Kamalesh Sharma is the secretary-general of the Commonwealth. He talked to New African‘s Benjamin Akinyemi about the work of this international organisation and its continuing efforts to give developing nations a global voice.
Q: I would firstly like to congratulate you on your re-appointment as secretary-general of the Commonwealth, at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth. Much of the communiqué from the meeting was devoted to food security and wealth creation. Would you care to comment on these interlinked issues that are particularly relevant to the LDC Commonwealth member nations?
A: Well, we take food security extremely seriously and we have concentrated on two structures to tackle this problem. The first is value creation and the second is wealth creation. With value creation, we have done something that is quite significant as we now have a special action group that was created for the advancement, defence and protection of Commonwealth values. Furthermore, we look to engage our members in order to work with them on the culture of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. In terms of wealth creation I think a lot of decisions and steps have been taken to help Africa improve its economic situation, including our recent declaration that was passed on food security.
It is felt that Africa could become the food basket, not only for itself, but also for the whole world. In fact we see Africa as being part of the solution and not part of the problem. We are taking a holistic and all-encompassing approach towards the problem of growing more food and food security and the Commonwealth will link up with the other global and regional organisations to ensure everything is being done to speed up this process.
Q:There are so many influential international organisations, the G8, G20 and the UN, to name just three. Where does the Commonwealth stand in today’s world order, and what do you see as its principal roles?
A: We have great strategic partnerships with all the global bodies. When the G20 was led by one of our member states, Canada, we made sure that the issue of maternal health was always at the forefront of the discussions. We suggested that maternal health and childbirth mortality was a huge scandal and therefore we came up with the slogan “Half a million more midwives”. In Africa, half a million recorded maternal deaths was a statistic that was well-known.
Moving forward, we are now working with France, which has taken over chairmanship of the G20 and we are looking at possible ways to facilitate global wealth creation and to address the difficulties of raising capital, particularly for the smaller, developing economies.
But given the current climate we must ask ourselves the question: “How can we ensure growth with resilience?” In other words, it is about not allowing countries to enter into a state of decline given the current hostile economic circumstances but keeping them growing and not allowing their economies to stagnate. To achieve this an external supportive environment needs to be created, and it also involves looking at the internal policies that are going to be implemented to maintain a strong rate of growth. We have looked into innovative sources of financing too. We have a working group on development that has been created by the G20 and had its last meeting in Cape Town. It was a very productive meeting and we worked together with La Francophonie because together we are truly representative of the developing part of the world.
We were specifically concerned with innovative sources of funding because the World Bank said that last year there was a shortfall of at least $300bn in development finance, and the problem would be identifying where this money was going to come from. Because of fiscal austerity and budgetary pressures, the old way of raising money now has to be supplemented with a new way and this can be smaller amounts from a larger catchment area.
Q:Can you give us examples of the role the Commonwealth is playing in advocating a more equitable and balanced global economic system in Africa?
A: Our work on supporting member countries, particularly those in Africa, to participate effectively and efficiently in trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, is one. Under this arrangement, the Commonwealth Secretariat convenes focused meetings and provides in-depth analysis of what is at stake for our African members so that when they sit with others to discuss trade opportunities, they are doing so from an informed point of view.
Additionally, through our Hubs and Spokes project, we provide trade policy analysts and place them in ministries of trade to provide support and boost the country’s capacities. Our advocacy work also extends to work on climate change negotiations, aid effectiveness and support to strengthen governance institutions which form a key basis upon which economic decisions are made.
The results from these efforts manifest themselves in many ways. I can give you a recent example of what we have been doing and what the consequences of our work have been. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) has just published its index and announced its Award. The MIF is one of the most credible bodies that undertakes good governance benchmarking and when it announced its list of the top eight countries, it contained seven Commonwealth member nations.
This should illustrate to the citizens of Africa that there are things that the Commonwealth is doing that are right for them as far as governance and quality of life are concerned. Remember that what the Commonwealth does through its programmes is strive for excellence in the field of development, democracy and diversity. What is more, we are very responsive as to where our members feel we can play the best role and this is why we have a very rich and diverse spectrum of collaboration.
Q:Some in the developing world see the Commonwealth as a throwback to the British Empire. How do you respond to such criticism?
A: One of the main strengths of the Commonwealth is that we are a contemporary organisation not weighed down by any preconceived ideas.
Obviously we have a connection with the old world but that’s part of our history and while it’s important, the seamless way in which we have made the transition from the old world to the new world has allowed the negatives to evaporate and turned positive relationships into a common factor for partnership among the member countries.
We have always worked for the advancement of the developing and smaller countries. We are one of the few organisations in the world where it is the smaller countries that get to do most of the talking while the others do the listening – so the Commonwealth is very special. The way it works and the contribution it has made is very, very contemporary. We have developed a portal called Commonwealth Connects, which will use state-of-the-art communications technology to connect all the points in the Commonwealth so that a new paradigm of partnership can develop.
Q:What is your take on the recent crisis in Zimbabwe and what role do you see the Commonwealth playing in its future?
A: As far as Zimbabwe is concerned, the decision to leave the Commonwealth was theirs and the members have made it clear that they look forward to the time when that decision is reversed and Zimbabwe is moving in the right direction.
Q:Regarding Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee next year, how does the Commonwealth intend to mark this historic occasion?
A: We have identified a number of areas where we would like to make a contribution. Most of them are associated with young people, such as scholarships and fellowships – youth corps or youth volunteer programmes, exchange programmes and cultural festivals. The initiatives we are planning will last and will grow with the passing of time.
Q: Your first term is coming to an end next year. What do you see as your greatest achievements of the past four years and what would you like to happen in your second term?
A: I think we have greatly improved our corporate governance. We operate in a manner that is now more federal. We have also introduced the latest technology into our methods of communicating as well as creating this huge internet gateway that I mentioned before. Although we are a modest body in terms of the size of our organisation’s budget, we have tremendous partnerships with other organisations such as the EU, AU and UN to name just a few, so we shall be taking these strategic partnerships forward, particularly focusing on the credibility of elections.