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DEVELOPMENT: Commonwealth Gives Growth a Democratic Push

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Nov 3 2003 (IPS) - The Commonwealth plans to make development and democracy a special theme at a meeting of heads of government in Abuja in Nigeria next month.

“Deliberations in Abuja will be informed by the report of the expert group on democracy and development set up by the Secretary-General based on a mandate from the 2002 CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) in Coolum, Australia,” says a biennial Commonwealth report released in London Monday.

The Commonwealth is a group of 54 nations that includes Britain and countries that were once a part of the British Empire.

The Commonwealth report, which covers the period from July 2001 to June 2003, steps into tricky territory over its role on promoting democracy. That role was set out at the CHOGM in Harare in Zimbabwe in 1991.

The agreement in Harare has come back to haunt Zimbabwe. “The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration, mandated to deal with serious or persistent violations of the Commonwealth’s fundamental values, reviewed developments in Fiji Islands, Pakistan, Solomon Islands (in the South Pacific) and Zimbabwe,” the report says.

There were wide disagreements over Zimbabwe at the last CHOGM in Coolum in Australia.

Pakistan was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in October 1999 following a military coup. Zimbabwe was suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth in March 2002. Neither country was fully suspended; suspension from the councils meant the members could no longer attend meetings of the association.

It was agreed in Coolum last year that the goals of democracy and development must be brought together. An expert group led by former Indian finance minister Manmohan Singh was set up to see “how democracies might best be supported in alleviating poverty and promoting pro-poor development.”

That direction sought to blend development with democratic values. This equation is due to be pushed further ahead in Abuja.

A report from the group that comprises ten experts will be submitted to the CHOGM to take place in Abuja Dec. 5 to 8.

“The Commonwealth has helped members pool their resources and amplify their voices at world forums where the key decisions are made that directly affect them,” the biennial report says. The efforts have sought particularly to help the smaller states.

A Commonwealth private investment initiative and a Commonwealth fund for technical cooperation have sought particularly to help small and vulnerable economies, the report says. Such countries have also been supported in institution-building for good democratic governance, the report says.

“Its efforts have succeeded in getting the needs of small states taken seriously at the UN and the World Bank,” the report says. It lists assistance in export and investment promotion, enterprise and agriculture development, financial and private sector development, natural resource management, negotiating maritime boundaries, tourism and debt management.

The report of the expert group on development and democracy will cover a range of issues across the broadest possible range of countries. The Commonwealth includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand among the developed countries, developing countries such as India, Malaysia and South Africa, and 32 countries that range from small to tiny.

The largest member, India, has a population of more than a billion. The smallest, Nauru, located in the South Pacific, which is also the world’s smallest independent republic, has a population of 11,000.

The Commonwealth prides itself on such diversity. “What other organization provides the opportunity for a leader from a small island state to sit at the same table with the head of a G8 nation as equals,” Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon says in the annual report titled ‘Development and Democracy’.

The Commonwealth has made a particular effort to give the smaller states a voice in international affairs, the report says.

“With 32 member countries qualifying as small states, the Commonwealth continues to be a particular advocate of their interests,” the report says. “The larger part of the Secretariat’s capacity-building and technical assistance resources has continued to be directed towards small states.”

Nine small states made use of the joint office for Commonwealth permanent missions to the United Nations in New York, the report says.

Much of the efforts of the Commonwealth remain unrecognized outside its official circles. The report lists also “efforts to raise the profile of the Commonwealth.”

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