CARIBBEAN VIEW: The Caribbean Should Show Leadership in the Commonwealth

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

In my previous commentary, I argued that the 53-nation Commonwealth association is an important instrument for the promotion of the interests of small states including those in the Caribbean.  But, I also pointed out that it is facing significant challenges to its existence.

The main point of the commentary was that the Commonwealth’s preservation and enhancement are in the interest of all Commonwealth member-states and especially so for its smaller ones that have far fewer foreign policy instruments and much less resources than the bigger members.  In this connection, small states, such as those in the Caribbean, cannot afford for the Commonwealth to wither and die.

What are the challenges that now confront the Commonwealth? 

A major challenge is that approximately 70 per cent of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Budget is funded by only three of its member governments -– Britain, Canada and Australia.  For financial year 2012/2013, the Budget was a meagre £16.1 million.  For the current financial year, there has been no real increase in the Budget which was settled for the current year only after unprecedented manoeuverings and disagreements amongst government representatives who make up the organisation’s Board of Governors in London.

The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation that provides assistance to developing member-states is also largely funded by the same three member states.  Last year, its budget was a mere £29.7 million.  Even if the total resources were divided only among its 31 small states, they would each have received less than £1 million a year.  Recently, the government of Canada announced that it will not be providing its usual voluntary contribution to the Fund for the next two years.

While the Canadian government has not formally given a reason for its actions, it is widely believed that it did so in protest against the Chairmanship of the association being held by the President of Sri Lanka whose government it considers to be in violation of the Commonwealth’s human rights values.  A consequence of Canada’s withdrawal of its voluntary contribution is a reduction in the donation of the British government that was set at 30 per cent of the total contribution of all other member-states. The losers in all this are small states particularly, though the Commonwealth’s standing and worth are also tarnished.

The other 50 Commonwealth member-states are unwilling to increase their contributions to the Secretariat and the Fund even though some of them, such as India, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and Nigeria, are relatively rich.  Further, more than half of the member-states are in arrears of their contributions to the Secretariat. 

The Secretariat needs at least another £3 million per annum to carry out effectively the mandates it now has, and to keep good quality staff. Instead, it is being compelled to function on less money in real terms than it had in 2012 and it has had to reduce its entire staff complement to about 250 -– fewer than the staff at the Canteen of the UN organisation in New York.

A North-South divide has developed within the inter-governmental association centred on the comparative importance of upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law as against the necessity for economic and social development.  This contention divided the Board of Governors who took over 18 months to settle a strategic plan for the Secretariat and even longer to agree a Budget.  All of this, including an attempt by a small group of High Commissioners to micro-manage the Secretary-General, paralysed the Secretariat.

It is this latter point that plagues the Commonwealth more than any other and poses the greatest threat to its existence.  Over the years, there has been an assumption that despite their diversity in ethnicity, religion, geography, size and culture, Commonwealth countries would remain cohesive under the Commonwealth banner because of their historical links to Britain and the legal and administrative systems that resulted from those links.

But, the Commonwealth is now an association of 53 nations. It is no longer the eight countries that fashioned the modern Commonwealth in 1949 or even the twenty that agreed to establish a Secretariat in 1965. It is a very diverse grouping.  At the heart of its present difficulties is the very diversity that gave the Commonwealth strength as it used elements that made for like-mindedness -– such as mutual interest in overcoming poverty, racism and oppression. Common factors of law, of learning, of language and of forms of governance, made that harmonising process possible. 

But, these elements require constant nurturing if they are to continue to serve the Commonwealth and its members.  If the diversity of its member states in their economic ambitions and their political aspirations is not managed to create mutual understanding and goodwill and to pursue shared goals, it is their differences and divergences that will prevail. The Commonwealth will be nothing more than any other multilateral or international organisation in which North-South animosity predominates in every discourse intensifying division. The association will continue the drift away from the notions of goodwill and trust that are foundations on which it was created.

The diversity can be a strength again if it is harnessed and co-ordinated and if room is made to accommodate dissimilarities. It is that process that is now sorely needed in the Commonwealth and that requires diligent attention by governments and the Secretary-General.  Divisions have to be bridged and ruptures healed.

The Commonwealth’s small states, including the 12 in the Caribbean, have a vested interest in maintaining and preserving the Commonwealth.  In this connection, Caribbean governments have a responsibility to their people to provide leadership in the Commonwealth -– to manage its diversity, to turn contention to consensus and to make the association meaningful.  The next Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Malta in November 2015 is the place to show such leadership, but the time for the Caribbean to take the initiative is now.

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Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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