Engaging with the voice of the people

Vijay Krishnarayan

As the intergovernmental organisation responsible for representing the interests of the people, the Commonwealth Foundation is uniquely placed to encourage governments to engage more closely with civil society, writes Vijay Krishnarayan

Those who work closely with the Common­wealth are often guilty of seeing it primarily as an association of governments. But to those on the outside, one of the hallmarks of the Commonwealth is its civil society. The Commonwealth Games, that most high pro­file of Commonwealth events, is not only a celebration of sport, but also a manifestation of the power of the Commonwealth to bring people together. The Commonwealth misses a trick if it fails to move beyond celebration and recognise the need to bring these two strands – the governmental and the non-gov­ernmental – together.

There are certainly plenty of opportunities. The Commonwealth calendar is in part de­fined by gatherings of ministers in particular sectors. Every year, Commonwealth health ministers meet in the wings of the World Health Assembly, and finance ministers con­vene around annual summits of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ministers also meet in their own right; the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Minis­ters come together every three years, while the Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, first convened in 1959, had their most recent meeting this August.

These meetings are highly idiosyncratic, with each of them bearing certain sectoral characteristics. The benefit of this is that they provide an opportunity to discuss is­sues of common interest in a practical set­ting. However, their divergent formats also make them difficult to reform, and change is necessary if civil society is to be given an opportunity to engage with these processes.

It is acknowledged that these meetings, by definition, belong to Commonwealth ministers, but governments themselves have sent clear messages on the need to open up to civil society. For example, the 2007 Kampala Communiqué included the following: “Heads of government wel­comed progress involving civil society in all aspects of the Commonwealth’s work. They noted that a number of ministerial meetings now included provision for dia­logue with civil society and called for this to be extended where possible.”

The Commonwealth Secretariat is tasked with the management of these ministerial meetings as it has an exclusively govern­mental mandate. In the Commonwealth Foundation, the association has at its dis­posal an agency ideally suited to address this need. The Foundation was established as an intergovernmental organisation by heads of government to mobilise civil soci­ety in support of Commonwealth principles and priorities. In its new strategic plan, the Commonwealth Secretariat identifies the need to enable people’s participation and engagement with the institutions that shape their lives. Commonwealth political proc­esses are a good place to start.

This is not to say that the Foundation will be starting from scratch. This year, the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Educa­tion Ministers took place in Mauritius. The ministers’ meeting was the centrepiece, but several forums took place around it. The Foundation was asked by the government of Mauritius and the Commonwealth Secre­tariat to convene civil society organisations with a purpose of presenting their views to the ministers. This resulted in specific refer­ences to the importance of civil society or­ganisations in the ministers’ final communi­qué, which in turn helped pave the way for collaboration between sectors in pursuit of a Commonwealth education agenda.

The Foundation’s new strategy iden­tifies the forthcoming Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting in Dhaka as an oppor­tunity to bring civil society voices together around the Commonwealth Plan of Action on Gender Equality. This will require close collaboration with Bangladesh as the host country, setting the tone for the meeting as well as the strategy for the Commonwealth Secretariat, the custodian of the meeting’s processes and procedures.

The concept of dialogue between civil society and governments is an important one for the Foundation, and clearly has ap­plications beyond the Commonwealth. The debate on the future of the Millennium De­velopment Goals has started in earnest, and if ever there was a need for constructive ex­change between sectors, it is now. The Foun­dation is playing its part and has already joined with the UN’s Millennium Campaign to bring civil society and parliamentarians together. It will also take civil society voices on the post-2015 development agenda to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka next year.

Institutions working towards develop­ment outcomes at the national, regional and international level have an obligation to engage in meaningful dialogue with civil society. There is no blueprint as to how this should be done, but the Common­wealth provides a framework for sharing experiences in this field. With its ability to strengthen the relationship between gov­ernment and civil society, the Common­wealth Foundation has the opportunity to work alongside others in improving these institutions as they seek ways of achieving development goals.

About the author:

Vijay Krishnarayan is Director at the Commonwealth Foundation


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