This is session 3 of the Witness Seminar, The heartbeat of a modern Commonwealth? The Commonwealth Secretariat 1965-2013 which took place at Marlborough House, London, on 24th June, 2013.

Download full Witness Seminar Transcript

Session participants: (click here for participant biographies)

AE: Antony Ellman  /  EL: Edwin Laurent  /  GB: Gurudas Bailur  /  MB: Matthew Battey  /  MS: Michael Sinclair  /  PMA: Peter Marshall   /  PW: Peter Williams  /   SG: Simon Gimson  /  SO: Sue Onslow  / VS: Veronica Sutherland


SO:      Thank you very much. It gives me great pleasure to chair this third session on sustainable development and technical assistance of the Secretariat’s work between 1965-2013. I’m delighted that Sir Peter Marshall and Edwin Laurent will be our principal witnesses and that Matthew Battey, who is a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, will be acting as the respondent. I welcome this valuable opportunity to highlight the lesser known, but equally important work of the Secretariat. This morning’s discussion was of course focused on the highly-visible aspect of the Secretariat: the image of the Secretary-General and the work in International Affairs and Political Affairs Division. Yet, as Sir Peter has pointed out, in another venue, the Commonwealth’s works on development which is arguably more important in some people’s view.

Without further ado, I’d like to ask Sir Peter to begin. Sir Peter has also asked me to flag up that you have each been given a printout entitled ‘Outcome of the World Summit – Headings of the Text Adopted by the General Assembly – September 16 2005’ to which he will indeed be referring while he speaks. I would also draw your attention to a summary prepared by Dr. Vishnu Persaud which is in your briefing pack which gives, I believe, an excellent overview of the Economic Affairs Division during his time here at Marlborough House. So, thank you very much indeed.

PMA:    Thank you very much, Sue. Having listened with fascination to the discussion this morning, naturally what’s going through my mind is how we can best relate what we have discussed this afternoon to the insights and the questions which arose this morning. I think I can begin rather controversially. When I want to wind up my fellow diplomats, I say that economics is political studies seriously. There is more than a grain of truth in that, not least in the Commonwealth experience because the essence of economics really, academically, started from moral sciences and history. Not only that, it had a purpose in it. It was to see what could be done to better the lot of Mankind. Now that, in other words, is a positive-sum gain, which is in contrast with the zero-sum game which was a feature of classical diplomacy which landed us in the catastrophe of two world wars within a generation, which of course we should be remembering with particular poignancy the centenary, the outbreak of the Great War next year.

The Charter of the United Nations represents the first time that the positive-sum approach to international affairs was expressed in an authoritative document. The Charter of the UN itself is a very complicated and legal text but it is prefaced by a preamble of almost unexampled clarity and direction. It was produced very largely by Field Marshall Smuts thanks to a meeting of Commonwealth Ministers in London just on the eve of the San Francisco Conference. Now, that means that we, as a Commonwealth, have got a fundamental stake in the way in which international affairs are being conducted, of a sort which no other organisation has. I think it’s something that history has tended to repeat itself in some ways in that regard.

How did this positive-sum game start to express itself? Well, it began when the most elaborate machinery was set up, but what people did not foresee was the emergence of a very large number of new countries, mainly gaining independence or asserting independence for the first time, would lead to a sort of situation where there was, if you like, growth of political parties in the UN and the emergence of the group of developing countries which had a great deal in common with one another and not very much necessarily in common with the developed world. This potential clash, this confrontation, came to express itself first in UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development under the influence of an Argentinian economist, Raúl Prebisch. Then, in the New International Economic Order, which was an attempt to rebalance the trading arrangements internationally between developed and developing countries on the basis of oil power and the power of the Non-Aligned Movement, specifically in the shape of the somewhat messianic figure of President Boumedienne of Algeria. In sum, the 1960s and 1970s were characterised by confrontational intergovernmental economic negotiation. Now, this meant that from about the 60s and the 70s, there was, I suppose, the nature of international cooperation on the issues of the, say, fourth of the Charter, tended to be confrontational intergovernmental economic negotiation.

That, understandable as it was, proved in some ways to lead to stalemate and to disillusion. The first attempt to break this stalemate was in the work of the Brandt Commission of which both Sonny Ramphal and Edward Heath, a former British Prime Minister, were members. It was those two who came to Geneva in early 1980 to present the report of the Brandt Commission, called North-South: A Programme for Survival. This was the first time that I met Sonny. He and Edward Heath were very a very effective duo in putting across the prospects of looking at these things less confrontationally and perhaps more realistically. Then, the Melbourne CHOGM of 1981 asked the Secretary-General to set up a group on obstacles to the North-South dialogue and how they might be overcome. To me, sitting in Geneva at the time, that was exactly what the doctor ordered and I wrote to Sonny to ask if there was anything I could do in Geneva to help, would he let me know?

The rest of what happened thereafter is my history, but that is in fact how it came about. I’ve always thought that the law of unintended consequences runs particularly freely in international affairs and it certainly did in my case. Anyway, there were perhaps individual reasons for this. I was the first member of the British Diplomatic Service to occupy a position in the Secretariat. Why that should be the case is best past over, but my own position in the Diplomatic Service was unique because I had been successively the Economic Undersecretary, the Representative for ECOSOC in New York and the Permanent Representative in Geneva. This unique succession of offices has never been repeated and I think it’s unlikely to be so. Anyway, the result of this was that I was somewhat out on a limb career-wise. When the Labour government came in in 1974, I was then the Economic Undersecretary. Judith Hart who became in charge of the Ministry for Overseas Development as it was then, said when I was introduced to her, “Yes, I’ve heard about you. Apparently you’re not quite as awful as the rest of them.”

Anyway, so the result of this was that I duly appeared in the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1983 in the middle of this phase of UN cooperation, which was so distinctive. Therefore, looking back I can see that it was of particular relevance that the Commonwealth had a role to play under a five-star Secretary-General of a sort which it certainly hasn’t had to play since and again I wouldn’t expect it to have to do so. I also could see that this, a core idea of approaching, what are the obstacles? Where are the problems? What can the Commonwealth do about them? There were many possibilities and I pursued them in one or two directions and let me mention three.

The first was in New Delhi, the CHOGM in 1983. This was shortly after I had arrived. I thought after having had this Expert Group on obstacles to the North-South dialogue, let’s see if we can produce a text for the Commonwealth as a whole to adopt, facing up to the fact that there were these differences and what we were going to do about them in the light of the Brandt Report and so on. As a result of that, with the help of the Indian government as host, the Secretariat offered a draft and other delegations took it and turned it into the Declaration of New Delhi. That is of considerable interest simply because, previous to that, no group of governments had attempted to offer a solution to the problem of this sort. Now, the question arose, do the Secretariat take credit for it or do the governments? My answer to it was that of any lifelong official, you always give credit to the minister. There is no point in trying to take it for yourself.

The second illustration is in the Nassau CHOGM of 1985. That was the 40th anniversary of the signature of the UN Charter. There, a committee of the General Assembly had been spending a year trying to draft an agreed declaration. They failed. So, we thought within the Secretariat it’s perfectly possible for us to produce a draft which we think would reflect the opinions of the vast majority of the UN. We presented this draft to heads of government at Nassau who adopted it within 15 minutes and there exists the Declaration of the New World Order which most of the members of the UN would I’m sure have gone along with but nevertheless they couldn’t agree on among themselves.

The third, and in a way the most forward-looking, example I would give of this was in the Vancouver CHOGM of 1987. President Gayoom of the Maldives had just made a speech in the UN about the problem of rising sea levels and climate change. He came and repeated his concerns at the CHOGM in Vancouver. President Ershad of Bangladesh said, “We’ve got a bit of a problem with flooding, too.” After some discussion, they said that the Commonwealth Secretariat ought to set up a group about this. Now, it was rather interesting because of course the issue at that time was far less generally accepted than it is now. It was thought to be moonshine, by and large, by a number of people, especially those interested in the burning of solid fossil fuels. Anyway, we’ll have set up an exercise which on the one hand accepts the realities of the situation and on the other side responds, as we always wanted to do, to the wishes of heads of government.

The terms of reference which we drafted and were agreed by the heads of government were fourfold. We began by saying, “What is the state and what is our knowledge of this problem?” Secondly, which countries in the Commonwealth are likely to be affected? Thirdly, what can they do themselves about this problem? Fourthly, what can the international community to do help them? That, I regard as a template for how we can approach a problem on a useful and practical basis. We’re now talking, my years were 1983-88, the Cold War came to an end in 1989. The dreadful problems of Southern and then South Africa were resolved in Commonwealth terms in the early 90s. In UN-terms, this meant two of the great constraints on international cooperation were removed and the results of this were reflected in a very practical way – in the declarations of the UN on the occasion of the 50th anniversary in 1995, the millennium and the 60th anniversary in 2005 which is the text you have here.

Now, you could, one, look at this text you can see just how the situation has changed. The word ‘political’, by the way, doesn’t appear in any of these headings. The word ‘economic’ is attached to various other things. What we’re talking about here are the problems of living, both collective and individual. What can be done about them? Development, peace and collective security, human rights and the rule of law and of course the machinery. Now, I think that the more I look back at my time in the Secretariat I can see that we were in a very particular situation and that Sonny, as a five-star Secretary-General, was in a very interesting and almost unique position to respond to it. The Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Secretariat had a good deal to do as a consequence. What the significance of our contribution is, we will leave to history to decide but I can’t think that they weren’t a fair degree of importance to it. I think I’ve said all I want to say in my introduction except may I just, I wanted to refer to what you were saying, Sue, at the beginning, what a great pity that Vishnu isn’t here and that his admirable paper which I know everybody has studied very closely, really sets out the detail of these issues in the time which he and his colleagues were dealing with it in the Economic Affairs Division.

My privilege and pleasure was to observe what they were doing and do what I could to sell them to other United Nations institutions. For example, we, the Commonwealth Secretariat had civil service status at the World Bank, IMF, Joint Development Committee and we used to have meetings of finance committees with the Finance ministers on the eve of these annual finance meetings which Vishnu refers to. The first thing that I would do on getting into the World Bank and IMF meeting was go straight to the Secretariat and give them the communiqué which we had just issued among the Commonwealth to the Finance ministers. We were listened to. There’s no doubt about that. By way of comment on ministers, finance meetings, it was the first one I went to, it was in Port of Spain and Sonny was making a speech crafted, very carefully, by Vishnu and others; and when he was reading it he came to the bottom of one page and moving onto the next he saw there was some discontinuity. So he stopped and said, “I need help.” What happened was, of course, page 13 was missing in his copy of the thing and the missing page 13 enabling him to proceed from 12-14 logically, was supplied to him. The next morning the Trinidad Guardian had the most misleading headline of the year – “Ramphal at a loss for words”.

SO:      Sir Peter, thank you very much indeed. If I could now ask Edwin Laurent to reflect on his time as head of International Trade and Regional Cooperation. I’m curious to know what your relations were with the wider world? With Whitehall perhaps, and also how far did you use Sir Peter’s template for approaching problems, in the methodological way that he did?

EL:       Thank you very much, Sue. I must say, my time was six years in that position and it ended last year. During that time, the world had certainly moved on and changed considerably, not just politically but also its economic structures. The Secretariat itself had also, I think, probably, retreated to a certain extent from certain areas of economic intervention and support. Before joining the Secretariat, I did have a very favourable impression which was formed from the recollections of the Brandt Commission and anti-Apartheid leadership role and also the reputation of the Secretariat in many developing countries as a very effective provider of technical assistance. It was not big, but it was considered to be able to provide good quality and timely assistance. So, I had a very favourable impression from the start. During my time, I think my understanding certainly evolved considerably and unlike several of the other speakers, one of the things that probably also helped to influence the way I look at things is that I did spend some time in the Staff Association as President. Being involved in this way with the people who actually deliver those big plans etc., gives you a certain insight that is impossible to get if you have never engaged with them and understood things from their perspective. In management one looks at the big picture and the goal; but for the staff, the issues and the priorities can be different so this has influenced my perspective.

First, I want to say, though, that development should not be considered as an orphan. It is an essential pillar of the Commonwealth and I think most people probably agree with this. What is clear is that the Commonwealth would lack purpose and not, make sense to probably the majority of its members if the development component was not prioritised.

What does the Secretariat really seek to achieve in the development sphere? I think it is two things. One is to help those member states that are not sufficiently able, for whatever reason; because they are very small; because they are LDCs or otherwise; to be able to come up with the appropriate public policies and to implement and manage those policies in a way that will contribute to their development. That is one aspect.

The other thing which the Secretariat seeks to do is to influence the external environment within which these countries currently operate in order to make that environment more supportive of development. The extent to which it satisfies those two objectives should be the basis on which the Secretariat’s performance and the types of policies it develops should be measured. It uses of course a number of mechanisms to pursue its development goals and some of those have been alluded to both by Sir Peter and by Vishnu in his excellent paper.

I want to address some of the challenges that the Secretariat faces in pursuing development goals. I know that maybe some of what I say might be controversial but, well I’ll say it anyway. The first challenge is an absence of what I would call a political guidance structure for reaching Commonwealth wide consensus on the detailed aims of development policy and its implementation. In the political area, it is clear; that such structures exist. You’ve got CHOGM, you’ve got CMAG etc. On the economic side, the finance ministers do meet but they only address a fairly specific area which is finance and very much linked to collaboration or involvement with the Bretton Woods Institutions. Further they sometimes meet for less than half a day so they are not able to address the full range of economic policy and development issues.

What of the High Commissioners? One could ask, “Yes, the High Commissioners do meet regularly,” but they tend not to be the diplomatic representatives given responsibility by their governments for external economic and related issues like development cooperation and the WTO. The Secretariat is therefore forced to operate very much on its own. The result being that it is very diffident about what it can do, or what it can say, because it does not have clear guidance and is not sure that it will have political backing for innovative approaches to the delivery of development support.

The other challenge is the financial. Of course, we know money is short in the Secretariat. The budget is very small and this limits what it can do. That is obvious. As a result of that, it relies on donors. This reliance on external donors though has implications because, most importantly, I think the objectives of the donor and the Secretariat will not necessarily coincide. There can be conflicts and I can think of some that are very pertinent. For instance, the Commonwealth at the political level is very committed to small states, but focusing on the small states is not the priority of most donors. Many of them want to focus on the poorest of the poor.

The other problem is that donors are under political pressure to be accountable and that accountability often has to be met within the political and budgetary cycle; but development is a process, a long-term process and the activities that are undertaken will not necessarily yield results within the short-term. Results are often realisable only in the medium to longer-term.

The consequence of the need for accountability has been that development agencies, including the Secretariat have adopted a project-approach. Now, whilst the project-approach can be very practical for managing activities; in terms of development, discrete projects are not necessarily the best approaches for contributing to long-term development. One needs a programme of coherent activities that will support and eventually lead to development. A project on its own will not do so. This approach has clear disadvantages for the Secretariat itself in that as a result of needing to ensure effective management, particularly financial, individual officers have to be held responsible for the management, preparation, oversight etc. of individual projects. As a result of that, there is not the pooling of intellectual resources and effort across divisions and within divisions. One might say that there can almost be a silo-mentality, which is a side-effect of this.

Measurement of the true value and genuine impact of technical assistance on development is another area which I think the Secretariat and probably no other development agency has yet been able to really make significant advance. The reason why I say that it is a challenge is because it is so important. How can you manage something unless you are in a position to objectively review and measure the results and its impact? Assistance and development activities will hopefully have an impact on economic growth and development, but this takes time and not necessarily in a way that is readily quantifiable. Let me just use an example to be concrete. If one supports, for instance, the participation of exporters in a trade fair, you could work out that so much has been sold, orders generated or business contacts established, so you arrive at a rapid result. However, if you provide support to trade negotiators, how do you measure that the specific activity has actually been of benefit? Its benefit will only be realised when the trade officials negotiate more successfully and that impacts on trade performance and economic growth. This is very difficult to compute objectively and is way, way down the line; most probably outside of the budgetary and political cycle.

So, these are the areas. Having said this, I want to emphasise that they are certainly not insurmountable obstacles or challenges. The Secretariat, though, has continued along the lines already alluded to by Sir Peter where it has sought to engage in outreach. This is done by helping countries in negotiations and trying to help build international consensus around certain issues and I want to refer to just two examples where this was done quite successfully. One was during the EPA negotiations; the negotiations between the African, Caribbean and Pacific and the European Union. The Secretariat along with Francophonie arranged for various ministers particularly from Africa, to have informal encounters with their counterparts in countries of Europe, with people like Mrs Lagarde when she was Minister of Trade in France; and more recently it arranged a gathering of African ministers with Catherine Ashton. The idea was to help the negotiations by promoting understanding. You bring these people together in Marlborough House, away from the rough and tumble of the negotiating table, to really exchange information.

To conclude on the issue of the diplomatic, what you call in your note, the external dynamics. I would say that whilst the Commonwealth and the Secretariat are very beneficial in the economic-diplomatic area, the Commonwealth is punching way below its weight. If you consider the number of countries, their diversity and the economic and political power of the members, the potential influence that the Commonwealth countries as a group can exert internationally should have been much more than it actually is. This is a real pity because in my view there is no institution with that sort of mandate and authority for advancing Commonwealth principles in the economic area. And most importantly for the majority of Commonwealth members, there is no other major international institution in which the small, the LDCs and marginalised countries have a real voice.

I think it is a pity that the Commonwealth Secretariat does not realise its potential in the development sphere. It’s not though just a matter of saying the Secretariat should do better, because in order to do so, it would need a political guidance framework from which to operate. Thank you very much.

SO:      Thank you very much indeed. I’d now like to ask Matthew Battey if he’d like to respond, before introducing a degree of discussion to this session.

MB:      Thank you very much. My name is Matthew Battey and I’m a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, currently researching the CFTC and its history. I’d just like to raise a few points very briefly about technical assistance and the Commonwealth’s development history and hopefully respond to some of the points made by the witnesses. First of all, to speak directly to one of the points raised directly by Mr Laurent, I think you spoke of the reliance on donors within the Commonwealth and I think it’s interesting to think about the history of the technical assistance programmes in this context because the CPTC was formed in 1967, which was a precursor to the CFTC. I think what’s interesting is one of the things that is a real sticking point in terms of the transition to a centralised fund is the scepticism over multilateral aid expressed, especially within the British government, I think. I was wondering if there was perhaps an on-going tension between multilateral and bilateral aid and whether that has affected the Commonwealth’s abilities in development, particularly in terms of finance.

Secondly, I thought we could consider the Commonwealth’s relationships within the global context of development and development institutes. Sir Peter Marshall mentioned the economic strategy of the Commonwealth in the context of global economics and perhaps we could talk about the ways in which the Secretariat has interacted with an organisation like the FAO and other development-oriented institutions.

The final point I thought we could consider was whether the CFTC is part of an overall economic strategy of the Secretariat, or whether there is a kind of narrowness of mandate that has affected the Commonwealth’s ability to push an economic agenda.

SO:      Thank you very much, Matthew. Sir Peter, would you like to begin by responding to those points?

PMA:    I’ll take them in the reverse order. Should one be thinking of the CFTC, when it existed separately, as being part of a strategy? The answer to that is yes. I mean, we usually have an annual CFTC meeting alongside the Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ Meeting. There was a picture there, but that didn’t mean that technical assistance wasn’t financed differently and a very great contribution by the Canadians in particular. As ever, there was a certain defensiveness about how far the CFTC should be able to decide what it did, rather than having the decision made for it by the rest of the Secretariat. As to where the Secretariat as a whole, including the CFTC, which I suppose is what you’re talking about Matthew, is how does that relate to the UN system as a whole? Well, we used to have meetings with Ministers of Agriculture at FAO headquarters, a Commonwealth meeting alongside the main conference, the same for Ministers of Labour. I don’t think we periodically had any others. I don’t think there were any others but the answer is, to the system as a whole, I think the argument would be that the Commonwealth Secretariat was so involved in a very large number of issues that it was part of our consciousness, certainly in my case given I had spent so much time in the UN.

On your first point, going back to the multilateral and bilateral. Well, there is a tension there. There is a suggestion that multilateral aid on the whole is less efficient than bilateral aid and certainly multilateral aid is dispensed through the EEC. It’s arduous to get hold of and also rather expensive. One of the great fortes of the Commonwealth Secretariat in my day is what used to be called ECDCEconomic Cooperation among Developing Countries, where you are talking about the techniques available and acquired and practised in one developing country or group of developing countries, was applicable in another. Perhaps between the African and Asian or African and Caribbean or whatever it may be. Now, that’s rather a different question, whether the flow of know-how comes from the developed world to the developing world, but I think it’s very important. We regard the ECDC as being a very important aspect of the work, also not least because it was so much more economic.

SO:      Thank you, Sir Peter. Edwin?

EL:       On the issue of multilateral versus bilateral aid, I would say that beneficiary countries would consider systems like the CFTC to be multilateral. My recollection from before coming to the Secretariat was that that its aid was held in the highest regard, with a much better reputation than equivalent bilateral technical aid schemes such as those of the USA and others. Not in terms of volume, but in part because it was not similarly tied. Of course, the CTFC itself is also a recipient of funding from some of those bilateral donors so there are also other dynamics at play here.

On the other question which you raised regarding the UN agencies, etc: I think, that the Secretariat has collaborated very well with a range of institutions. It has to do this out of necessity because it does not have the resources, particularly financial and manpower, so it leverages its relationships in order to be of much greater value. The challenge that it always has to face when it is doing this is to ensure that its interests are not subsumed by those of very powerful players, such as the WTO, World Bank, etc. Thanks.

SO:      Mr Bailur, you would like to pose a question?

GB:      My name is Gurudas Bailur and I worked in the Secretariat for 10 years, from 1985-1995 in the Division of Food Production and Rural Development to begin with and subsequently when it was discontinued, in the Agricultural Development Unit as a part of Export and Industrial Development Division of CFTC. My experience of these ten years has been that the Secretariat is in a position to provide crucially important technical assistance to developing member countries because of the expertise that it has within its own member countries. The subsequent downgrading of the CTFC and abolition of Divisions like FPRD, I think has been a mistake because that deprived the Secretariat of playing a crucial role in assisting member countries. The reason advanced for the abolition of this area of work was that we were duplicating the work of other international agencies. For example, it was said that FPRD and other technical Divisions of CFTC were duplicating the work of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and other counterpart UN organisations. The IDU, Industrial Development Unit was said to be duplicating the work of UNIDO. This was the argument advanced for the abolition of these divisions.

This is a fallacious argument because the Secretariat has a different role to play vis-à-vis the multinational organisations because their resources are large, their investment thresholds are very high as they do not entertain smaller projects. They do not provide the kind of technical assistance the Secretariat can provide. I would say that in a sense, these multinational organisations like FAO, UNIDO, and other bigger UN organisations provide hardware in terms of plenty of funds for huge projects but not much of assistance is given to upgrading the capability of the national for implementing these projects, whereas the Secretariat was in a position to provide the software in terms of developing the capacity of personnel and formulating small projects and things of this nature, which these agencies are not able to cater for.

I can think of a number of examples of this kind. For example, the Maldives wanted a project for fisheries development and an international development organisation wanted to fund this project. They however wanted Maldives to submit a well-formulated project. The Maldives was not in a position to formulate it because the staff involved was so busy in day-to-day management that they didn’t have the time nor the capacity to sit back and formulate a project. So, we were called in. We formulated a project within 3-4 weeks because we were full-time on the job. So, we formulated a project and it was submitted to a donor agency for funding. If this kind of catalytic assistance was not provided by the Secretariat, the member countries who need assistance for smaller projects, smaller investments, would not have been able to take advantage of the assistance available from bigger multilateral donor agencies. So, there is a crucial role that the Secretariat can play in terms of human resource development, formulation of projects, small viable projects and upgrading the technical capabilities of member countries.

I can give you another example of post-harvest technology. Now, if you go to Africa you notice that in most countries the food grain is scattered on the ground and vehicles pass on the grains and that’s how they thresh their wheat, rice or whatever they are producing, whereas if you ask donor agencies, they will provide them with huge combine harvesters which are of no relevance to them. So, I took them to India and showed them small post-harvest technology machines, small hand operated threshers which don’t cost more than, say £500-600. They were then imported by African member countries and subsequently fabricated locally. This technology saves a lot of food grain which was otherwise wasted in threshing on the road.

So, I’m giving these examples to show that there is a crucial role that the Secretariat could have played in this area, which nobody else is playing. It was a mistake to abolish or downgrade these economic development divisions like Agriculture and Rural Development, Industrial Development Unit, Export-Market Development Division etc. The economic development divisions had a crucial role to play which in a sense, I think the Secretariat should have been proud of as it was a very important, crucial and catalytic role that it could play in manpower development and upgrading the capabilities of the member states in taking advantage of the assistance  available from bigger donor agencies. Thank you.

SO:      Thank you very much indeed. Would either of the witnesses like to respond?  Was this catalytic small-scale project approach was already established when you came to the Secretariat, or whether this was an innovation on your watch?

PMA:    During my time at the Secretariat that this dilemma existed between programme and project aid to which Edwin was referring and I think that is a permanent dilemma. What I was doing while I was listening, when everyone was speaking, was looking at the exact wording of the Commonwealth Charter under the rubric ‘Sustainable Development’ which is Section 9. Now, when you look and see at the way this is drafted, it is so complicated and interrelated that if you haven’t got a fairly large amount of money on which to base what you’re trying to do, you are going to be faced with some with very difficult and arbitrary decisions. In other words, this a great programme covering the economic and social fields, not only as they affect individuals but international cooperation, national policies and national priorities.

I think the fundamental problem facing the Secretariat is have we simply got enough basic resources to be able to contemplate dealing or tackling these problems in the scale of which they are set out here in the Charter? Edwin, I think as I understood what you were saying. This is the dilemma, isn’t it?

EL:       I wasn’t actually planning to add anything except to say that I think it is probably quite legitimate for the Secretariat to look at its own resources and figure out where it could spend best. Also, look at other donors or other institutions, and what they’re doing in the field. Unfortunately, I really don’t have any information on this because by the time I got to the Secretariat, those agricultural projects had already been sunsetted.

SO:      If I could just return to one question which Matthew put about the Commonwealth Secretariat’s relationships with global economic institutions, or with FAO: to what extent was there a concentrated and on-going comparative process at the Secretariat, comparing intellectual ideas and where limited funds could be best spent?

PMA:    I think the answer to that is not to any great extent. I mean, our remit comes very largely from heads of government. We were a responsive organisation, therefore we were asked to do what it was that governments wanted us to do. So, the idea that, on a sufficient scale, would be able to compare notes with something of the size of the FAO or the other major agencies, I suppose, it wouldn’t really arise.

EL:       Fortunately in some areas, things are changing and there has been more institutionalised interchange with some agencies. For instance, in the case of UNCTAD there is a formal agreement for a long time and the Commonwealth Secretariat has worked very closely with the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of countries, the majority of which actually belong to the Commonwealth. For other institutions as well, the Secretariat collaborates on an ad hoc or sometimes a project/programme-basis. I think that is a move in the right direction because it makes best use of the limited resources. Thanks.

SO:      Dame Veronica, you had a question you’d like to pose?

VS:      I’m Veronica Sutherland. I was Peter Marshall’s successor but three, as DSG (Economic), but I came to the job without his very extensive background in economic diplomacy. I’ve been fascinated by the two very thoughtful presentations we’ve had and I’d just like to offer some personal insights or perspectives on them. I would also like to identify three particular areas where I think the Secretariat has a great deal to be proud of and, as Amitav Banerji did, I would like to give a comment or a mark as to how the Secretariat has done in particular areas. I would give ‘Very Good’ to the three areas that I am about to mention. The first is debt-forgiveness in relation to the highly indebted poor countries and, as we all know, there is a long history of Commonwealth activity on the HIPC area starting, I think, with the Brandt Commission and going through the Trinidad Initiatives and the Naples Terms and so on. In all of this one of the critical areas has been the way that the Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ meetings have fed into the annual meetings of the IMF World Bank and there is no doubt in my mind that the Commonwealth communiqués and influence have been very considerable in the way that the HIPC Initiative has been launched and has been followed up.

Therefore I was very interested when Edwin Laurent, if I’ve understood correctly, thought that the Commonwealth had insufficient influence in comparison to its size and the diversity of its membership. I’d put it slightly differently. I think it has had very considerable influence and that that influence has been very, very considerably underplayed. Why that should be, I don’t quite know. If you look, for example, you may think this is a slightly trivial example but it nevertheless is interesting. If you look at the Wikipedia entry on HIPC, if you Google that, you get the fact that it was launched by the IMF World Bank in 1996 following pressure from a number of non-governmental organisations. If the Commonwealth is dismissed as just one of many NGOs – with no disrespect to the other NGOs – I think that’s rather sad, actually. I think the Commonwealth has a very good story to tell and I think I’m waiting for a PhD candidate to tell it.

The second area I would highlight has already been mentioned by Edwin Laurent, namely small states. I think the Commonwealth has certainly been out in the forefront of promoting the interest of small states, giving a voice to those whose voice in international affairs is very small. There are a number of ways that this has been done. Most recently, I see that the Secretary-General went to Geneva and opened an office there that can be used by small states’ representatives. That kind of activity is enormously important, enabling states which perhaps have very, very few highly-qualified people. Sadly they will never operate on an equal footing with the large countries but this will at least give them a better chance of having their voice heard. So, I think those are two areas where the Secretariat, the Commonwealth as a whole, can be really proud of the contribution they have made.

The last one I would mention is perhaps rather a particular one. It is a project in fact. It is the Iwokrama Rainforest Project. I mention it because it is an international project involving the Commonwealth Secretariat and, originally, the government of Guyana. It involves international scientists and it has trustees from around the world. When I was in the Secretariat and I visited it a number of times, at one stage this project looked as though it could never succeed, so difficult were the issues it confronted. My understanding now is that it is on a very much more sound footing and is something, again, that the Secretariat can take great credit for, for seeing this through and for ensuring the existence of a project designed to investigate how best to preserve rainforests, how to protect the livelihoods of those who live there to the greater benefit of everybody who cares about the environment. I think that is another very fine story. So, I do think the Secretariat in these areas has much to be proud of and I’m glad to have been involved in them in the time I was here.

EL:       Just very briefly, I certainly don’t object to anything what Dame Veronica has said except I want to clarify a bit on the Commonwealth punching below its weight. There has been a lot that it has done and it can do, which is of tremendous value. But consider the importance of the group and I don’t recall all of the statistics, with about 54 members that is about one third of the countries of the world and about a quarter of its population and then there is the economic weight. Then look at what impact it is actually having as a group as opposed to the individual members of the Commonwealth exerting influence in the WTO, in the World Bank etc. As a group, it really is not having that much influence in international economic governance. Thanks.

SO:      Antony Ellman, would you like to add to this?

AE:      Thank you very much. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be here this morning so I should introduce myself. I’m an agronomist. I worked in the Secretariat in the Food Production and Rural Development Division from 1976-84, just before Mr Bailur came in. I came to this job after six years of working in Tanzania on the UK bilateral assistance programme and then five years in Sri Lanka on an FAO programme. So, I’ve seen the bilateral, the multilateral and the Commonwealth environment and I come out very strongly in favour of the Commonwealth – otherwise I wouldn’t be here today! In Sri Lanka I was part of a team with a Japanese economist, an Egyptian water engineer, a Turkish construction engineer, a Bangladeshi sociologist and a Dutch geographer and it was a Tower of Babel. There was very poor communication within the team and as a result, pretty poor communication with our Sri Lankan colleagues.

By contrast coming to the Commonwealth Secretariat was a delight, to work in a multicultural environment where people understood each other, spoke the same language, not just English but having had similar colonial experiences and retaining similar administrative systems. Agricultural extension and integrated pest management, for example, mean the same thing to you whether you’re from Fiji, Nigeria or Jamaica. The terms are incomprehensible if you’re from Brazil or Indonesia.

We worked with people at different levels. I was involved mainly with grassroots programmes, regional programmes for technology exchange, regional training programmes. We ran a very effective training programme for agricultural managers in the Caribbean, another one for irrigation managers in South Asia which resulted in significant advances in curriculum development, teaching material preparation and these were regional programmes which catalysed many requests to CFTC for single-country follow up projects. I agree fully with Mr Bailur that one needs to have programmes which feed into single-country or even multi-country projects.

Comparing my time here with the time I spent in Sri Lanka with FAO and in Tanzania with DFID; we had much less money to spend and we therefore planned the use of it extremely carefully. I think that we were far more cost-effective than the other programmes that I had worked on.

I also had some experience of working at a higher diplomatic level in a Commonwealth context. The pre-FAO conference meetings of Commonwealth Ministers of Agriculture, which Sir Peter mentioned, were quite useful but I felt here we were trying to punch above our weight and I’m not sure that much was achieved (however, it’s better to punch above one’s weight than below it!) I also represented the Secretariat at a CILSS meeting in Ouagadougou. CILSS is the French acronym for Interstate Committee for the Battle against Drought in the Sahel, an organisation which involves Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Cameroon as well as the francophone West African countries. The Commonwealth ministers clearly felt much more comfortable talking with each other in these meetings. I remember the Nigerian minister saying these French get-togethers are completely hopeless – all form and no content.

The biggest downside of working in the Commonwealth Secretariat in my time, which may have been overcome since, flowed I think from the Secretariat’s recruitment policy for diplomatic staff, namely that a director of a division should not stay in the post for more than 5 years. That applied to assistant directors, too. Mr Bailur seems to have managed to survive for 10 years. Compared to him, I was not so successful. I found that in many cases, a new director would feel he had to come in with a new broom, sweeping out the existing programmes that he found and bringing in his own initiatives to make his mark. This resulted in a lack of continuity which was counterproductive, particularly in agriculture and rural development which are by their nature long term. The problem was overcome to some extent by the project staff, many of whom were there for the long term, but I thought that changing the recruitment policy for diplomatic staff was one of the ways in which the Secretariat could have got a bigger return on the investment that it made. Thank you.

SO:      Thank you very much indeed. So, it was not simply a question of challenges from outside and bureaucratic silos inside the Secretariat, such as limits on the pooling of resources across divisions, but also appointment practices, helping to undermine institutional knowledge then. Simon, you wanted to make a point?

SG       Thank you. It was actually a point that I was discussing with Dame Veronica in the lunch break, in fact the rotation policy in the Secretariat continues to be a challenge, especially in an institution of this size. You’ll be pleased to know that the lifespan of a director can now be extended as long as 6 years. Nonetheless, it remains an enormous challenge for the organisation because after about 4 years, you naturally start to look for alternative pastures and that does have an effect to the extent to which the Secretariat can be, if you like, the heartbeat of a modern Commonwealth because it’s constantly losing its institutional memory at a senior level. Equally, on the other hand, it does not mean that there is a constant refreshment and new blood coming in. So, it’s a two-way street in that regard.

I was just recalling the title – the Heartbeat of a Modern Commonwealth – and your description of the Secretariat up to 2013 and we’ve been looking at this in slightly historical terms and I think it’s probably germane, particularly from what Matthew was asking before about multilateral aid, to ask whether or not the Commonwealth in 2013, is the modern heartbeat, whether it is relevant in terms of its contribution to sustainable development and technical assistance. I think that it’s probably worth saying that from the sustainable development point of view the answer is probably yes. It’s right there on the button and in fact it’s leading the charge in many respects. That fact that it was the Commonwealth Secretariat that encouraged the G20 to form the Working Group on Development and that became an outcome of the Canadian G20 Summit. No bells, no whistles, no sort of ownership, simply encouraging the political level and the result was born. The Highly-Indebted and Poor Country Initiative was mentioned before, a number of trade statements over the years which have moved along the Doha round and other rounds, the Uruguay round. I think these are all examples of statements more recently and the G20 work, more recently, have highlighted the on-going relevance and the modernity of what’s being done by the Secretariat.

The technical assistance continues to be seen, I would suggest, through rose-tinted spectacles by us, the Commonwealth brethren and family and we’d like to be viewed positively. Some of those who contribute to it are less enamoured and that’s partly because of that concern about multilateral aid and whether it’s impactful, but it also speaks to whether or not we are being relevant and what we do and how we do it. The Secretariat has been the subject of a number of criticisms in recent years. Its training programme, for instance, has been lambasted for being pretty poor quality and that’s a criticism the organisation is trying to respond to. On the other hand, it is difficult for an organisation of which CFTC is a mutual fund and it’s very difficult when you’re being measured by one country according to its criteria. The recent Multilateral Aid Review by the largest contributor to CFTC concluded that the Secretariat’s development work, its technical assistance was not particularly good but we then looked deeper into that and discovered that it was being measured against the 10 components of that particular country’s development objectives as much as Edwin was saying before, the fact that small states do not feature in those 10 components of that donor’s development programme, well, it’s no surprise that we don’t score highly and we’re never going to score highly. We’ll always be criticised, irrespective of how good the work is we do with small states. I thought I’d take the opportunity to throw that in.

SO:      Thank you very much indeed. Michael Sinclair, you wish to make a contribution?

MS:      I was Assistant Director of the Education Programme here from March 1982 – September 1985 and for eight months prior to June 1984 I was Acting Director until Peter Williams came on board full-time. Before I joined the Secretariat, I learned about a programme which hasn’t been mentioned specifically here. It was usually called TAG, T-A-G, by its acronym – Technical Assistance Group. My understanding was that it was to be a very specialised form of technical assistance by a limited number of CFTC advisors, including people like John Syson, whose name will be recognised by some of you, as well as other people who would provide advice on call, on very highly specialised and technical subjects. For example, to help governments deal with big multinational mining companies in terms of negotiations and so on. I’m not sure what happened to TAG over subsequent years including, I will confess, while I was working here. We were very compartmentalised in those days and people working in one section didn’t know an awful lot about another section unless there was some interaction.

So, first, my hope would be that there is some institutional memory about the effectiveness or otherwise of that process and secondly if there is anyone here who can articulate, generally, what was the assessment of that particular approach? I would welcome hearing that, briefly.

SO:      Sir Peter, would you care to reflect on that?

PMA:    I do remember this business of having a facility to respond very quickly to specific questions because one Saturday afternoon I was rung up by a minister of finance from a Caribbean Commonwealth country saying they were going to be at the Paris Club on Monday and he wanted some expert advice. We dug somebody out of deep retirement in Oxfordshire and got him there on time, but whether this programme was ever assessed in the way you were asking, I don’t know that happened. It might have been something rather special to John Syson. On the other hand, I do think that the general question of being able to respond to specific questions from member countries is very important and I think it ought to be a priority in addition to the sort of general perceptions of what we should be doing, which we ought to be having given that we’ve got a budget from heads of government.

SO:      Edwin?

EL:       Thanks. I fully agree with this and TAG was certainly before my time but what is important in this is what I think Sir Peter is alluding to; the need for that type of rapid response and high-level sort of support. The case for it is that there is no other institution for Commonwealth LDCs and small states can turn to.

Now, going to the intervention by Simon and again I don’t have too much of a difficulty with most of what he said, but I think that we should not judge the Secretariat, too harshly; and neither should the Secretariat itself. I agree that a lot of the capacity building projects and the activities can be a waste of time. But it’s not just Commonwealth Secretariat projects; in fact, probably the Commonwealth Secretariat is more effective than many of the other donor institutions, such as the EU etc. I’ve looked at some of those programmes managed by other institutions and they can sometimes look as if they have been devised just too spend money, not to have any real developmental impact.

So, the Commonwealth, as deficient as it has sometimes been portrayed to be, is probably no worse than others, but could actually be much better than them. I think the Secretariat is strong in technical assistance and if one speaks with a lot of the beneficiaries, where some of them need specialised expertise very quickly, they just cannot get this via any other institution. I think this is maybe the area we should be paying more attention to. Thank you.

SO:      Thank you very much indeed to both witnesses and the respondent and from the contributions from around the table. I think this has been an excellent discussion on sustainable development, emphasising yes the limitations and impediments to the Secretariat’s work on sustainable development but also emphasising the qualified but still success story that is the Commonwealth and development. It’s now time for tea. We’re breaking only briefly for 15 minutes before the discussion on human resource development. Thank you.

[End of session]