Africa, Headlines

COMMONWEALTH: Govts Increase Funds for Civil Society

Sanjay Suri

ABUJA, Nigeria, Dec 7 2003 (IPS) - Heads of government have accepted an increase in funding for civil society initiatives through an increase in the budget for the Commonwealth Foundation.

The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent Commonwealth institution that supports civil society and people’s initiatives in member countries. The Foundation is building itself up to a "people’s Commonwealth".

The Foundation was established in 1965, but has become far more active in recent years. The heads of government meeting in Coolum in Australia two years back mandated a far stronger role for it.

The precise increase in budget has not been announced yet, but the increase is expected to be "not insubstantial", an official said. The Commonwealth Foundation has at present a budget of 4.3 million dollars a year.

The budget increase follows a presentation by director of the Commonwealth Foundation Colin Ball to heads of government Friday.

As Ball put it, governments need to "acknowledge the need to review the level of assessed contributions which members make to create the resources needed to do the job."

The Foundation focuses its resources more closely now on supporting the priorities and tasks inherent in CHOGM decisions, but they are insufficient, he said.

"A modest increase in the level of assessed contributions, together with more voluntary contributions by governments to particular Foundation activitiesàwould be of great assistance," he said.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo who was in the chair asked heads if they had any objection to increasing the budget of the Foundation. There were none. Obasanjo declared that this meant that an increased budget was now accepted.

Ball urged heads of government to visit the people’s market set up at the Yar’Adua centre where the Commonwealth People’s Forum was held. The market was held up as more than a symbol of a people presence in the CHOGM process.

"During the first three days alone over 34,000 people visited the Commonwealth Market," Ball said.

"Here, and through our work over the past two years, civil society is urging us to do even more to strengthen the quality and extent of its engagement and partnerships with governments and the Commonwealth," he said. "We need your urgings, and we urge you to heed them too."

The heads of government were given about one hour in their schedule for an optional visit to the Commonwealth market set up by the Commonwealth People’s Forum. "I urge all present to participate, see civil society in action and heed the voices and messages," Ball said.

The hour that could have gone into this was taken up by delayed meetings and a tree-planting ceremony. But it was not an entirely blank hour at the market. Leaders from Tanzania and Barbados visited the market early in the afternoon, and leaders from Papua New Guinea and Lesotho visited the Yar’Adua centre where the Commonwealth People’s Forum has held most of its meetings.

Earlier on Friday it was spouses who visited the market and the centre. Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II who is the formal head of the Commonwealth visited the market, Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Yar’Adua centre.

To civil society activists the low score among a total of 54 heads of government was further indication that most heads of government had more time for politics and business than for direct people activities.

Civil society groups have been trying to get through to heads of government even if they cannot meet them.

"Many statements, reports and communiqués will reach you from these activities," Ball said. "I hope in your own Communiqué heads will acknowledge these contributions and thus reassure civil society that its voice is being heard."

Besides accepting an increase in funding, the heads of government accepted a "framework for action" proposed by the Foundation. This framework provides for recognition that civil society makes "positive and vital contributions to development and democracy."

It envisages the strengthening of civil society, more citizen participation in governance and greater facilitation of civil society contribution to Commonwealth priorities.

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