Thu, 04 Dec 2003

Democracy, development: Motor of progress

Don McKinnon, Inter Press Service, London

With the end of the Cold War came renewed hope that democratic systems would spread their influence worldwide and bring about increased growth and prosperity. It was assumed that, democracy and development being intimately linked, greater freedom would bring increased economic development. But while a number of democracies have indeed prospered, many countries have yet to reap the fruits of freedom.

The key challenge is to understand how this connection actually works, how democratic values and practices can be harnessed to help communities achieve more growth, develop better health and education systems, and increase their living standards.

In other words, we must make freedom work for growth and make growth work for freedom.

Commonwealth leaders will focus on these issues when they meet at the 2003 Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Abuja, Nigeria, from Dec. 5-8. The outcome of their discussions will provide a road map which will define the future direction of the work of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

A key objective of the Commonwealth is to ensure that the voices of its smaller and more vulnerable members are heard in international forums. That is why the Secretariat has set up a Small States Office to facilitate the representation of some of our smallest member states at the United Nations.

We help our smaller member states by providing experts who assist them to formulate and implement trade policy and to pursue their interests more effectively in the process of international trade negotiations.

In every aspect of our work, we also acknowledge that countries cannot achieve long-term growth without strong, stable democratic institutions, respect for justice and human rights, and a culture of transparency and good governance.

Through the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), despite its very limited budget, remains a very flexible tool for responding to the needs of member countries quickly and efficiently. Projects include advising governments on how to attract investment to exploit natural resources. For instance, we helped the government of Namibia negotiate agreements with international oil companies for offshore exploration projects worth over US$100 million.

One of the key features of our work is our expanding good offices program, which strives to pre-empt conflicts and to resolve them when they do occur.

We also help strengthen democratic practices by observing elections, by supporting the development of institutions which safeguard fundamental democratic values, by promoting transparency and accountability in public life, and by sharing best practice among Commonwealth countries.

The Commonwealth has a proven record of commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law:

o The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group on the Harare Declaration (CMAG), was set up in 1995 to act as the custodian of our fundamental political values;

o The Commonwealth was the first international organization which made it virtually automatic that a country is suspended from its councils in the event of the unconstitutional overthrow of an elected government;

o At their meeting in Coolum, Australia, last year, our heads of government further empowered CMAG to address situations of serious or persistent violation of the Harare principles even when no overthrow of an elected government had taken place.

At present, two member countries are suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth: Pakistan and Zimbabwe. All our attempts at establishing a dialogue with the government of Zimbabwe have been spurned and we have seen the situation there deteriorate continuously. Pakistan has made significant progress in the re-establishment of democratic institutions and its status will be reviewed in December 2003.

One of the key elements of the Commonwealth's future program of work will be to develop initiatives and projects which address development and democracy issues in an integrated fashion. One important way of achieving progress on both fronts is through consensus-building. The process of global dialogue on which the Commonwealth is based allows leaders to develop joint approaches to problems of common concern and find a way through some of the most protracted issues.

One example of effective consensus-building is the Statement on Terrorism issued by Commonwealth leaders shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Since then, the Secretariat has been developing model legislation and implementing kits to assist member countries with the adoption of appropriate counter- terrorism measures.

We also use the power of consensus in the area of trade and economic development. Because it embraces such a great diversity of states -- large and small, rich and poor, island and land- locked -- the Commonwealth is strategically placed to ensure that the voices of its smaller and developing members are not ignored by the big players.

Indeed, when Commonwealth Trade Ministers met in Cancun in September 2003, they gave their joint support to the Doha Development Agenda as a means to achieve greater fairness in international trade.

The greatest obstacle to effective consensus-building is often the lack of common ground between the nations involved. It is here, precisely, that the Commonwealth advantage lies: Our nations are not only united by self-interest; they also share common values, similar political, judicial and administrative structures, a common language and a similar business culture.

This shared sense of belonging is greatly reinforced by the dynamic and hugely diverse Commonwealth civil society community. Indeed, multilateralism not only operates at an intergovernmental level but is also at the root of the unique relationship that binds the "official Commonwealth" and our civil society community.

The challenges we all face are huge, but so is the potential for change and progress that can be found in the Commonwealth.

The writer has been Commonwealth Secretary-General since April 2000. He previously held a number of Cabinet positions in the New Zealand Government, including Deputy Prime Minister (1990-1996) and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1990-1999).