Public-Private Dialogue Takes Another Step Forward in the Commonwealth; W. David McIntyre Reports on the 5th Commonwealth Business Forum and 45th Commonwealth Finance Ministers' Meeting, Held in London from 23 to 26 September 2002

Article excerpt

To mark the golden jubilee of her role as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen was invited to open the 45th Commonwealth Finance Ministers' Meeting. In her speech, at the opening ceremony, she referred to the consultations with representatives of civil society, which, for the first time, had preceded the meeting. Her closing sentence, commending the work of `Ministers, the Commonwealth Business Council, and civil society', highlighted the chief significance of the September 2002 meetings in London.

In 2001 the Commonwealth collectively was damaged by the 11 September terrorist incidents in the United States. The Finance Ministers' Meeting and the Business Council were cancelled outright and the Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was postponed. The Commonwealth People's Festival went ahead in Brisbane, at a somewhat disappointing level. The delayed CHOGM took place in retreat-like isolation at Coolum, Queensland, in March 2002, and there was some dismay that civil society did not get a mention in the Communique. However, a High Level Review Group recommended that the Secretary-General investigate how links between official and unofficial Commonwealth agencies could be improved. This prompted considerable activity in the months after Coolum. When the Finance Ministers met in London in September for the annual pre-IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington, they had some well-considered private sector input--from civil society organisations and from business.

The theme chosen for the Finance Ministers' Meeting was `Delivering the Monterrey Consensus' that had emerged from the March 2002 UN Summit on development finance for meeting the Millennium Development Goals, including halving those living on less than a dollar a day, ensuring that all children complete primary education, and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria by 2015.

On the initiative of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and host for the Finance Ministers' Meeting, the Commonwealth Foundation was asked to facilitate consultations about the agenda with civil society organisations. As Brown put it, in more old-fashioned language, views were sought from `churches, NGOs, and charities'. For Graca Machel, chair of the Foundation, this was a `giant initiative', which was fulfilled, first, by a series of regional meetings in April-July 2002. Here some strikingly different responses were evident. From Accra, Ghana (29-30 April), there was complaint that the Monterrey approach was simply `more of the same' market-based policies of the IMF/ World Bank and the trade liberalisation approach of the World Trade Organisation. Even the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) neglected the needs of the poor. The G8 Commonwealth members, Britain and Canada, were urged to ensure that new schemes for Africa would emerge from a `participatory process'. From the Caribbean meeting, in Kingston, Jamaica (27-28 May), came the reminder that women and children made up 70 per cent of the world's poor. It was admitted that there was no vision of a development strategy in the Caribbean; and unwillingness of governments to allow for `meaningful participation of civil society'. The London consultation (10 June) called on the British government to take a lead in urging Commonwealth, European Union, and G8 partners to meet the 0.7 per cent of GDP goal for overseas development assistance. The lack of timetable in the Monterrey consensus was deplored, and there were pleas for civil society and grassroots movements to be involved in finding solutions to meet the very different needs arising from age, gender, ethnicity and location. The Pacific consultations in Suva, Fiji (13-14 June), welcomed the opportunity for civil society input and called for periodic evaluation of non-governmental organisation participation. It deplored the failure of Monterrey to analyse the causes of poverty, suggesting that this should not only be measured in monetary terms. …