Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma meets with Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines (right), and Susan Dougan, Cabinet Secretary, during his recent visit to the Caribbean.
21 June 2011
"We need to turn a new page that promotes relief for small middle-income countries" - Commonwealth Secretary-General
Caribbean leaders struggling with high national debt burdens are asking the Commonwealth to strengthen its assistance as a top priority.
"We are being asked to step up the Commonwealth's work to raise international understanding for the unique challenges of high indebtedness being experienced by small states, and to develop proposals to provide tangible relief to those debt challenges. The Commonwealth already provides practical software to help countries manage their debt burdens. The Commonwealth also gave life to the Highly Indebted Poor Country initiative in the past; now we need to turn a new page that promotes relief for small middle-income countries," the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma, said.
He was commenting following meetings with the Prime Ministers of Dominica, Jamaica, and St Vincent and the Grenadines during visits to their countries from 12 to 17 June.
One option explored during the Secretary-General's visit to the Caribbean region would involve promoting a change to an international classification system that denies them access to badly needed funds for certain programmes. Middle-income countries are not seen by the international community as warranting support from certain funding programmes.
Despite their level of earnings, the high debt burdens of the middle-income countries in the Caribbean obliges them to spend a significant proportion of their income on debt servicing, leaving little to invest in development and growth or for social safety nets.
Jamaica has the fourth highest public debt burden in the world on a per capita basis. The country's debt is 120 per cent of what it earns on goods and services.
In St Vincent and the Grenadines, debt is equivalent to more than 90 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), while the figure is 78 per cent in Dominica.
"It is clear that many of the development gains made in recent decades are at risk of eroding unless there is change," Mr Sharma said.
The Secretary-General also briefed the region's leaders on the Commonwealth's determination to work jointly with the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie to promote innovative solutions and change in the perceptions of the G20 and international financial institutions about the debt challenges of small states.
"The Commonwealth has been actively raising the development concerns and vulnerabilities of small island developing states with the G20 and in other international forums. The Eminent Persons Group, that is currently considering options for reform to strengthen the Commonwealth's impact, has also highlighted the need to do more to achieve debt relief. The Commonwealth is sharply focused on this pressing priority that requires fresh approaches," Mr Sharma said.
He addressed these issues on a visit to the Caribbean to hear at firsthand the challenges Commonwealth countries in the region have been grappling with, to identify where the Commonwealth is best placed to render assistance with the strengthening of democratic values, good governance and to propel wealth creation - especially for young people.
The Secretary-General exchanged views with the three leaders about the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled to be held in Perth, Australia, in October 2011, and updated Caribbean leaders on progress with mandates from CHOGM 2009. He also visited Speakers of Parliament and called on leaders of the opposition, describing the parliament of a country as "the heart in which its democracy beats".
Mr Sharma discussed the challenges faced by small states with small public services. This included discussion of how small states can gain access to climate change finance as well as how small states can expend such funds on pressing mitigation and adaptation projects. Discussions also covered human rights issues, including the challenges of reporting obligations under various human rights treaties and of achieving change on sensitive human rights issues such as same sex relationships.
During his meeting with ministers of youth in the region, they expressed concerns about boys' underachievement. Mr Sharma said the Commonwealth was studying this in collaboration with partners such as UNICEF in three countries in the region, and would be exploring practical ways of tackling the problem within the education system.
A major focus of Mr Sharma's calls and discussions in the region was youth entrepreneurship.
"We have to move beyond a boutique approach to addressing the needs of young people to making it a central focus of all government ministries - this is the 'mainstreaming' approach which had delivered results elsewhere in the Commonwealth."
To this end, the Secretary-General met with bank representatives and bank association leaders and encouraged them to explore options to set aside funds to help young people to start up enterprises, working in dynamic partnerships with government agencies, trade and investment bodies, and other parties.
Updating leaders on progress with the mandates from the 2009 CHOGM in Trinidad and Tobago, Mr Sharma noted that the Network of National Election Management Bodies had been constituted and 'Commonwealth Connects' - an internet portal that will provide networking and information-sharing opportunities for Commonwealth governments and citizens - would soon be launched.