Editorial Feature

The Commonwealth: A Family of 53 Independent Countries

The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth on the importance of the organization 

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange project sees 53 countries come together in a cultural trade of skills, knowledge and tradition. This reflects the wider aims of the Commonwealth which exists to boost trade, strengthen governance, promote democracy, amplify the voices of small states and protect human rights.

The job of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is to promote and preserve these values and essentially be the public face of the Commonwealth. The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC became the sixth Secretary-General of the Commonwealth in 2016 and she was the first woman to be appointed in the role. Here, she tells us how she got the role, the day-to-day challenges of the job and what changes she’d like to see in the Commonwealth in the future.

How would you describe the Commonwealth to someone unfamiliar with the organization?

The Commonwealth is a most amazingly diverse family of 53 independent countries. It is home to 2.4 billion people, and 60% of them are under the age of 30.

We have member countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. Among them are countries which are very rich and very poor, with very large and very small populations. 31 are classified as small states. Each has an equal say in Commonwealth affairs – regardless of size or economic stature – and all have assented to our shared values and principles as set out in the Commonwealth Charter.
Leaders of member countries shape Commonwealth policies and priorities. Every two years, they meet at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to discuss issues affecting the Commonwealth and the wider world. There are also regular meetings of ministers to discuss matters such as Finance, Law, Health, Sports, Education, Youth and Women’s Affairs.

The people and institutions of the Commonwealth work together through a broad range of intergovernmental, civil society, cultural and professional organizations. These layers of connection are a distinctive feature of the way in which the people of our member countries collaborate.

Whether on fashion and design, enterprise and investment, women’s rights or youth employment, our Commonwealth identity and connections enable us to build on shared inheritances, and similarities of law and administration to create a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient future for all.

Keisha Edwards cutting fabric in her workshop (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Council)

When did you become the Commonwealth Secretary-General, what led you to getting the position?

The selection for the Secretary-General is a matter for Heads of Government, and I was appointed when they met in Malta for the 2015 CHOGM. I then took up the position in April 2016. I am supported in my duties by the directors and staff of the Commonwealth Secretariat, who work alongside member countries to promote democracy and good governance.

My experience as a lawyer, and as a UK Government minister enables me to bring practical experience and political insight when dealing with the broad range of issues on which I need to engage with the governments of Commonwealth countries.

Having been born in Dominica to a Dominican mother and an Antiguan father, and then having moved to the UK at an early age I grew up very much as a child of the Commonwealth. This gave me awareness of the depth of connection and personal affection that flourish among the people of countries which although far apart on the map are close in many other ways.

What does it feel like to be the first woman to hold the post?

On many occasions, all through my career, my appointments have been ‘firsts’– for gender equality and for inclusive social progress. Each time I have regarded it as a special responsibility to add to the advancement of others who it has been my privilege to represent.

I have often pointed out that institutions perform best and function most successfully when there is equality of representation between women and men. Not more of one or the other – 50/50 – balanced and inclusive, because parity leads to progress.

Rizwan Beyg's artisans handweaving (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Council)

How does the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange represent the goal of building bridges across countries and skills?

The Commonwealth is global in scope and outlook. Its countries collectively and individually thrive on innovation and adaptability to new circumstances and emerging opportunities. This expresses itself through people-to-people connection as much as through institutional collaboration.

Connection, innovation and cooperation are Commonwealth watchwords; they express distinctive features of what the Commonwealth family is, how it works, and how it brings us together for development, progress, and the common good.

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange is a splendid example of this, bringing together talented designers and producers from across the Commonwealth. Very importantly, it connects high-end designers with artisan crafts workers, major manufacturers with small, medium and micro enterprises. That spirit of inclusiveness and togetherness speaks volumes about what the Commonwealth is, and what it achieves.

Why were you happy to support this project?

In an industry estimated to be worth more than £120bn, sustainability is a major concern – a challenge and an opportunity for all involved in the fashion sector.
The focus of the project is on supporting designers and artisans with access to sustainable and equitable methods of production, and on our Commonwealth priorities of gender equality, ethical production and supply chains, innovation, economic growth and poverty reduction.

Artisan from Big Dread Kente stretching the cloth (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Council)

How does this cultural trade fit into the bigger picture of trade within the Commonwealth?

Research and analysis shows that when both bilateral partners are Commonwealth members they tend to trade 20% more, and generate 10% more foreign direct investment inflows than would otherwise be the case.

This potent Commonwealth effect implies bilateral trade costs between Commonwealth partners are on average 19% lower compared with those for other country pairs. We call this, ‘Commonwealth Advantage’.

Projects such as Commonwealth Fashion Exchange are vital in helping small and independent entrepreneurs – in its case fashion designers and producers and many other connected businesses - to flourish, create employment, foster economic inclusion of women and youth, build resilience, and reduce vulnerability.

What are the challenges of your role?

Serving 53 countries inevitably means it is simply not possible to spend as much time as I would wish engaging with all the wonderful things that are happening in any single one of them. Fortunately, this is balanced by the many opportunities that are offered to point people in one region of the Commonwealth to a positive innovation in another, or to accelerate change by showing that what has worked well in one national setting might beneficially be adopted in another.

Afa Ah Loo drawing his sketch (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Council)

What changes do you want to see in the Commonwealth in the future?

There has perhaps never been a time when the positive dynamic of international connection has been more needed, whether among the advanced economies of the G20, a quarter of which belong to the Commonwealth, or within the broader and vastly more diverse context of all our Commonwealth members.

So my ambition, working alongside our member countries, with shared vision and common purpose, is that we should put the ‘common’ into ‘wealth’, and ‘wealth’ into the Commonwealth, for the benefit and wellbeing of each and every one of our 2.4 billion citizens.

I see continuing emphasis and nurturing of innovation and adaptation as vital for the future of the Commonwealth. This is particularly important when tackling the negative impacts of climate change, and protecting ocean health for the global good and benefit of future generations.

So I am delighted that Commonwealth leaders have agreed on a bold, co-ordinated push to protect the ocean from the effects of climate change, pollution and over-fishing. The landmark decision to adopt a Commonwealth Blue Charter will affect one third of the world’s national coastal waters, helping to sustain livelihoods and ecosystems globally.

This builds on the overwhelming support by our member countries for my proposal at the UN Oceans Conference in New York last year that there should be a collaborative approach to action on ocean governance and conservation.

There are many other superb examples of social, economic and political innovation in our member countries. These are now brought together in readily accessible ways through our Commonwealth Innovation Hub. By sharing them in this way, they can be adopted more widely so that progress is accelerated for the good of all.

Na Forrer making some final touches to her look (From the collection of Commonwealth Fashion Council)
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