PREVIOUSLY I argued that the 53-nation Commonwealth 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 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.
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, Canada announced that it will not be providing its usual voluntary contribution to the fund for the next two years.
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 in particular, though the Commonwealth’s standing and worth are also tarnished.
The other 50 Commonwealth member states are unwilling to increase their contributions, even though some of them, such as India, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and Nigeria, are relatively rich.
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 on 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. 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 one banner because of their historical links to Britain.
At the heart of the Commonwealth’s difficulties is the very diversity that gave it strength—such as mutual interest in overcoming poverty, racism and oppression.
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 to 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 it. 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.
— Sir Ronald Sanders is a former