of the coin. Good governance leads to enhanced trade and investment, and the Commonwealth can provide the stamp of approval investors need to look at the opportunities in a country. 

We would also ask heads to look at the role of the private sector in the Commonwealth, and recognise it as the engine for growth in all Commonwealth countries. The private sector, especially small and medium-sized business, is key to economic development, particularly in some of the Commonwealth’s least developed member states. We would ask the heads to support the CBC’s Enterprise Initiative, aimed at enhancing small business across the Commonwealth. 


A welcoming hand to Southern Sudan

Patrick Wintour, Associate Director, Royal Commonwealth Society 

When the Commonwealth meets in October, there will be much to debate. No doubt, the global economic downturn and the Eminent Persons Group’s report will take up a significant amount of leaders’ time. It is understandable then that South Sudan’s interest in joining the Commonwealth might slip off the agenda. But that would be a mistake. 

Recent studies have revealed that worrying levels of indifference and ignorance cloud the association’s profile. And the number of other dynamic and influential international bodies is proliferating. Now, more than ever, the Commonwealth must seize every opportunity to demonstrate its contemporary relevance. And, by responding to South Sudan’s public declaration of interest, they can do just that. 

The Commonwealth can play a unique role in facilitating stable, democratic governance and strong institutions. Through a programme of training and exchanges, Commonwealth organisations can help to build the infrastructure needed to sustain Africa’s youngest democracy. 

The Commonwealth should not sit back and wait for South Sudan to be ‘ready’ for Commonwealth membership. 


Democracy and development

Sir Alan Haselhurst MP, Chairperson of the Commonwealth Parliament Association (CPA) Executive Committee 

CHOGM takes place against a backdrop of ongoing global financial difficulties, new emerging orders in the Middle East, famine in the Horn of Africa, the increasing effects of climate change and a fast-changing terrorist landscape. At no time has there been a greater need for a reinvigorated, inclusive global network to act as a “soft power” force (to borrow the words of the UK’s Commonwealth Minister, Lord Howell) to promote democratic principles. 

With the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group due to report in Perth, the meeting offers a vital opportunity to reaffirm the values embraced and promoted by the family of nations. The CPA believes these to be, first and foremost: democracy, development, human rights, the rule of law, governance, public accountability, and Internet governance and access – all of which are equally applicable to all members. 

Alongside these principles runs the need to ensure that the parliamentarians of the Commonwealth – its leaders and legislators – have both the capability and influence to act as conduits for the views of those they represent, and that their views are given due attention. Ministers and heads of government must recognise that these will sometimes be challenging, but that without differing opinion there can be no dialogue and no development.  


A more open and accountable Commonwealth

Elizabeth Smith, Chair, Commonwealth Media Group 

It is sad that the report of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was not published in advance of CHOGM. Midway through the process, there was a draft available and people were invited to comment, but an open debate on the final report would have been even better – there could have been articles, programmes and comments about it that would have enabled Commonwealth leaders to realise the strength of feeling regarding the need for Commonwealth reform. 

The reality is that the Commonwealth is in danger of fading into insignificance. The Commonwealth Conversations of a year ago showed that only a third of the people polled could name any activity the Commonwealth did, and most of those people listed the Commonwealth Games. The early draft of the EPG report called for a review of the information effort of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Media Group welcomes the suggestion for an overhaul of the Secretariat’s public affairs and information processes, and considers this essential for a more effective Commonwealth. 

But in my view this is not enough. It is time to open the Commonwealth to greater scrutiny, so that people know what it is doing. It is time to let the cameras, the microphones and the notepads in to selected aspects of the Commonwealth at work, as with the UN. For too long the Commonwealth has taken its decisions behind closed doors, without opportunities for civil society to make their views heard, and with virtually every country having the capacity to slow things down and delay progress. The time for the Commonwealth to adopt the principles of open government is now. The time for reform is overdue.


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