Commonwealth’s Uncommon Poverty

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[Africa: Commentary]

The pillars on which the Commonwealth was founded are Democracy and Development. But is it still espousing these tenets?

We continue to see 13 of the member countries still among the least developed as categorized by the United Nations. Six of these are listed as critically failed states and 11 are listed as being in danger of internal conflicts and societal dysfunction, according to the 2006 failed states index produced by the ‘Foreign Policy’ journal.

The Commonwealth was founded with aims of solving the ills of underdevelopment among the poor in the member states. However, this still remains a pipe-dream as over half of the people in the commonwealth still live on less than a dollar a day.

There is an apparent big and ever increasing gap between the poor and the rich, reflected by both the nations and people in the Commonwealth. Whereas the per capita income of some rich Commonwealth countries stood at $36,000, that of poor nations is a mere $165.

As dispersed as the membership, so are the disparities, in income, education, access to modern technology and democracy. More often than not, whenever there are governance excesses in member states, the remedies the Commonwealth has resorted to are suspensions and sanctions. These have however failed to provide solutions because mere suspensions and sanctions do not eliminate the suffering of the poor; instead they just exacerbate their living conditions. This is the unfortunate case now prevailing in Zimbabwe.

Policies on trade have contributed to global power disparities, the poor economies have continued to be exploited by the rich economies, with the unfortunate conspiracy of some elite in poor countries. Rich economies and their corporations are unfairly prevailing over international trade and governance. The process of trade liberalization is deeply uneven; it benefits rich economies at the expense of poor nations while the gains from international trade have not been distributed equitably throughout the world.

The so-called globalization may only help in promoting sustainable development in the Commonwealth if members would act in a manner that promotes only those programs that make visible positive impact on the daily lives of the people, especially the poor.

Uganda has spent a whopping $120 million on the preparation of the Commonwealth meeting now taking place in Kampala. This has been a fortune for a few, but the hungry have remained even hungrier. A quarter of that amount would have gone a long way in largely solving the problems brought about by floods in eastern Uganda.

Rich countries have turned a blind eye to corrupt governments; this has eaten through the social budgets in these countries. We have had two cases where money meant to provide medi-care to the poor in Uganda has been squandered by people who should be the care-takers of the public. And this further explains the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

In areas of peace and security, recent revelations at the United Nations meeting on the issue of arms trade indicate that the last 15 years of conflicts have cost Africa approximately $300 billions.

Armed violence has continued to be one of the greatest threats to development in the poor states. In the Commonwealth, Britain and South Africa who are prominent member states are the biggest suppliers of weaponry that have mostly killed innocent civilians.

The Commonwealth should give this issue priority even though the major power brokers in the group have vested interests in the trade. The tax payers’ money spent on these arms could instead help solve the problems associated with HIV/AIDS, prevention of TB and malaria and the provision of clean water, sanitation and funding education. Two-Thirds of the world’s HIV/AIDS patients are citizens of the Commonwealth.

Security is a vital pre-condition for development but it should not merely be security of nations but of individuals. It should be security of employment; security on the streets, security in the communities, security for the environment and security in the homes - homes that can afford a decent meal, health care, clean water and sanitation.

The improvement of people’s livelihood is essential for social cohesion and security. Insecurity is partly bred by frustration, frustration happens when physical barriers continue to be built between the rich and the poor. For security to prevail these barriers must be shattered.

The Commonwealth should move beyond being a mere advisory forum into a practical and more pro-active organization that finds lasting solutions to the daunting challenges of democracy and development in member states.

The Commonwealth should avoid being a reflection of inequalities and economic disparities as depicted by the fact that 50 of the 54 member countries are yet to develop.

The rich members of the Commonwealth should relax their rules on trade so that what one writer cynically described as “the absurdity of Sovereign mice and Sovereign elephants coming together as equals” is not a reflection of a modern Commonwealth. The wealth in the commonwealth should be made common.

Ours is a Commonwealth Poor People’s Forum, Kampala-Uganda 2007 that we have organized through a solidarity walk through the poor people’s communities, to highlight the plight of the people living under poor social conditions.  

We believe that these are the issues that should be high on the agenda of any meetings of the Commonwealth in the future if we are to realize this CHOGM’s theme of realizing people’s potential for social transformation.

Mr. Kizito is President of The Democratic Party, an opposition political party in Uganda

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