“The Commonwealth Foundation and civil society need to work more closely together to drive change from the bottom up”

Simone de Comarmond

2011 has been a difficult year for the Commonwealth Foundation. In this exclusive interview, Simone de Comarmond talks frankly about the recent controversy over changes in the Foundation’s leadership, as well as the ongoing attempts to streamline and refocus the organisation in order to make it more responsive to the needs of civil society. 

Global: What is the Commonwealth Foundation (CF) and who are its stakeholders?

Simone de Comarmond: The CF is the part of the Commonwealth that promotes the importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) within our family of nations. CSOs are valued stakeholders and partners.

The creation of the Foundation in 1965 was a direct recognition of the need to engage and include civil society in matters relevant to development and human emancipation. Since then, the world has seen tremendous changes, and obviously the CF must keep up with these transformations if it is to remain relevant and modern. 

I believe that the time has come to revisit the Memorandum of Understanding that created the CF as befits current trends and the needs of our member states, particular the civil societies that are our raison d’être.

We need to ask ourselves what is expected of this organisation and how, therefore, we need to structure the organisation and its modus operandi to meet these expectations. 

The Foundation and civil society need to work more closely together to drive forward change from the bottom up. Civil society need to feel as though they are the main stakeholders of the Foundation. Times have changed drastically. Gone are the days when governments perceived civil society as the bête noire to be ignored and castigated. Today, civil society has become a credible partner and collaborator and is mutually compatible as far as developmental aims and objectives are concerned. Governments have come to realise that inclusivity reaps rewards and that is the way forward. 

The Foundation provides grants to nongovernmental organisations. What is the annual budget for these disbursements? What sorts of organisations does the Foundation fund and what is the criteria under which grants are given?

The overall budget for the Foundation is about £3 million [per annum] and £1 million will go towards grants. We have two types of grants: responsive grants and grants for Commonwealth associations: for example, the Commonwealth Nurses Association. The responsive grants provide assistance to any other civil society organisation from member countries. 

We have a streamlined grants-giving process and there is a committee, which includes High Commissioners, that meets to decide on disbursements that are over £12,500. But the procedure to access funds can sometimes be cumbersome. We need to find other ways of reaching civil society and indeed have just launched a special grants initiative on the Commonwealth theme, Women as Agents of Change. 

With respect to the CSOs themselves, there is also the need to build their capacity to perform in a more coordinated manner. This would certainly be in the Foundation’s interest, as it would create a wider and more organised field to work with, thus benefiting a larger audience. 

The Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) is probably the most visible aspect of the Foundation’s work and it’s going to be convened again in Perth this October, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). What are the plans for this year’s CPF and what impact do you expect the Forum will have on the outcomes of the leaders’ meeting?

This time the idea is to have a smaller group in Perth, be more focused and address specific issues. But prior to that we convened six regional meetings around the Commonwealth where people came forward with recommendations for the [People’s Forum] statement. We then organised a drafting committee, made up of members of these regional consultations, which met in London to finalise the statement to take to the foreign affairs ministers when they meet towards the end of September in New York. Then they [the foreign ministers] can look at what they would want to submit to their heads of state. In this way, we hope that the CHOGM communiqué will respond to our statement and acknowledge some of the key issues. We want heads of government to really address the statement presented to them in Perth. 

How much notice do the Heads of Government take of the People’s Forum statements? Do they integrate them into their agenda? Do they really engage with them?

I believe that the statements are integrated but perhaps not as succinctly as we would prefer. This is the reason why we have decided that the preparation of the statement should take another dimension so that it is powerful and begs due attention by our political leadership. 

The Eminent Persons Group has called for the Commonwealth Foundation to be given “an explicit mandate to mobilise Commonwealth civil society around global issues”. What do you think are the most pressing problems facing the Commonwealth in the 21st century and what can the Foundation do to alleviate them?

In my personal view, and as a woman, I think if we are really serious we need to give better opportunities to women in leadership. This should not just be a cliché. We talk about percentage increase in leadership in terms of parliamentarians and cabinet ministers but what are we doing concretely to ensure that this actually happens? More has got to be done in the Commonwealth. I am personally engaged in getting more young women out there, but this has got to be institutionalised. And I see a role for the Commonwealth, for those countries with good practices in this area to exchange knowledge and practice. Obviously, we cannot ignore education, health and the issues of climate change, but I believe if we’re talking about good governance – which remains top of the agenda – we need to create the enabling environment for women to participate more actively, and keep on working to bring gender parity in government. 

The Eminent Persons Group also suggested that a ‘Charter of the Commonwealth’ be developed by and for citizens of the Commonwealth. Do you think it’s a good idea to have a charter? What difference do you think that the implementation of such a charter would make to the lives of people living in Commonwealth countries?

I don’t know what that charter will entail but I think, with or without a charter, the bottom line will be political will – at the end of the day, governments have to be willing and prepared to commit themselves to it. I believe it’s good to have a charter clearly setting out parameters, but somehow we have to ensure that we operate within the charter and comply with it, otherwise what’s the purpose of having it? 

What would you, as Chair of the Foundation, like to see in such a Commonwealth Charter?

I would like to see a better structured form of collaboration and cooperation between governments and civil society. Governments have to encourage civil society to organise itself; they have to engage civil society representatives in all spheres of development; and protect civil society actors rather than see them as opponents. I’m hoping that in the charter these key components can be embodied to ensure that civil society is not ignored. 

In February this year, the Foundation had a sudden change of leadership, following the departure of the former director, Mark Collins, over allegations of racist bullying. Has the investigation into these allegations been concluded and if so what’s the outcome? And how has this very public and acrimonious removal of the former director affected the Foundation’s reputation and its ability to conduct its operations?

There were allegations. An investigation was carried out and a report was submitted to the board. The board came to the conclusion that it was best that the Foundation part with the services of Dr Collins. It wasn’t concluded that he should be dismissed – there was not enough evidence to permit this to be done – and Dr Collins willingly accepted also to part ways under the terms of his contract. And it was a mutual agreement reached between both parties. That’s how the case was treated. 

In the process somebody had to be recruited very fast because, given the sort of atmosphere that had been created, it was not thought that it would be appropriate for Dr Collins to carry on. So an interim director has been brought in – Dr Danny Sriskandarajah – who is working very hard to rebuild the image of the Commonwealth Foundation, which in a way, I agree with you, has been negatively affected. 

We are trying very hard now to rebuild this image and to reposition ourselves as a credible and professional institution. In the process we are also taking the opportunity to review the organisational structure. We are going for a streamlined and more focused organisation that hopefully will address the issues of civil society in this modern age. 

In a recent article for this magazine, Danny Sriskandarajah, the interim director, explained his vision for a “more focused and ambitious” Foundation, saying that he was intending to inject “fresh ideas” into the organisation. What concrete changes do you expect Dr Sriskandarajah to make during his tenure? And, as he’s only due to hold this position until the end of the year, do you think this is enough time for him to turn the organisation around?

Well, it’s true currently he is only acting as interim director – but at the same time, the clear direction by the board was that he was to revisit the organisation itself, propose a new organisational structure which will be more effective, and to ensure that we give value for money. As you probably know, Commonwealth member states pay a lot of money in membership fees. An example of one of his terms of reference is to suggest how to reduce the operational cost and channel more money to programmes and grants. There is also the need to focus on smaller countries, helping them to improve on their performance. I know for a fact that smaller countries are not necessarily benefiting as much from grants. He should find ways for us to help them to build up their [civil society] organisations so that they have the capacity to better achieve their objectives. 

You were elected Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation in January 2009. What do you feel has been your biggest achievement during your time in office?

As you can appreciate, two years is not a long time. I believe in spearheading the organisation to restructure in such a way that it is relevant to modern times. As I indicated at the start of this interview, a review of the Memorandum of Understanding is now crucial and this could help to realign the CF and its important partner that is civil society. Such a review would necessarily involve a rethink of CF’s governance structure to make it more effective and meaningful. If we can get these issues on board, then I would feel that I have achieved my objective.

About the author:

Simone de Comarmond is Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation


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