The Commonwealth: ‘A Glass More than Half Full’

Published on 15th April 2008

Don Mckinnon
The Commonwealth has been involved in moments of history – making a difference. Progress in Commonwealth democracy and Commonwealth development leave the modern Commonwealth stronger today than it was eight years ago – reasons why the glass can be viewed as more than half full.

Commonwealth Democracy

According to The Economist’s democracy index of January 2007,  we see half of our 53 members ranked as so-called ‘flawed democracies’, ‘hybrid regimes’, or ‘authoritarian regimes’. Nineteen of our members weren’t even reviewed – so one wonders how they would have been classified… We may challenge the validity of such judgements, but we can’t ignore them. They are the result of research into the very building blocks of democracy – electoral processes, the functioning of government, the level of political participation and culture, and the extent of civil liberties.

How do we respond when people question ‘the Commonwealth democracy’ that, for instance, has seen Fiji suspended not once in the last 20 years, but three times? The democracy that has seen Pakistan suspended not once but twice? The democracy that struggles as it faces up to real ethnic tension and other causes of division, from the Solomon Islands to Kenya? The democracy that sees Bangladesh, now, without an elected government for over a year, and where we are still waiting for an announcement of elections? The democracy in which member countries still see real tensions between the three branches of government – the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature… to say nothing of the tension with the Fourth Estate, the media?

But these negatives are not entirely negative. They can also be viewed as the signs of democracies in a state of evolution. In some communities, democracy has been around for centuries; in others, only for decades. None of our Commonwealth members’ democracies is perfect; all continue to evolve, and aspire to do better.

Democracy goes beyond elections to the need for democratic institutions: parliament, executive, civil control over the army and police force, judiciary; public accounts system and auditor general; human rights commission; ombudsman, and so on. These institutions need to advance together. It isn’t possible to move on some and not others. A good Police Force will be less effective if the Judiciary is weak or corrupt. Free and fair elections won’t be enough if the Parliament is trodden on by the Executive. And even these institutions mean little if they are just the forms, and not the substance, of democracy.

Democracy has its own ideas, principles and values. It works best when it is built around local structures and traditions – time honoured, and trusted. Democracy is a deep-set culture which means most in societies that are properly inclusive of women, for instance, have a lively civil society and an independent and responsible media.

The Commonwealth is ready and willing to give Kenya the practical assistance on constitutional and electoral reform. Nigeria’s courts have now ruled on its elections of last year, and six governors’ victories have been over-turned. That is not to say that we can excuse what happened or leave everything to the judiciary, but it is to say that this particular democratic check and balance, and institution, is playing the part that we expect. We have had good elections in recent times in Guyana and Sierra Leone.

Despite the huge disappointment in the recent elections of Nigeria and Kenya, and the many lives that were lost in the latter in particular, Commonwealth Africa is in pretty good shape. 11 Commonwealth African countries have made the transition to multi-party democracy over the last 15 years. A number of those have changed leaders – and ruling parties – without bloodshed.

Commonwealth Development

The other great pillar of Commonwealth activity is Development. We can’t claim to live up to our name in the sense of having common and shared wealth, but we do try very hard to live up to the goal of helping each other to improve the lives of all our citizens.

Three-quarters of a billion Commonwealth citizens are living in ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty. 30 million of the Commonwealth’s children have never seen the inside of a primary school; and a further 40 million have never taken the next step into secondary education. Nearly 30 million Commonwealth citizens are HIV-positive or suffering with AIDS. 150 million of the Commonwealth’s young people, are out of work. 300 million Commonwealth citizens live in slums.

But the fact is that Commonwealth developed countries still grew by 2.7% in 2006, in line with their counterparts. At 8.5% and 7% respectively, our Commonwealth South Asian and Caribbean member countries also outshone their neighbours, while at 5.2% our African members were in line with the others on the continent. At 3.7%, our Pacific members fell slightly behind.

Beneath these figures, though, lie the unhappier figures of the small states which comprise half our membership. These are struggling, as their vulnerabilities become ever more apparent, and the solutions to their problems – particularly in economic diversification – take a long time in coming.

The Commonwealth of economic success should be recognized, but so should the fact that it sits alongside the Commonwealth of more subdued success. 300 million Indians have been lifted out of poverty in the last 20 years, but many millions of Indians remain in it. The commonwealth has been responsible for some $400 million of inward investment, through the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative. Its debt management programmes are in use in 54 countries worldwide, including 10 non-Commonwealth countries, notably China. Its good governance programmes for civil servants run continuously all over the Commonwealth.

Add to that the thousands of small businesses given Commonwealth training – amongst them many run by women and young people – and a picture emerges of our support for growing economies and especially small state economies which need just that: our targetted support.

‘From within’ is the only way to transform societies, which has to be a truly democratic process, where all the people understand and support what is happening and why; and where everyone plays a part and everyone benefits – individually, and collectively.

Because Democracy and Development are inseparable. There will occasionally be examples to the contrary, but the two go hand in hand, like peace and prosperity. There is a fundamental and beneficial relationship between the two. That is the central tenet of Commonwealth policy thinking.

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