Saint Lucians are going to be hearing a lot about the Commonwealth over the next month amid the build-up to the annual Meeting of Commonwealth Finance Ministers which this country will host from September 24th to 26th.
While the Commonwealth has directly touched many Saint Lucians through its scholarships, literature awards, technical assistance and other programmes, it is remote from the average man-in-the-street. Yet, ironically, the Commonwealth often quietly makes a positive impact on his/her life, of which he or she may not even be aware.
So what’s the Commonwealth all about? To begin with, it’s an international organization of 54 sovereign, independent states scattered around the world. As the majority of its members (32) are small developing states like Saint Lucia, the Commonwealth serves as an important forum for them to take part in deliberations on crucial issues, reach a common position and exert a collective influence on world affairs. More importantly, however, the Commonwealth serves as a vital source of various forms of technical assistance which is necessary to support the goal of political, social and economic development.
The Commonwealth wasn’t always as it is today. It has an interesting history, beginning life in the late 19th Century as a club comprising Britain and its former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. During those early years, it was known as the British Commonwealth and a key condition of membership was “a common allegiance to the crown”. That is, the King or Queen of England. Those days are far behind.
The evolution of the Commonwealth into its present form, mirrors fundamental changes which have occurred at the international level since the end of the Second World War, 50 years ago. These changes, including decolonization through which former colonies like Saint Lucia got their independence, shifted the Commonwealth from a British colonial club to a free, multi-racial association of independent, sovereign states.
As the 21st Century unfolds amid some degree of uncertainty, Saint Lucia and other developing countries find themselves grappling with many challenges resulting from globalization and liberalization – the much-talked-about twin forces which today are exerting the greatest influence on life on the planet. The Commonwealth has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the peculiar needs of small, vulnerable states like Saint Lucia are given reasonable consideration in global economic decision-making so that the quality of life of their people is not jeopardized.
Coming ahead of the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) where such decisions are made, the Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting here will provide an opportunity for Commonwealth countries to fine-tune their position in order to speak forcefully in a collective voice when they go to Washington for the IMF/World Bank talks.
From their experience in the last seven years, Saint Lucian banana farmers can attest to the ravages which globalization and trade liberalization can bring when the rich and powerful show a stubborn insensitivity to the plight of small states. Since 32 of the 54 Commonwealth members are small states, the Commonwealth is therefore ideally positioned for Saint Lucia to make its voice heard on the issues that matter most. And this is exactly what Government has been doing.
The focus of the Commonwealth, however, goes way beyond global economics and trying to get the best deal for its members in the current dispensation shaped by the free market. The Commonwealth, at the same time, is actively involved in politics, promoting the best practices of democracy and good governance among its membership.
Special emphasis is placed on promoting free and fair elections. If there are serious questions about the working of the elections machinery in any member state --- as happened in Guyana – the Commonwealth, if invited by the country in question, dispatches a team of observers who will monitor voting proceedings and pronounce if the ballot was free and fair.
As testimony of its commitment to democracy, the Commonwealth today distances itself from any deviant member where military coups and other non-democratic means have been used to install governments. After the army overthrew an elected government in 1999, Pakistan’s membership was suspended. The same also happened to Nigeria in 1995. It’s a tough, uncompromising stance compared to the 1970s when military dictators mingled with elected leaders at Commonwealth heads of government summits.
The Commonwealth is one of few international organizations where the Caribbean enjoys prominence. The late Alva Clarke, a son of Saint Lucia, headed the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) for many years. Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal, a former Foreign Minister of Guyana and a well-known Caribbean personality, served for more than a decade as Secretary-General, the highest Commonwealth post. Currently, Winston Cox, a Barbadian economist and a former Central Bank Governor, serves as Deputy Secretary General.
The evidence shows that the Caribbean as a whole is benefiting from the Commonwealth. An outstanding track record of assistance to Saint Lucia and the region through scholarships, invaluable technical assistance, and diplomatic lobbying to promote acceptance of various causes, tells the story that the Commonwealth is working for us all.