Strong democratic institutions provide the best foundation for economic growth 

THE 53-nation Commonwealth is "investing a great deal of energy into promoting democracy and good governance. Strong democratic institutions provide the best foundation for economic growth". Information Technology is an important tool for fostering development. Global communications and the Internet are key engines of this economic growth. While focusing on the need for strong democratic institutions, the Commonwealth is also trying to bring an end to the trade apartheid whereby the rich nations today are advocating free trading but in practice at home they are following protectionist policies, says Secretary-General Don McKinnon in an interview with Amitabha Sen, “If we can help a country reinforce its parliamentary system, government audit procedures, human rights protection mechanisms, we help build confidence in this country’s economy. Transparency and accountability are the keys to sustained economic prosperity, he said adding that the future of the Commonwealth depends on young people. We must therefore do all we can to provide them with the opportunities they need to lead meaningful lives and play a constructive role in their communities”.  

About  international trade among the Commonwealth member-countries and also with non-Commonwealth nations, Mr. McKinnon said that his organization “has stored great hope in the Doha development round”. About discriminatory trade policies followed by the developed ones,  he observed: “For years, governments in developed countries have been preaching free trade to the rest of the world. But they have been practicing protectionism at home, cutting off farmers in the developing world from lucrative markets, thus preventing them from trading their way out of poverty. As I have said before, this trade apartheid must end”. 

AS: “When I was first appointed, I said that the Commonwealth needed to be relevant to the lives of Commonwealth people. I still believe this, and I am convinced there are many more ways in which we can make a difference in the future.”— you told the media immediately after being re-elected to the post of the Secretary-General for a second term in December 2003. 

Being at the helm of affairs in last about half-a-decade what major and perceptible differences or changes you find in the Commonwealth? What are the positive gains the institution has achieved during this period and what are the areas where you still feel deficiencies are there?   

SG: We are investing a great deal of energy into promoting democracy and good governance. Strong democratic institutions provide the best foundation for economic growth. If we can help a country reinforce its parliamentary system, government audit procedures, human rights protection mechanisms, we help build confidence in this country’s economy. Transparency and accountability are the keys to sustained economic prosperity. 

The Commonwealth also runs a range of development programmes, aimed at providing education opportunities, better health and increased trading capacity. 

Of course, our task is huge: 600 million people in the Commonwealth live under US$1 a day, two-thirds of people infected with HIV/AIDS live in the Commonwealth and 75 million children never saw the walls of a classroom. The development budget of the Commonwealth is not huge (US$43 million) but through its Fund for Technical Co-operation, the Commonwealth is able to respond quickly and efficiently to the various needs of member countries and make a real difference in the lives of Commonwealth citizens. 

AS: “The British Commonwealth is dead, long live Modern Commonwealth”. Taking your slogan a little further, what message would like to convey to the younger generation, the Commonwealth torch bearers of tomorrow, about the needful existence of the Commonwealth? On the one hand they have the world’s fastest flight (launched few days back) to avail, if they want and on the other they face devastating killer HIV/AIDS not only in the Commonwealth region but beyond that, in Africa in particular. They are literally sandwitched between profligacy and poverty. How you would like to see this juxtaposition? 

SG: Young people account for over half the Commonwealth population. I believe they should be at the heart of our work. The very relevance and the future of our organisation depend on young people. We must therefore do all we can to provide them with the opportunities they need to lead meaningful lives and play a constructive role in their communities. 

That is why many of our programmes are aimed at improving education in our member countries – through teacher training and curriculum development for example. The Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning plays a crucial role in promoting distance education and providing young people throughout the Commonwealth with a range of skills directly relevant to the challenges they face. The newly established Centre for Commonwealth Education, in Cambridge, will further enhance learning opportunities for primary and secondary schoolchildren. And the Commonwealth Scholarship programmes enable many young people to broaden their career choices, providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to improve the future of their own communities. 

Young people, as you rightly point out, face the daunting challenge of combating HIV/AIDS. That is the reason why we developed the Commonwealth Youth Ambassadors for Positive Living Programme, which enables young people who carry the virus to assist each other and help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.  

We also help young people develop their careers and set up their own businesses. Over the last year or so, we helped over 500 young people set up their business by providing training and brokering funds. Three-quarters of those who benefited are women. 

AS: One of the major objectives of the Commonwealth seems to be bringing small  and under developed states closer to the rich ones instead of being sidetracked  or sidelined on issues of international importance. In other words the Commonwealth’s intention is to make the well-placed nations listen to what small and under developed say. Today they form about two-thirds of the Commonwealth family. To what extent Commonwealth has been successful in achieving this objective?  How this discrimination among the member-countries could be ironed out? 

SG: One of the unique features of the Commonwealth, as you point out, is the diversity of its membership. Commonwealth countries range from the richest to the poorest, from the largest countries to the smallest island states. The Commonwealth is therefore ideally placed to give a voice to the concerns of small and vulnerable countries and ensure their interests are not ignored by bigger players. 

The Commonwealth has been in the forefront of international efforts to draw attention to the vulnerabilities of small developing states. Due to their size and isolation, small island states are more vulnerable to economic crises, environmental change and natural disasters. With their small populations, they have fewer people to deliver all the services and activities expected by larger states.  

We, in the Commonwealth, continue to do our share to assist small states. In the area of trade, we have been working with the European Commission and other partners on a 17 million euros “Hubs and Spokes” project to provide firmer foundations in developing countries for trade negotiating. Many small island states stand to benefit from this initiative. More open and fairer trade can help immensely all developing countries. 

The Commonwealth is also promoting distance education in small states. To that end, the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning is in the process of establishing a Virtual University for Small States, which will help bridge the learning gap in countries where education resources are limited. 

At the International Small States Meeting in Mauritius last January, I again stressed the need to recognize the vulnerabilities of small states. Leaders taking part in the meeting acknowledged that more needed to be done to help small developing states become more resilient and adapt to a fast changing global environment. For instance, the Mauritius Meeting gave serious backing to strengthening natural disasters advance warning and response networks. One of the issues that became clear in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami is that advance warning mechanisms are in place and have been for years. But there is a lack of coordination among these systems. That is why the Commonwealth, the Caribbean Community, the Indian Ocean Commission and the Pacific Islands Forum committed themselves to take steps to ensure more effective coordination of disaster prevention networks across international borders in future. Global natural disasters require global responses to deal effectively with them.  

AS: In one of your speeches you have observed trade is one of the most powerful instruments in fighting against poverty. The WTO negotiations probably proving what you said more obvious. In this era of globalization clinching issues like agriculture subsidiaries is crucial to developing nations, small states in particular. The Doha round may be a litmus test for many developing countries. As this is a highly relevant issue for many Commonwealth nations, what is the stand of the Commonwealth on WTO issues? 

SG: I have made the point, on several occasions, that the Doha trade talks must deliver results that will benefit the poorest of the poor. 

As an international organization made up of 53 member states, the vast majority of which are developing countries, the Commonwealth has stored great hope in the Doha development round. More than one billion people in the Commonwealth depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Nearly half of them live on less than $1 a day.

For poor farmers in the Commonwealth and in the developing world, creating a transparent and fair multilateral trading system is not only a matter of improved opportunities, it is a matter of survival.

For years, governments in developed countries have been preaching free trade to the rest of the world. But they have been practicing protectionism at home, cutting off farmers in the developing world from lucrative markets, thus preventing them from trading their way out of poverty. As I have said before, this trade apartheid must end.

The Commonwealth Secretariat hosted a high level trade seminar in London, earlier this month. Participants, who included EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and Kamalesh Sharma the Indian High Commissioner to London, recognized the need to put development at the top of the trade agenda. In order to achieve a breakthrough in trade negotiations, we must recognize that trade is a political issue. No deal will ever be reached – and even less, implemented – without real, sustained political impetus. 

Traditionally, people tend to view trade issues being resolved by negotiators locked away in a room for weeks on end, haggling and arguing about the fine print of esoteric documents only they understand. The current trade round is partly about that. But ultimately, a successful outcome depends on political decisions being taken at the highest level. Trade negotiations are conducted by officials, but they are driven by leaders. 

There is another reason why trade is a political issue. Trade is one of the most effective tools in the fight against global poverty. And by reducing poverty, by tackling the growing gap between the rich and the poor, we pave the way to a more stable world. 

I believe that, with its diverse membership, the Commonwealth is ideally placed to generate consensus on international trade matters. Our membership is present in every single key grouping around the WTO table and beyond: the G8, G20 G90, the Quad, the Cairns Group, the OECD, the G77 and so on. That is why I believe that any consensus on trade that can be achieved in our diverse group of countries will help advance trade negotiations in a significant way in the wider WTO forum. When the 53 Commonwealth leaders meet in Malta next December, trade will be one of the top items on their agenda, as we drive forward our agenda to get development dividends from the Round. 

AS:  Poverty is the greatest challenge the Commonwealth is facing today, as you have rightly pointed out. Could you tell us which are the major focus countries and programmes taken up by Commonwealth to reduce poverty? Is Commonwealth is fund-rich enough to undertake these programmes on its own? I am not talking about individual member country’s poverty alleviation programmes. 

SG: As I said earlier, economic development and poverty alleviation are central planks of our work.  

Our Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) has an annual budget of US$43 million and provides experts to meet specific development needs of member countries. Those with small populations in particular may face certain skills gap which the CFTC can bridge through the placement of experts in key public sector posts. For example, we help strengthen good governance in member countries by providing advice, training and expertise to build capacity in national public institutions and public sector reform. 

The Commonwealth also provides assistance in the areas of education and health.  

In recent years we have made great strides in providing teachers with the training they need to prepare young people for the future. Working with Education Ministries, we help update and improve school administration and leadership and we promote new methods of teaching and learning. This means more children, in every corner of the Commonwealth, benefit from higher standards of education and have improved life chances as a result. 

We also support Ministries as they develop qualifications frameworks. This facilitates the recognition of diplomas amongst Commonwealth countries and encourages more young people to study abroad and gain experience that will benefit their communities when they go back home.  

Within the Commonwealth community, many efforts are made to find ways of teaching and learning which are adapted to our changing world. The Commonwealth of Learning has been a forerunner in using the power of new technologies to provide practical knowledge to thousands of individuals throughout the Commonwealth.  

We also help our small member states cope with the growing problem of international recruitment of their scarce teachers and nurses. Every year, small states spend millions of dollars training teachers, doctors and nurses, only to lose them to wealthier countries, which can afford to pay them more. This can often have a disastrous effect on a poor and small country’s capacity to educate its people and provide decent health care. That is why the Commonwealth has developed codes of conduct to ensure that international recruitment is carried out in an ethical way, which takes into account the needs of developing countries. 

AS: Sanitation is yet another major issue Commonwealth is to take care of. As is known, children in million are dying due to diarrhea caused by non-availability of drinking water, lack of proper sanitary facilities and horrible sewerage systems. Could you throw some light on this issue?  

SG: We, in the Commonwealth, recognise the importance of safe water and sanitation in the fight against poverty. Every five minutes, 12 children die from unsafe water and sanitation. The challenge of providing safe and adequate water for the basic needs and health of people living in urban and rural areas is increasing with rising populations. In many areas, competition for, and abuse of, water resources has resulted in water shortages. This, in turn, has a negative impact on economic development. 

We have been working in close partnership with others to develop tools and skills for a better management of water resources. We also help enhance the role women play in ensuring the safe provision of water. Women are responsible for educating the next generation about health and hygiene issues and, as the experience of many agencies has shown, the successful planning of new facilities depends on the involvement of women as key local players in developing institutions for the effective and safe management of water points. 

AS: Equally concerning is the issue of devastating HIV/AIDS killing into the vitals if millions across the globe. The Commonwealth has taken a number of programmes like “ Young Ambassadors of Positive Living” programme. What is the current scenario? Is Commonwealth working in this field in collaboration with other agencies working in other non-Commonwealth countries? 

SG: You mention the Commonwealth Youth Ambassadors for Positive Living Programme, which enables young people who carry the virus to assist each other and help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. A related issue many countries are facing – particularly in the Commonwealth – is the impact of HIV/AIDS on education. Indeed, the virus kills millions of adults at the prime of their working and parental lives. It is decimating the teaching workforce as well as fracturing and impoverishing families. It is estimated that one out of 10 teachers in Africa will die of AIDS-related illnesses over the next decade. Nineteen of the hardest hit countries are in sub-Saharan Africa and most are in the Commonwealth. 

In order to mitigate this impact, we help governments put in place effective human resource and education strategies which will ensure there are enough teachers in the future to compensate for these losses and fulfil the country’s education needs. 

AS: Besides trade, you identified Democracy is yet another powerful instruments to fight poverty. Closely follows that is good governance. Politically speaking, what democracy is meant to Commonwealth? Do all the preconditions of  democracy exist in all the member countries of Commonwealth? What about countries where adult franchise and military rule going hand in hand? Is Commonwealth successful in ensuring this powerful instrument of development in all its member countries? 

SG: The Commonwealth’s commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law is expressed in the Harare Declaration of 1991. But our leaders felt that it was not enough simply to declare their commitment to a set of fundamental principles. They thought it was important to show that the Commonwealth actually lived up to these principles. 

So in 1995, they decided to set up the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration (CMAG). This “democracy watchdog”, which consists of eight Foreign Ministers, plus a representative of the Chairperson-in-Office, is empowered with measures to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Harare principles. 

We also help by observing elections at the request of member states, by creating or strengthening institutions which safeguard the Commonwealth’s fundamental political principles, by promoting transparency and accountability in public life, by sharing best practice among Commonwealth countries. 

Another key feature of our work is our expanding good offices programme, which strives to pre-empt conflict and to resolve them when they do occur. Examples of current good offices work include: Cameroon, Guyana, Swaziland, Tonga, Tanzania (Zanzibar). 

AS: While talking about various developmental programmes and other issues, one important issue that crops up is how powerful or weak an organization is so far as its authority is concerned-- authority that could be exercised over its member countries, authorities that could influence international opinion, other international bodies. Commonwealth is no military power nor it has the blessings of any military alliance like NATO.  To what extent it is binding on its members to follow /implement the decisions being taken by Commonwealth from time to time? Some say it is teethless body? Would you like to consider Commonwealth more as a voluntary body than the usual concept of international organization?  Your opinion please. 

SG: It is true that the Commonwealth is not a military organisation. It has no army, no battalions.  

However, there are plenty of examples to show that the Commonwealth does not merely pay lip service to its fundamental political values. 

In 1995 Nigeria was suspended from membership but has since rightfully returned to the Commonwealth family and was the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2003. Zimbabwe was suspended following flawed elections in March 2002, until it chose to withdraw from the Commonwealth two years ago. And Pakistan was suspended in 1999 and was re-instated in May last year.  

The Commonwealth has been a trailblazer in this regard and CMAG remains the only mechanism of its kind among international organisations. It is encouraging that other bodies – such as the African Union, the Pacific Forum and La Francophonie – now seem to be moving in the same direction. 

A unique feature of the Commonwealth is its capacity to generate consensus across a broad range of diverse countries. This is one of the Commonwealth’s great strengths. As a multilateral organisation, the Commonwealth can also help countries work through their differences in a spirit of partnership and collaboration.  

This culture of consensus enhances the role of the Commonwealth as a unique forum for global diplomacy, where the views of all members are listened to and no single country has the upper hand. 

AS: India is considered as a major player in the Commonwealth. Recently National Intelligence Agency of CIA has stated that India is one of those two countries going to play a major role globally in the 21st century. China is the other country. What would be your expectation from India so far as growth and expansion of developmental programmes of the Commonwealth is concerned? 

SG: India is the fifth largest contributor to Commonwealth budgets and the largest supplier, among developing countries, of skilled personnel under our programme of development assistance. 

India hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1983 and several ministerial meetings. And it is currently preparing to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. 

I should also make special mention of the fact that Dr Manmohan Singh, now India’s Prime Minister, chaired an important Commonwealth expert group on Development and Democracy, whose report was the principal subject of focus at the last Commonwealth summit in Nigeria in 2003. 

AS: Being a global IT giant today how India can help small and under developed countries in this field and what role the Commonwealth can play to coordinate such activities?

SG: Information Technology is an important tool for fostering development. Global communications and the Internet are key engines of economic growth. But today, many countries in the developing world miss out on these opportunities. Africa accounts for 15% of the world's population but only 1.6% of Internet users. North America, by contrast, has 5% of the world population and more than 25% of Internet users.

Tackling this "digital divide" will be part of the discussions of Commonwealth Heads of Government when they meet in Malta in November 2005. Commonwealth leaders will be exploring ways of bringing us all together through networks - whether electronic or otherwise - in order to create growth and development.  

March 11, 2005

The Rt Hon Don McKinnon, born in England on 27 February 1939, is a New Zealander with a long and distinguished career in international politics and diplomacy. He was elected to his current position as the
Commonwealth Secretary-General at the November 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Durban, South Africa. He secured a second term in the job in December 2003 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Abuja, Nigeria. Mr. McKinnon became Commonwealth Secretary-General after a 21 year career in New Zealand politics.

Pix courtesy: The Commonwealth Secretariat