[Opening Remarks by Amitav Banerji, Chair of the ‘Networks’ panel at a 27 May seminar entitled Is the Commonwealth working? The conference was organised by The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation and The Commonwealth Association.]
My name is Amitav Banerji. I started my career as an Indian diplomat. I thereafter spent 25 years of my professional life as a Commonwealth civil servant. I now work for the Global Leadership Foundation, a group of former leaders from across the world, 16 of them from Commonwealth countries, who offer their accumulated experience and wisdom to the leaders of today.
I was born after the modern Commonwealth came into being in 1948, but if I were an adult then and a betting man I would not have put money on the prospect that the Commonwealth would still be there 75 years later.
This is because there was something inherently problematic in the proposition that former colonies, who has felt the sharp end of the colonial yoke, could come into a voluntary and constructive association with the erstwhile colonial power – and even accept its Head of State, albeit symbolically, as the Head of the Commonwealth.
The fact that seven and a half decades later the Commonwealth is still alive and kicking is due to many factors.
One of the most powerful factors clearly is that the Commonwealth is not just a network of member governments, but a much wider network, and indeed a network of networks.
Apart from governments, both national and local, it is also a network of parliaments.
It is a network of businesses, who try and take advantage of the famous ‘Commonwealth premium’.
It is a network of young people.
It is a network of sportspersons who compete in the Commonwealth Games.
And very importantly, it is a network of civil society organisations. There are at least 90 organisations that have ‘Commonwealth’ in their names and it is easy to understate the many professional streams that are so brought together: be it magistrates and judges, lawyers, human rights organisation, the media, architects and planners, tax administrators, universities, and so on.
To stay in sync with the title of this conference, are these networks working? If so, what is the winning formula for a successful network? If not, what is the deficiency and what could be done to make the network in question work better?
[This is a presentation given by the Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, Anne Gallagher, during the session on ‘Networks’ and shared with the permission of the author.]
I’ve been asked to focus my remarks on networks – on the power of human and institutional connections to weave the web that must shape and contain our modern Commonwealth.
But like every rogue lawyer I can’t resist the temptation of straying a bit beyond my brief to say a few things about the big issues and worries that I know are on all our minds. Not least our collective unease about the future of this organisation that we love.
So many of you are Commonwealth veterans who are going to be able to bring more insight – and more context – to this discussion than I ever could. As a long-serving UN official the Commonwealth was something of a mystery to me when I joined almost exactly three years ago. Since then, I have come to appreciate the strength and complexity of this unique organisation: a grouping of very different States that would otherwise rarely find themselves in close proximity. A grouping that extends, in unusual ways I will speak about, to include the people who make up those States.
I’m here in my capacity as Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation and I’d be remiss to not make a remark about the Foundation’s significance to the issues and concerns that bring us together today. The Commonwealth is, to my knowledge, the only intergovernmental grouping in existence to have created an agency explicitly mandated to advance the interests of civil society. By establishing their own organisation in support of civil society, Member States accept that the people they serve – that the 2.5 billion citizens of the Commonwealth – are entitled to a voice. They accept that the business of governance is not theirs alone; that a strong and flourishing civil space is evidence of a healthy and prosperous society.
Like the UN’s founding document, our own Charter begins with those fine and stirring words: ‘We the people’. But unlike the UN, the Commonwealth has taken that radical idea much further. And not just through the Foundation – also through a tapestry of personal and institutional connections that bind people and societies together. In my thirty years as an international civil servant, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
Of course, we know that things are not perfect within the networks, and I’m speaking here particularly of the formal networks that are comprised of the Accredited Organisations. It’s hard to escape the view that way too much of our networking; way too much of our thinking about the future of the Commonwealth takes place here in London; that too much of networking and thinking involves an old guard that may not have done enough to nurture the next generation of Commonwealth leaders and champions. That the networks themselves are still not sufficiently inclusive of our broader Commonwealth.
And the imperfections extend to the relationship between the formal networks and the intergovernmental pillars of the Commonwealth. Our accredited organisations are rightly often frustrated with their inability to engage meaningfully and consistently with the Secretariat – and through the Secretariat, with Member States. And the withdrawal of Foundation funding: funding that allowed many of them to keep their heads just above water has left a bitter and persistent legacy.
From my position at the Foundation, I see a need for action on both fronts. The Commonwealth’s non-governmental or quasi-governmental entities must begin to act more as a network. They must work harder and more cleverly to make this network truly reflective of the Commonwealth and indispensable to its effective functioning.
So much good work is already happening on that front, and I want to recognise real progress. I am speaking here of the quotidian labour of the nurses and midwives, the planners and parliamentarians; the universities and journalists, those that are looking out for the interests of young Commonwealth citizens; old Commonwealth citizens; those with a disability; those that are suffering because of discrimination and stigma. All these organisations are engaged in work that reaps real results in terms of impact on people’s lives.
And certainly, the networks have demonstrated real capacity to united for a common cause. On some issues, (media freedom is a good recent example), the network has been able to spring into action, launching a spirited defence against the erosion of fundamental Commonwealth values.
But the network could certainly be stronger, more united and more strategic. To take another recent example, I feel strongly that it could have been much louder in expressing its bitter disappointment at the failure of the Commonwealth to demonstrate solidarity when lives depended on it – I am speaking here of course about the failure of the Commonwealth to do anything meaningful in securing access to vaccines for vulnerable Commonwealth communities.
On another matter – a united network could be a powerful force to protect and defend the interests of the Commonwealth’s small island states when it comes to the existential threats, they are facing from climate change. Of course, many Commonwealth organisations are doing something on this issue. But we know that the real power of networks lies in their amplifying effect, and that is where more work can and must be done.
We must also work on the relationship between the network (and members of the network) and the Commonwealth intergovernmental institutions. That relationship needs to be based on a clear acknowledgement of our different roles. These roles will inevitably mean that our paths are not perfectly aligned. For example, while the Foundation exists to advance the needs and aspirations of the people of the Commonwealth, we are not an NGO. We must bring our Member States and governments along with us. They are vital to our mission and its success.
The different roles that the networks and the intergovernmental structures occupy should be a strength, not a cause for division and dilution of impact. The common cause is there and must become part of our collective vision.
Colleagues are here from the Secretariat, and I will leave it to them to speak about how the Secretariat is working to support and nurture Commonwealth networks and connections. Speaking for the Foundation I can acknowledge the lingering frustrations around withdrawn funding while being open with you that the old model of support is gone, never to return. The world moves on and so must we.
But for me, that has meant looking for new and better ways to engage. I have seen, over the past couple of years, how much can be done when we work with the accredited organisations as true partners: our Critical Conversations series, which has brought the big ideas of the Commonwealth to hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth citizens, would be much poorer without the involvement and support of many of the organisations represented here. I can say the same for the Peoples Forum and for so much more of what we do.
And, as the defender and advocate of Commonwealth civil society, the Foundation sees itself as your champion. This is why we publicly called out the draft CHOGM communique for its failure to adequately recognise the role of civil society in advancing Commonwealth ideals and principles. That is why we have been so vocal on issues that you are fighting for. This is why we have been so open in helping to amplify your work. I look forward to more of that. I believe you can demand more of your intergovernmental partners while also demanding more of yourselves.
Fellow friends of the Commonwealth,
It seems that our beloved organisation regularly finds itself at a crossroads. Perhaps in a decade’s time we will look back and marvel at what a good and solid path we were on in May 2022: less than a month out from the most successful CHOGM ever, an event that served to reinvigorate the Commonwealth – to loudly and clearly affirm its continued relevance to the people of the Commonwealth and the wider world.
But in ten years’ time we might also look back in sorrow, wishing that we had been braver, wishing that we had been louder in our defence of Commonwealth ideals and values. Wishing that we had recognised and leaned into what turned out to be a pivotal moment in our common history. Wishing that we had seen the signs: of a precious but debilitated alliance, occupying a tenuous space in an increasingly fractured and fragile world.
And this is where I want to come back to our networks. Reinvention and reform of the Commonwealth – the task of making the Commonwealth fit for purpose – and the task of working out that purpose – is something that must occupy us all. If we believe this is an organisation that belongs to the people, not just the Member States, it is us and our organisations that must stand up and become part of the solution. We need to point out what’s wrong. But we also need to work together, and with the Member States, to figure out what to do about it.
The organisers asked panellists to put forward some practical ideas. I’d like to propose that next year, the ten-year anniversary of the Charter, we establish a new [version of the] Eminent Persons Group – [A coalition that brings the governments and the people of the Commonwealth together] – to take stock of where we are and where we need to go.. So much has changed since 2011 and it’s time to use that first report, not as a road map, but as a springboard for creating a new vision of our Commonwealth – a forward-looking vision that is shaped by the people and the Member States together; a vision that is firmly directed towards the principles and values of the Charter.
This is my single idea for change – I’m sure that many more ideas will emerge today. Let’s resolve to take the best ones forward – to do what we can, individually and together, be brave in our defence of Commonwealth principles and ideals; to fight for a Commonwealth that is a force to be reckoned with on the world stage: a Commonwealth that shapes global policy on issues that matter most to its people. A Commonwealth that is united in defending the most vulnerable, including its smallest member States.
Someone once said that “Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong, but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists”. Let’s sign up to be optimists about our Commonwealth, let’s commit to doing the work that we all know must be done.
Dr Anne Gallagher has been Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation since 2019. With a background and parallel career as a legal scholar and practitioner, from 1992 to 2003 she was a United Nations official, and from 2003 to 2018 worked with ASEAN to combat human trafficking.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Videos and reports from the Is the Commonwealth working? seminar will be available soon on this website.