Africa and the Commonwealth

There have been  several distinguished guests to speak at the Royal United Services Institute’s (RUSI) Nelson Mandela Africa Lecture, and in July 2010 it was no different.  Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma was invited to speak this year as 2010 is seen as a significant year for Africa with several elections due to take place and the hosting of the Soccer World Cup bringing increased publicity to the continent.

The Secretary-General’s lecture was split in two, speaking firstly about democracy in Africa and then development.  He started out by discussing the historical connection between Africa and the Commonwealth, and how it pushed hard for decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s,  But it was tough going, as many member states resorted to one-party democracy or military rule.  The last ten years, however, has seen a return to multiparty democracy in many members states, and the Commonwealth has assisted in the post-war reconstruction in states such as Sierra Leone.  The Commonwealth’s work is now largely focussed on constitutional and parliamentary work and other institutions of democracy, as seen in Swaziland, Zanzibar and Tanzania.

When it came to Zimbabwe, he said that he would ‘welcome’ their return to the Commonwealth, and pointed out that Zimbabwe was never expelled but rather left on its own terms.

On the topic public relations, the Secretary-General stressed that the above work which he refers to as ‘best practice’ is indeed the bread and butter of what the Commonwealth does in Africa, but this does not always make international headlines like other organizations.  He stressed that the Commonwealth prefers to offer a ‘helping hand’ rather than a ‘wagging finger’.

In the second half of his lecture, the Secretary-General turned his attention to development in Africa, and pointed out that much of Africa’s economy is informal and unrecorded, therefore making it difficult to measure development accurately.  He shared his positive outlook on Commonwealth Africa’s development, saying that the cup is certainly half full, of which the Commonwealth has poured in its fair share of good cheer.

The Commonwealth is said to have instigated the process of debt relief; even though it does not have the capacity to provide huge amounts of aid to Africa, this way it has donated billions of dollars of unquantifiable work.  The Secretary General then turned his attention to the future, suggesting that the focus of the Commonwealth’s efforts lie in the treatment of HIV and AIDS and assisting in the shortage of teachers across the continent.

In his concluding remarks, he noted that democracy and development are ‘inconceivable apart’, to complete a fascinating lecture.  It was a shame that more time wasn’t given to the audience to ask questions, as I had several that I was hoping to put to him.

As far as my own thought go, I believe that his lecture went over the heads of a good few people there.  The Royal United Services Institute, by its very name, is a military think tank, and one of the first questions posed to the Secretary-General was that of military intervention.  The audience appeared to be made up foreign policy hawks and people largely ignorant of the continent of Africa, so it made for some uncomfortable questioning.  Although questions and answers remained off the record, the Secretary-General reiterated what he said in his lecture; that the Commonwealth is an organization made up of equals and it is there to discuss and assist, not issue ultimatums.

This could prove to be a very important lecture in the long run.  The new coalition government in Britain only a week before had pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the ‘FCO’ (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), so it is significant that this lecture was taking place at RUSI and in Whitehall.

The Commonwealth is probably the most important institution binding its African member states together: not only is this part of an important historical bond but they have much work to do together in the future.  If there is only one thing that comes out of this RUSI Nelson Mandela Lecture, lets hope it is a more positive British foreign policy towards the Commonwealth and Africa.

A full transcript of the Secretary-General’s speech can be found here.

Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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