Date: 1 Oct 2009
Author: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary General
Publication: Report of the Commonwealth Secretary-General 2009
This year’s Commonwealth seasons’ greetings card will present two photographs side-by-side. One depicts the Commonwealth’s first ever meeting of Heads of Government, in London in 1949, representing the eight founding member countries. The other – for its diamond anniversary – will show the latest Heads’ meeting in Port-of-Spain in 2009, representing the current membership of 53.
We have grown six-fold in sixty years, and a population of 485 million has become one of 1.9 billion.
The Modern Commonwealth now accounts for around a fifth of the world’s trade, a quarter of its countries, and a third of its population.
60 years is a long time, and to look at images from different epochs is to receive powerful messages.
In them, we see constancy, and change. But we do not always see the beating heart within, or how an organism has grown, learned and matured, and how the spirit has endured.
The Modern Commonwealth was born of an act of extraordinary statesmanship, accommodation and vision by a handful of people.
It was a body which need not have existed, but was willed into being.
It was King George VI who said, with great prescience, that he hoped it would ‘redound to the happiness of millions’. And it did.
It has evolved by forging new partnerships which build on the ties of history, shared values and aspirations.
The Commonwealth of today bears almost no resemblance to that first grouping which met in London in April 1949, and which first brought to the world the idea of an international community.
And yet, of course, the same heart beats within.
Its members still associate ‘freely and equally’ as independent nations.
It is still built on the foundations of principle, and a commitment to tend to its smallest, its weakest, and its most vulnerable.
It still works towards solutions which benefit the individual member as well as the collective association, and the citizen as much as the government.
It is still true to its initial pledge to pursue ‘peace, liberty and progress’.
It has grown into a people’s organization, embracing the wider society.
Perhaps the keys to both the constancy and the change lie in the Commonwealth’s adaptability, and its dynamism.
Without formal charter, its creed is a collection of declarations over the years that seek to uplift, support and encourage, rather than to regulate or impose. They define who we are and to what we aspire, and they leave space for respect and understanding.
Its true authority lies in its moral and familial moorings, and in its quiet way of collaborating as a trusted partner: the common wealth we are willing to share is put to the common good.
Its interests are those of its members, and if these are not addressed, its members will lose faith.
The bravery and activism of its early years – as champion, for instance, of decolonisation and the fight against racism – gave way to equally bold and prescient stances on other causes.
For instance, those of debt relief (an idea incubated by the Commonwealth is now a fact worth over $100 billion); of protecting the environment (the Commonwealth’s 1989 agreement was the blueprint for the Rio Earth Summit of 1992); of managing the flow of teachers and health-workers (its recruitment protocols have become global standards); of safeguarding the interests of women and young people (its youth-worker training and its youth enterprise programmes have had a model role far beyond its borders); of having helped create a category and a community of vulnerable states in the global financial institutions.
A values-based organisation, we have seeded these values the world over, though our member countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific and the Caribbean.
New causes present themselves in accelerating times, and urgent opportunities for the Commonwealth to continue its rich tradition of pioneering global thinking.
Our Commonwealth involvement has deepened in the existential challenge that is climate change.
Aspiring to maintain the highest democratic standards remains a challenge in every single Commonwealth country, where the journey continues towards systems of government – and of society – which are efficient, fair and free. In reviewing each others’ progress – and on occasion in censuring and even suspending – we do so in the firm commitment to bring about the improvements needed to create stronger democratic societies for the people.
We have much further to go in establishing human rights in the Commonwealth – both in statute and in practice.
We still seek a fair, rules-based multilateral world trading system.
We have to face the fact that some of the largest global handicaps – of disease, and of children out of school – are borne by Commonwealth citizens.
We confront challenges old and challenges new – those of growth and development, ethnicity, faith, language, gender, access to health, education and even fresh water.
And new challenges are upon us – such as those of climate change, an increasingly urbanised society, and of food and energy security.
To all of them, we bring the same principles of partnership, and the practices of advocacy, sharing know-how and resources, and the strengthening and mobilising of our networks across five continents.
Our contention is that every country and every citizen has an equal right to national salvation and to its place in the sun – and that every voice should be heard.
Inclusiveness, in spirit and deed, is our watchword.
This biennial report for the period 2007 to 2009 is testimony to some of the voices of the Commonwealth, and some of the ways in which we have trained, or tuned, or amplified them.
It charts my first 18 months in office as Commonwealth Secretary-General: a period in which I have become more than ever convinced not just of the great global good that is the Commonwealth – but of the even greater, and even more global good that it can yet become.
Our rapidly transforming and inter-dependent world demands that the Commonwealth globalise its wisdom, which is why the report charts our growing relationships with others – multilateral organisations, regional groupings, individual countries, businesses and civil society organisations that share our goals (chapter 5).
The report charts some of the triumphs – and the tribulations – in our work to strengthen democratic systems (chapter 1), to kick-start and maintain economic development (chapter 2), and to ensure the basics of health and education for men and women, boys and girls alike (chapter 3).
It talks of our investment in young people, as those who will inherit this 21st Century and this Commonwealth (chapter 4).
Half of our population is under 25 years old, and a quarter under five.
We were the first multilateral agency to set up a stand-alone youth programme, in 1974.
Our work with young people themselves – in training, mentoring and funding – has been complemented by the ‘mainstreaming’ of young people’s affairs, with policies and budgets to match, in our member countries.
Mountains are still to be climbed: unemployment, disaffection and marginalisation – the sorry lot of millions of young people all over the Commonwealth and the world – are as debilitating for the individual as for the nation.
We look back over 60 years of the Commonwealth, at some of the highlights of what I have called our constancy and change (chapter 6).
We are on a road which stretches infinitely before us, but which has a destination.
I warmly and sincerely thank those who journey with us.
In thanking Uganda and President Museveni as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office these last two years, I look forward to working with Prime Minister Manning, and Trinidad and Tobago.
We meet in Port-of-Spain in November 2009 in pursuit of the themes of partnership, equity and sustainability.
I pay special tribute to my colleagues in the Commonwealth Secretariat, and in its fellow Commonwealth inter-governmental organisations (the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth of Learning), and in the 90-or-so non-governmental organisations around the world which bear the name Commonwealth, and share a commitment to our values and principles.
Their skill and dedication are second to none.
The value of the Commonwealth is its people – those who work for it, and those for whom they work.
This report is neither about politics, nor economics, nor the social sciences.
It is about people, and an association of peoples, and work which is tasked to ‘redound to the happiness of millions’.
This has been the Commonwealth’s mission, and must ever remain so.
Sixty years later, the Commonwealth has changed out of all recognition – and yet the same blood courses in its veins, and within its breast beats the same heart.
London, October 2009
Download the article: Foreword to the Secretary-General’s Biennial Report