First Day Impressions
Long gone are the days when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was an exclusive two-day event for Heads of State. Judging by the packed programmes of the first three days of the Commonwealth Summit 2018, one could be forgiven for thinking these meetings were the main event with the Heads of Government meeting afterwards as a VIP adjunct.
From the moment I cycled down the deserted and well-policed Mall, festooned with the fifty-three flags of the Commonwealth members, fluttering asymmetrically in random gusts of wind, the sense of anticipation was palpable. Arriving at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre opposite Parliament Square, my main concern was which forum to attend – Youth, Women’s, or People? Or should I continue a bit further along the Embankment to where the Business Forum was being held in the Guildhall and Mansion House? In the end I decided to start with Youth, progress to Women, take in Peoples and save Business for another day.
Quite apart from the surprise attendance of HRH Prince Harry whom Her Majesty the Queen had just appointed as Youth Ambassador, the Youth agenda had a vitality and energy about it which made the session ‘Building a Prosperous Future for us all’ seem extremely relevant, especially in light of the fact that 60% of the Commonwealth’s population are under thirty.
Describing education as an incubator, Midia Hassan, Social Entrepreneur & Founder of Dextra, made a strong impression, as did Jude Addo, the Director of Private Africa Banking, Standard Chartered Bank. His message was simple. Young people need to be disabused of the idea that they go to school, get an education and wait around for someone to employ them. Instead they have to start investing in themselves, by which he meant taking more responsibility for their futures.
And so the session continued with a somewhat painful injection of reality introduced since it was patently evident that the poorer sections of all societies were disadvantaged because they still cannot afford the same educational opportunities.
Next up on my programme was the Women’s Forum and I encountered an extraordinarily strong panel discussing ‘Women in leadership’. Moderated by gender consultant, Dr Jo Cribb, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, had no compunction in revealing the inherent bias against women even in a society as seemingly progressive as New Zealand. The fact that the current Prime Minister of New Zealand was expecting a baby, she said, was having a huge impact on women throughout New Zealand and giving them confidence in their own lives. When I reminded her that Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had her second child in office in 1990, she agreed. ‘But that was nearly thirty years ago and there has been no one since’.
When discussing race, the startling fact emerged that Americans were more easily able to accept Barack Obama as their first black President because the popular TV series ‘24’ featured a black President and ‘so people were already accustomed’!
Targeting the education of children, both boys and girls, in order to change stereotypes emerged as a high priority.
In the Peoples’ Forum it was a challenge to decide between ‘Indigenous Rights and Self Determination’, ‘Institutional Racism’, ‘Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities’. I chose Self Determination and then moved back to Women’s and listened to one of the best presentations I have heard in the session ‘Women’s roles in preventing and countering violent extremism’ given by Dr Fatima Akilu, Executive Director of Neem Foundation, Nigeria, who has worked with Boko Haram in order to try to understand their motivation and perhaps counter it. During the discussion she made a challenging plea to all members of the Commonwealth: to focus more on the mental health of those in conflict zones, especially the women. ‘We may provide shelter and clothing,’ she said, ‘but that does not resolve the trauma of what some young girls and women have experienced’.
The day ended with another surprise: the presence of HRH Prince William, advocating the importance of the Commonwealth network and welcoming all the guests to London at the beginning of the summit.
Uppermost in all our minds after this first exciting day was the challenge of translating the high ideals into reality. Most importantly, how, genuinely, to uphold the Commonwealth values which each country claims to cherish? By the time I cycled back home along the Mall, the streets were again deserted, the flags looked like they’d gone to sleep and my head was full of colour and costumes and music because the evening had concluded with sparkling wine and Ellie Goulding.