“The mortality rate for under-5s has declined by about one third right across the Commonwealth”

Dr Sylvia Anie

Dr Sylvia Anie worked for the Ghana AIDS Commission before joining the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2010. As head of the Social Transformation Programmes Division (STPD), she is charged with promoting health, gender and education throughout the Commonwealth. Here, Dr Anie explains how the Millennium Development Goals are driving change across the Commonwealth and highlights how the association, despite a smaller operating budget, is well placed to “add value” in the crowded arena of multilateral aid organisations. 


Global: How are Commonwealth member states progressing towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? Which countries are on target and which ones are lagging behind? What is the Commonwealth Secretariat doing to help member states meet these targets by the 2015 deadline?

Dr Anie: We are dealing with 54 [countries] – as one progresses in its achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, another is struggling. But there is a clear picture, depending on which goal you are looking at. 

For example, MDG 2, universal primary education. Some Commonwealth countries have made worthy strides in this: Rwanda, Samoa and the United Republic of Tanzania have achieved – or very nearly achieved – this goal. However, a lot has to be done. We don’t just stop at 95 percent enrolment, we look at specific vulnerabilities [such as] gender parity in schools. In some areas of the Commonwealth, there have been improvements in the ratio of boys and girls going to school. We have fantastic results from the Caribbean. However, you then move across to another region, like Sub Saharan Africa, and you see that there are still issues of gender parity. This is where our role becomes even more evident and necessary: how do we advocate, how do we draw attention to the fact that there has to be parity? It is a question of working with our member countries, highlighting issues and moving forward together. 

Child mortality [MDG 4] is going down remarkably since countries signed on to the MDGs. The mortality rate for under-5s has declined by about one third right across the Commonwealth. [But] improving maternal health, goal 5, is a huge problem, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where the numbers are startling. Pregnancy remains a major health risk. Why is that so? It is because of education, gender disparities and access to health care. It is because we do not have enough skilled birth attendants. There is a current collaboration between the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Eastern, Central and Southern Africa Health Community to enhance midwifery capacity and to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality in [these regions] by scaling up midwifery education training. We are funding an expert to come up with a training package for midwives and roll it out in training colleges. 

We only have three more years until 2015. It’s going to be difficult but I always say to myself, “What would have happened if there weren’t any MDGs?” The advantage of the MDGs was that they suddenly made countries aware that we do have a problem and we need to take it seriously. 

How do you feel the Commonwealth, and the international community as a whole, is progressing with the fight against HIV/ AIDS?

For a change, there is wonderful news coming from Sub-Saharan Africa – the incidence of HIV, is declining. At the beginning of the AIDs epidemic, Sub-Saharan Africa carried 70 percent of the burden of HIV. Therefore, for STPD, as a division charged with looking at health, our focus has been on Sub-Saharan Africa, with regards to HIV. 

What are the issues? Number one is access – not only to the hospital but to affordable and safe medication. At the last Commonwealth Health Ministers meeting this was emphasised. 

Our question to our member countries in Africa is what next? We have had many years of an HIV response. We know what impedes this response. We have good news – declining rates, declining deaths, more coverage of anti-retro viral therapy, better access. [So] what next? To look at the gender aspect – the vulnerability of women in the HIV response where families are crippled fighting against HIV. If we can educate women, if we can ensure equal access to health, we are going a long way to reduce stigma, to reduce discrimination. 

How do we fund these things? We can no longer do it on our own. We need to link up, we need to share, we need to look at our ad vantages, our niche, and capitalise on them. For the Commonwealth, we have convening power, we can call nations together, we can recommend funding, in collaboration with partners. 

The Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality, 2005-2015, only has a few years left to run. How is the PoA advancing and in which areas can we see the greatest progress?

Our Plan of Action for Gender Equality was developed at a time when we wanted to promote women’s rights across the Commonwealth. We have four main areas of focus: i) gender, democracy, peace and conflict; ii) gender, human rights and the law; iii) gender, poverty eradication and economic empowerment; and iv) gender and HIV/AIDs. The big challenge [was] how do you make this document visible – someone in Samoa needs to know that the Commonwealth has this Plan of Action. The other challenge was how do we get it disseminated evenly and effectively. We have national women machineries that we work with [and] we have also established the Commonwealth Plan of Action Monitoring Group. Their task is to disseminate this information, track what is happening and report back to the Commonwealth Secretariat on areas that we need to focus on. 

We’ve done a mid-term review which has revealed that progress is uneven. However, in some areas, like women in politics, addressing domestic violence [and] women’s economic empowerment, we see progress.

We’ve been able to encourage our member countries to look at legislation for domestic violence and thereafter to implement plans to address the issue. 

The Commonwealth theme for 2011 was ‘Women as Agents of Change’. What has STPD done to promote this theme within the Commonwealth?

The thing that has worked well is that [the theme] can be applied across the 11 Commonwealth Secretariat divisions, across the 54 countries. At the beginning of the year, we drew up a calendar of events, we got other divisions to buy into it and it has been a very effective mechanism. The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago had a regional colloquium for women leaders in June and at the end of that we [issued] the Port of Spain Consensus communiqué, which looks at how women in the Caribbean will continue to help others to achieve and what factors we should be focusing on. We are hoping to have these regional colloquium right across the Commonwealth. 

We have been extremely fortunate in that the [previous] chairperson in office, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, has been at the forefront of driving this theme. Having a chairperson in office who is female has made a world of difference. When we met at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, there was this resounding voice that we shouldn’t end ‘Women as Agents of Change’ at the end of 2011. And I think it will [go on] because we still have a female chairperson in office, the very dynamic Prime Minister Julia Gillard. 

Out of a total of 54 Commonwealth member states only three have a female head of government. What can be done to ensure that more women take up leadership positions?

I think it’s about time to have the contributions of women better recognised and encouraged. In some countries, the absence of role models makes it very difficult because they have never seen a woman speak in parliament. In my own country [Ghana], we have never had a female head of state, [or] a vice president who was female, although we have had [female] ministers. So we need role models. We need the women who are in leadership to remember they had to be helped up, therefore it is important that they reach out a hand to help others. Advocacy, breaking social and cultural norms that restrict a woman only to her home are also necessary ingredients. 

The Commonwealth Teacher Recruitment Protocol was adopted in 2004. Can you explain what the Protocol is and how it is being implemented?

The Protocol sets out to look at good practice in the management of the international movement of teachers. [It] aims to balance the rights of teachers to migrate against the need to protect the integrity of national education systems. This Protocol encourages recruiting countries to compensate the source countries: to build capacity, look at the training of more teachers and try to ensure that the gaps are addressed. 

Now, the challenge as you can imagine, is how to implement the protocol. We are thinking about putting together guidelines and an implementation framework which will include, for example, a model bilateral agreement. We’ve also looked at the issue of the Protocol working in countries where there are emergency situations, and how to manage the migration of teachers in conflict situations, how to ensure capacity is built [and] retained. This is area of ongoing work within the Social Transformation Programmes Division. 

What sets STPD apart from other multilateral organisations focused on gender, health and education, such as UN Women and UNICEF? Can STPD programmes have as significant an impact when there exists such a disparity between the operating budgets of the Commonwealth Secretariat and these organisations?

There is no way we can match the finances of some of our partners, therefore we work on the premise of what we can do to add value to what is being done already. We cannot do it alone and therefore we have, for example, technical cooperation agreements with UNESCO in education; we are looking at a partnership agreement with UNESCO in gender equality. We [also] have a very good working relationship with UNAIDS. So it’s really knowing what partners are doing, sitting with them and saying, “Well, if you are doing this, we can add our credibility [and] our convening power as the Commonwealth to your programme.” It also works the other way. 

The other good thing about us is we are able to highlight issues and to move agendas forward in consonance with other partners. Take the area of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the Commonwealth Heads of Government statement on non-communicable diseases in 2009 meant we were able to link up with WHO and the UN [to] make our voices heard. In September, we met for a high level meeting on NCDs and, in the UN declaration that came out of the meeting, many references [were] made to the Commonwealth and our priorities. And that for me is the Commonwealth, participating in global debate and reaching global consensus on global issues where we represent the voice of the ’54’. 

Interview by Jessica Murphy

About the author:

Dr Sylvia Anie is Director of the Social Transformation Programmes Division


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