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Making the Commonwealth Secretariat more effective: where has the governance agenda gone?

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (EPG) – established at the initiative of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in November 2009 – has recently launched a consultation process to feed into its report on strengthening the impact and effectiveness of the Commonwealth Secretariat (CommSec).

This is a timely and welcome initiative.

The recent Multilateral Aid Review (MAR) published by the UK Department for International Development concluded that CommSec was one of the poorest performers. According to the MAR, while CommSec shows potential in a number of areas, much work is needed if its development efforts are to be effective and make a meaningful contribution.

The EPG consultation report highlights several areas of strategic CommSec involvement, including, among others, the championing of democratic values, promotion of development and trade, and fostering of greater participation among women and young people. It also outlines ideas and recommendations for more effective engagement in each of these areas.

Surprisingly, however, the report is almost silent on the issue of governance and institutions, despite CommSec’s considerable mandate in this field, including public sector development and the interface between the political and administrative arms at the centre of government. (There is a section in the report on ‘Institutions fit for purpose’ but this seems to relate to the way the Commonwealth functions as an institution and not to how governance and institutions can be strengthened in member countries.) This is a peculiar omission given the central role that governance and institutions play in undergirding developmental processes and in providing an enabling environment in which democracy can thrive – and one that needs to be corrected.

It is certainly true that, on average, Commonwealth countries tend to outperform and be more stable than other countries, in part because of shared traditions of democracy, common law and public administration. But in many Commonwealth countries – especially amongst less developed, fragile and/or small/island states – institutions are weak and ineffective and the quality and capacity of the public sector remains limited. In these countries, the state cannot adequately perform key functions, provide basic services, and/or respond to the needs of its citizens. As a result, there is a real danger that the state loses legitimacy in the eyes of the population, which can in turn undermine democratic institutions and feed instability.

So what can CommSec do to promote more effective governance and foster institution-building?

As it turns out, CommSec seems uniquely placed to make strategic contributions to this agenda, and these contributions can be significant, even if they remain financially small. CommSec has several characteristics that distinguish it from other donors and enable it to engage in areas of work that others find difficult or shy away from because they are deemed too politically sensitive. Among other things, CommSec enjoys a combination of highest level access, trust and confidence in its relations with partner countries, as well as the perception of being devoid of a political agenda. The work that CommSec’s Governance and Development Divisionis undertaking on the political-administrative interface in the Caribbean and Sierra Leone, as well as initiatives to foster more effective Cabinet processes (also in the Caribbean), are good examples of this.

To undertake this kind of work more effectively, CommSec must focus on governance and institutions as the lynchpin that links democracy and development. CommSec needs to invest in building the capacity of its staff to think, act and work in a more politically aware manner It is essential to understand the political economy context within which governance reforms take place and the challenges and opportunities this entails, and to select interventions accordingly This kind of work also requires developing a more pragmatic and less normative approach to development, focused on ‘best fit’ based on the realities on the ground, rather than ‘best practice’ in idealised scenarios.

In addition, however, CommSec itself needs to undergo substantial reform if it is to be an organisation ‘fit for purpose’, as the EPG report suggests. Choosing areas to work in where CommSec has a strong foothold – as in governance – is important, but it is only part of the story. CommSec needs to become more streamlined, coherent, and better linked up internally in order to deliver on its ambitions.