Zoon conference(clockwise) Uday Nagaraju, Baroness Patricia Scotland, Neha Dewan and Patsy Robertson.

At a time when everything is under scrutiny, it’s hardly surprising that, one of the growing number of virtual global meetings aimed at analysing the world would look at the future of the Commonwealth.

Concerns about the future of Commonwealth are hardly new but the 22 May e-symposium, organised by the think tank, Global Policy Insights (GPI) in conjunction with the Ramphal Institute, took place in a period of all Commonwealth countries working through the throes of coping, anticipating more virus cases or easing out of the throes of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

The e-symposium, titled The Commonwealth: Optimising Networks & Opportunities for the 21st Century, was the first of a planned e-series by the Rahmphal Institute and GPI. The keynote address was delivered by Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland.

GPI co-founder, Executive President and GPI Commonwealth Project Policy Director, Uday Nagaraju, opened the virtual session by asking how the pandemic had affected the Commonwealth, in particular smaller states, how the power of young people could be channelled, whether the Commonwealth could have an exceptional role and how the organisation could use its experience and history. Mr Nagaraju asked: “Given the COVID-19 crisis, what can the Commonwealth do to extend its mandate and interests”.

Commonwealth veteran, Patsy Robertson, the Chair of The Ramphal Institute, spoke next, describing the Commonwealth and its “convening power as a network of networks”. She pointed out that the Ramphal Institute had itself been founded at a time when the Commonwealth had been changing, realising that it could not just be a secretariat-driven organisation. She spoke of the Institute’s work encourage “collective actions” and the Commonwealth’s power to bring people together.

The voice of youth came from GPI’s Political Affairs Officer, Neha Dewan, who spoke next about ways to “reconceptualise” the modern Commonwealth to deal with today’s challenges.

In defence of the Commonwealth

Baroness Scotland delivered her keynote address with one of her strong defences of the modern Secretariat which has taken some major PR hits over the last few years.

She started by describing the Commonwealth as a “beacon for multilateralism” with its “vibrant” and “vast” eco system which could be flexible in all areas. Asking people to look at the evidence of what the Commonwealth Secretariat is delivering, she said that it had already held more than a thousand virtual meetings, dealing with “agility and responsiveness” to the needs of member nations, showing a “readiness to evolve to new circumstances”.

On the COVID pandemic in particular, Baroness Scotland said that the virus had shown “with deadly clarity” how “closely connected we are” and that, to defeat the virus “we have to work together…learn from one another”. She added that this had been the way the Commonwealth had worked over the years. She outlined the organisation’s work in supporting health care policies, in the sharing of expertise and with help for the most vulnerable. She said that, in these times of “great turbulence and trouble”, the world needed to strengthen itself by not turning away from multilateralism.

Baroness Scotland said  that the Commonwealth had provided “a desirable method that brings a touch of healing” to a sick world. She said that the coronavirus pandemic provided an opportunity for the world to deal with inequalities in its health structure. Describing the Commonwealth as a “precious resource” at this time, the secretary-general praised Commonwealth affiliated organisations for their help in forming the organisation’s COVID Response Centre, including the Commonwealth tracker. She said this resource helped key decision makers plan their response to the virus. She described the recently-held Commonwealth Health Ministers’ first-ever virtual meeting as an exchange of experiences and strategies.

“Hard evidence”

Baroness Scotland pointed out that the Commonwealth had been looking at gaps in supply chains to small countries and pooled procurement before the virus had struck. Talking about the organisation’s “long experience of standing shoulder to shoulder in troubled and testing times”, she said that it had been developing practical interventions for short and long lasting impact – from e-learning and e-health to support for older people, inter-generational connections, improved digital infrastructure, debt management, business connectivity, legal model reforms, disaster, climate finance and sustainability.

“It’s not so much that we have to re-imagine the Commonwealth but we need a greater appreciation and a greater understanding,” Baroness Scotland said, calling for greater solidarity across the organisation and its affiliates to meet the need for multilateralism and collaboration.

In a Q&A session from emailed questions, the Commonwealth Secretary-General said that the organisation was “well-placed” to advance the voice of small states, while praising the work of India on small business and digital connectivity. Asked the currently popular question about the effectiveness of women leaders during the pandemic, Baroness Scotland said that people needed to look at the evidence of how women lead. “We have tried to listen to their needs … identify the gaps … and then put together a holistic plan which responds to the needs which they have identified,” she said. Baroness Scotland described the secretary-general’s role as “being responsive and agile” as well as forward looking.

On the question of the effectiveness of the grouping, the secretary-general urged people to look at “not just the aspiration but the hard evidence” of work being done and highlighted on the Commonwealth website. Asked about the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), Baroness Scotland said: “Our Commonwealth has made a significant difference…not with a club but with a scalpel”. She added: “Sometimes, it is better to talk quietly to a friend”. She described the diversity of the Commonwealth as needed in today’s world and as a “petri dish” to grow the solutions for the 21st and 22nd centuries” –  “the gift that the Commonwealth can give the world”.

The GPI and Ramphal Institute E-series will include leaders in politics, academia and business. Upcoming events can be found at http://www.ramphalinstitute.org/events.html

Debbie Ransome is the Website Editor for the Round Table.

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