I have just touched down in Trinidad for CHOGM. While I am excited about the summit, some of my friends in London have been joking that CHOGM actually stands for Caribbean Holiday on Government Money.?
There is a very serious point behind these jokes: in a time of huge economic upheaval taxpayers here and around the world will not tolerate an expensive talk-shop that does not have meaningful outcomes.?The T&T Government has rightly set the bar high on its expectations. In its concept paper, it argues that CHOGM 2009 is a strategic opportunity for the Commonwealth "to enhance its effectiveness and its image, and to make a leading contribution to the resolution of the great global challenges of our time." The thousands of people arriving in Port-of-Spain this week have to make this vision a reality.?A perfect storm of circumstances is gathering over Port-of-Spain. Not only is the Common- wealth celebrating its 60th year but the emerging findings of the largest ever public consultation on the future of the association are to be published later this week.?Since July of this year, the Commonwealth Conversation has been gathering the thoughts, opinions and ideas of thousands of people from every region of the Commonwealth.?
Four intense months of consultation have revealed an association that is loved by too few, too often for the wrong reasons. Its profile is at an all-time low. Less than one-third of people polled across seven countries could name anything the Commonwealth does. Take the Commonwealth Games out of the equation, and that proportion plummets to rock bottom.?Perhaps even more worryingly, policy-makers from a broad spectrum of Commonwealth countries seem to have lost interest in the association. Asked in what situation they would reach for the Commonwealth in their foreign policy tool-box, most struggled to name any such scenario. The Conversation also found that Commonwealth insiders are frustrated and disillusioned by the neglect shown by member countries towards the association.?The emerging findings of this public consultation present several clear challenges to the leaders arriving in Port-of-Spain. The Commonwealth urgently needs to raise its profile by refocusing on the principles which set it apart from other international bodies and which could provide a strong mandate for its work.
It must identify its priorities: those areas of work where it can add value in a crowded international marketplace by drawing upon its unique strengths. And it must reinvest in its people, supporting that hugely valuable network of civil society bodies which buttress the inter-governmental Commonwealth and connect it to its grassroots.?Over the course of the next two years, Prime Minister Manning, as the leader of the CHOGM's host nation, will become the Commonwealth's chairperson in office. The Trinidadian people not only have a hugely vested interest in ensuring this summit produces a meaningful legacy, they are uniquely well placed to do so. If the Trinidadian people and Government can indeed convince visiting leaders this week to focus on enhancing "its effectiveness and its image," then this will be the most important CHOGM of recent times.?Climate change is a good example. This week's discussions will be important and timely, coming ten days ahead of the crucial Copenhagen summit. But Commonwealth leaders have to tread carefully here: they cannot afford for climate change to drown out all the other issues on the table but they cannot also afford to ignore climate issues. CHOGM will not produce a binding commitment on climate change. But it does represent the perfect opportunity for leaders to think about how the Commonwealth could mobilise its unique characteristics to tackle this global challenge.
The key will be to find how the Commonwealth can add value. If they seize this opportunity to think innovatively about the 60-year-old association of which they are all part, this will be the most effective way of enhancing the image of the Commonwealth as a true world player and not just a talk-shop.?
People in Commonwealth circles often hark back to the Lusaka CHOGM of 1979 when, in the face of seemingly impassable obstacles, Commonwealth leaders reached consensus and paved the way for Rhodesian independence. Still today, this summit is regarded as marking a bold and pivotal turning point in Common- wealth history. This CHOGM presents an opportunity to be bold once again. This week, as leaders begin to gather in Trinidad, the Commonwealth once again stands at a crossroads; the scenery may be different, but the choice is no less crucial. Down one route lies a quiet retirement; down the other the well-spring of reform and a future bright with promise.
The findings of the Commonwealth Conversation should be wake-up call: long, all-encompassing communiques are not going to capture peoples' imagination in Trinidad or elsewhere. Something needs to be done to build the Commonwealth's profile as an effective and valuable grouping.?The time and money invested in this week's summit will only bear fruit if the Commonwealth can show clear leadership in tackling global issues and deliver meaningful change. As leaders sit down for the meetings this week, they need to be asking themselves what people will remember the Port-of-Spain CHOGM for in decades to come.
Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the director of the Royal