Director-General of The Commonwealth Foundation, Anne Gallagher, discusses the organisation’s Critical Conversations online events series, which asks – and tries to answer – the questions that really matter to the Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion citizens

As a veteran of the United Nations, the Commonwealth was something of a mystery to me when I joined two years ago. Since, 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.

Much of what I learnt during my first weeks in post surprised me: for example, that most Commonwealth citizens are under 30; that most Member States are republics; and that the Commonwealth is growing to include countries that were never a part of the British Empire.

And 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. Enter the Commonwealth Foundation. My job, in effect, is to be the Ambassador for the People of the Commonwealth: to work with Member States in ensuring that this Organisation is—and is seen to be—much more than a club of States. In many ways, the existence of the Foundation is an affirmation of the Commonwealth Charter itself, which begins with those fine and stirring words, ‘We the people’.

Among the Foundation’s responsibilities is the Commonwealth People’s Forum, which brings civil society into the biennial Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). When CHOGM 2020 was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we started thinking about how to maintain momentum—and, more importantly, how to ensure that the voice of Commonwealth civil society could be heard during these extraordinary times. We knew what was at stake: our world is in a state of instability and change, unprecedented in human history. Crises create unimagined opportunities, but they also bring disruption and uncertainty. Better ideas are needed—and more powerful, diverse voices—if we are to adapt and lead the transformation of systems and attitudes that entrench inequality and marginalise so many.

The result of our thinking was People of the Commonwealth: Critical Conversations, an online event series that began in October 2020 and will hopefully continue as a pillar of the Foundation’s work. Critical Conversations asks—and tries to answer—the big, important questions of our age. How do we harness the best of humanity—the forces of love, compassion, equality, and justice—to advance our common future and protect our planet? How do we acknowledge the past in ways that advance a common vision for the future? How do we work together to build or re-fashion our institutions so that they support a world that leaves no one behind?

We are currently putting finishing touches on the sixth event which will deal with the right to health and attempt to shed light on what we have learned over the past year, as well as the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Below are some highlights from a few previous events which, taken together, have reached many thousands of people across all regions of the Commonwealth and beyond.

Better ideas are needed – and more powerful, diverse voices – if we are to lead the transformation of systems and attitudes that entrench inequality

A Commonwealth for All: Young Leaders Speak

Building on a previous Conversation that addressed the issue of the Commonwealth’s colonial legacy, this event brought together a group of inspiring young leaders to discuss what the Commonwealth means to them; what they hope for its future; and what might be done to make the Commonwealth more accessible to its people, and more relevant for today’s world. Thousands signed up to this event and the interaction from participants was intense.

While speakers provided very different perspectives, all were united in their view that the Commonwealth needs to adapt and change to meet the demands of our new world. All agreed that the Commonwealth could do much more to promote justice, freedom, and equality, and to actively fight the discrimination that blights so many lives. All welcomed the Commonwealth’s increasing focus on young people, and their inclusion in policy platforms. But there was a strong warning against tokenism: it’s not enough to invite one young person to join a meeting, a panel, or discussion. What is needed is a wholesale rethinking of how we include young people when decisions are made and policy is formulated.

‘We are the Commonwealth so we need a say in our history.’ – Kavindya Thennakoon during Critical Conversations: A Commonwealth for All: Young Leaders Speak

‘Young people have the passion, desire and drive, but we sometimes forget about consultation, which should come from somebody with experience… Learning and drawing from experiences is necessary so that we don’t make the same mistakes going forward.’ – Darrion Narine during Critical Conversations: A Commonwealth for All: Young Leaders Speak

Protecting Media Freedom

Freedom of expression—including media freedom—is essential to the flourishing of democratic societies and a basic condition for development. Intergovernmental organisations have played a vital role in elevating freedom of expression to the status of a universally recognised right. And while the Commonwealth has not led the pack, we should not forget that, through its Charter, this organisation has loudly and clearly affirmed the right of every Commonwealth citizen to freedom of opinion and expression—and critically, the obligation of every Commonwealth state to protect that right.

Sadly, media freedom is being eroded across the Commonwealth. Over a third of Commonwealth countries languish in the bottom half of the World Press Freedom Index. Journalists face intimidation, imprisonment, and assassination—and impunity for these crimes exacerbates their lasting impact. In too many countries counterterrorism legislation is used to shield public officials from media scrutiny; defamation and libel laws are wielded against public interest reporting; and political and commercial interests are distorting the free flow of information. The pandemic has exacerbated many of these disturbing trends.

The Critical Conversations event, The People’s Voice: Protecting Media Freedom in the Commonwealth, brought together frontline journalists, other media practitioners and policy experts to raise awareness of the seriousness of this issue and to confront the apparent inability of Commonwealth Member States and institutions to arrest this downward slide. The stories this event brought to light are worrying. But there are also real signs of hope, not least the work of Commonwealth Member States to speak out against repressive policies and actions and bring the Charter’s commitments to life.

“We have seen both the weaponisation of freedom of expression causing the destabilisation of democracy and also states weaponising the law to justify crackdowns.” – Julie Posetti during Critical Conversations: The People’s Voice: Protecting Media Freedom in the Commonwealth

The work done on Critical Conversations will be reflected in a forum designed to bring the voice of the people into the conversations and decision-making spaces that affect their lives

The gendered impacts of the pandemic

There is now clear evidence that women are experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic differently to men—despite a relatively lower mortality rate. Overall, the vulnerabilities that reflect women’s gender roles and unequal social status have been exacerbated. We see the results in higher rates of violence, faster economic decline and continued exclusion from decision-making and policy development.

The issue of differentiated needs arises between as well as within countries. Responses to Covid-19 have largely been ‘boilerplate’—a one-size-fits-all approach that reflects both the urgency and the novelty of our situation. But it is becoming clear that policies and approaches that might work well in one part of the world will not necessarily make sense elsewhere. For example, support to the informal economy may be a minor policy issue in a developed country but is a critical question of human survival—one with special resonance for women—in many developing countries. How do we make sure that these differences are recognised and taken account of?

This was the subject of our Critical Conversation: Equality and Justice in Covid-19 responses, moderated by Hilary Bedemah, Member and former Chair of the United Nation’s Women’s Committee and bringing together a formidable line up of women advocates and practitioners with real expertise and insight.

Looking to the future, it is our hope that the Critical Conversations series will continue, providing a space for difficult, sometimes sensitive topics to be explored openly and honestly; and giving voice to those who have something important to say about issues that matter to us all. All events in the series are available to stream from the Critical Conversations website. I also encourage readers of Overseas to keep an eye on developments around the Commonwealth People’s Forum, which will now take place in June 2021. Updates on the Forum will be sent via the Foundation’s newsletter. We are confident that the work done on Critical Conversations will be reflected in a Forum designed to bring the voice of the people into the conversations and decision-making spaces that affect their lives.

‘Outcomes of women have not been that different across the [west African] region. We need to have a gender lens because women suffer the most. People were not compliant because it was expensive to be compliant.’ – Fatmata Sorie during Critical Conversations: Equality and Justice in Covid-19 responses