Date: 30 Sep 2010
Speaker: Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Location: Marlborough House, London, UK
Master Wren, Lord Howell, ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
I warmly commend you on this great initiative, and am delighted to be with you today.
It seems that we all do rather well to catch each other in the same place on the same day….
Yesterday I returned from New York, where the Commonwealth was very much part of the global agenda.
I spoke at the UN summit on small states, while my Deputy Ransford Smith addressed the MDG review summit, and our Commonwealth Foreign Ministers also met.
And tomorrow I fly to Delhi, full of expectation for a 19th Commonwealth Games which I know can be a triumph.
Let the ‘Friendly Games’ be a great beacon for this organisation, and its values.
That is my Commonwealth travel schedule, and I know time constraints similarly apply for many of you, too.
So let us make best use of limited time.
You have asked me to look at your particular topic, trade, while addressing the broader theme of ‘the Commonwealth today’.
‘The same yesterday, today and tomorrow’ is a familiar refrain ….
And ‘consistency’ is as important a feature of the 54-nation Commonwealth…. as is ‘change’.
The ‘consistency’ lies in the democratic values which we proclaimed at the very beginning, 60 years ago, and which have been evolving and expanding ever since.
They took fuller and fresher form in Trinidad and Tobago last November, when Heads of Government agreed the Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles – not just a statement of belief and an aspiration, but a marker.
It is against these values that our members are measured.
And if those values are, in our parlance, ‘seriously or persistently violated’, then members can be suspended.
So it is Values – along with language and laws and institutions – which bind the Commonwealth.
Alongside its commitment to Values, the Commonwealth’s consistency lies also in its commitment to another V – that is, its Vulnerable.
The poor, the voiceless, the marginalized, the small – whether nations or people – are our prime constituency.
I personally have no greater concerns than the fortunes of two groups of Commonwealth citizens who are so often overlooked, and yet who make up around three-quarters of our population of 2 billion people.
That is women and girls (at 50%), and young people under 25 (at 60%).
To an audience today with more than its fair share of adult men, I am swift to say that the status and fortunes of women and young people are the surest indicator of the health of any society, anywhere in the world.
It is to our eternal shame that this fact is frequently ignored.
But the twin of Commonwealth consistency is Commonwealth change.
The Commonwealth has always been, and must always be, ‘of its times’ – moving with different challenges, meeting different aspirations.
As I said, even its much-prized Values have evolved and grown.
So has its commitment to its Vulnerable.
This was the first intergovernmental organization to have its own programme for gender equality, and its own – standalone – youth programme.
It was the Commonwealth which initiated the idea – now worth well over $100 billion worldwide – of bilateral and multilateral debt relief.
It was the Commonwealth which pioneered the science of the small state, bringing the World Bank with it.
And today our work embraces global governance, climate change, HIV/AIDS, and newer areas, like urbanization.
It is this constant change, constant renewal, and constant re-evaluation in the face of a fast-moving, rather precarious world, which led our Heads of Government to call for an Eminent Persons Group to help us look at ourselves afresh.
The ‘EPG’ is tasked to help us increase our impact, strengthen our networks, and raise our profile.
Patricia Francis, head of the International Trade Centre in Geneva – who will close this seminar today – is a valued member of that group, and she is its prime advocate for greater Commonwealth trade links.
It is this same need to be ever-quick on our feet which brings us here today.
The underlying opportunity is the chance to take what we have, and make more of it.
For we are a Commonwealth of governments and of peoples, and I speak often of the three-legged Commonwealth stool which brings together the public sector, the private sector, and the ‘third’ sector – that of civil society.
Of these, it is today’s constituency – the private sector – which is our newest official community.
It can be traced to Heads of Governments’ decision to set up the Commonwealth Business Council in Edinburgh in 1997.
The CBC is charged with promoting trade, business and investment across the Commonwealth.
But of course the trading has existed between Commonwealth members for centuries.
Indeed it is in trade that Commonwealth countries have interacted the longest.
In the field of democratic strengthening and of social development, they can put their networks to good use in sharing ideas and best practice: indeed I do not waiver – this is the Commonwealth’s core function at the governmental level.
But it is perhaps in the field of trade that our country-to-country links can most obviously be manifested, and where we – as a community – can be more dynamic.
Our newest member, Rwanda, said as much: it was its eye on new trade opportunities which a key reason why it sought Commonwealth membership.
But before I celebrate the so-called ‘Commonwealth effect’, let me at least put it in context.
Because – like our organizers today – we are first and foremost a Company of World Traders, not Commonwealth ones.
This is the result of being globalists in a globalizing world, and believers in collective solutions to collective challenges.
And this globalist outlook is why we seek a global, rules-based multilateral trading system, under the auspices of the WTO
That is the best show in town: this is the most effective path by which developing states can grow sustainably, and for the long-term, out of poverty.
And these rules should be made more bearable for the poorer, developing, countries.
It is why we are strong advocates for the Doha Round, and also why we support ‘Aid for Trade’ – in other words, the kinds of ‘leg-up’ which the developed world can give the developing, to allow them to trade.
A Commonwealth example is the way we have given assistance in overhauling the customs system in the port of Mombasa in Kenya.
Another is the practical help we have given to ACP countries, to negotiate their Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union.
Likewise, we seek no return to a Commonwealth preferential trading system.
We have outgrown the old, colonial arrangements, largely centred around the United Kingdom, where Zambian copper or New Zealand lamb or Barbadian sugar supported a whole empire.
We all know that we cannot return to a system which ended over 30 years ago, in essence when the UK joined the-then European Economic Community.
But the statistics we hear quoted – about the trillions of dollars’ worth of Commonwealth business – are powerful.
They may – as you yourselves say – be complex, and they are not always black and white.
But they are very powerful.
So, even if there is no prospect of a return to preferential trade, there is certainly the prospect of doing even better on trade between Commonwealth members.
The evidence is clear that we have a community ready-made to do business, and I commend the Royal Commonwealth Society for a quality piece of work on this: Trading places: the ‘Commonwealth effect’ revisited.
So, too, do I commend the inspiring young Westminster School ‘Commonwealth ambassadors’ who have carried out such impressive research in the same field – you will also hear from them later.
So today’s seminar is about exploring ‘the Commonwealth effect’ further.
The inter-governmental Commonwealth – in the form of the Commonwealth Secretariat serving 54 governments – will continue to pursue the political work of creating the framework for enhanced trade.
And we will continue the practical work:
… unlocking investment (especially though the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative which has raised some £800 million over the last 15 years)…
… advising on reorienting developing countries’ national export strategies…
… helping to manage new-found natural resources …
… promoting a small and medium-sized enterprise, ‘SME’, culture:
… these are just some of the other ways that we help the Commonwealth to do business.
So in promoting trade amongst ourselves, we are promoting it everywhere.
In closing, let me say that the fact that we have Lord Howell and the City of London here today points to a more fundamental issue of concern to this particular audience.
Britain, as a trading nation, needs markets wherever they can be found, and especially at this time of domestic economic challenge.
And the Commonwealth marketplace of 54 like-minded and already-coalesced states offers excellent prospects.
British traders seem to have lost sight of the enormous potential of the Commonwealth – and our task today, and tomorrow, is to provide the knowledge, rekindle the enthusiasm, and thereby contribute to the bottom line.
I am optimistic, with collaboration between all those present here, that this can be achieved.
Download the speech: Commonwealth Trade – Time for Action