This is session 4 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.
Session participants: (click here for participant biographies)
LS: Lucy Steward / MS: Michael Sinclair / PW: Peter Williams / RB: Richard Bourne / SMA: Stephen Matlin / VS: Veronica Sutherland
VS: I hope you had a nice cup of tea and are ready for the next session. Now, as I said earlier, I came as the DSG Economic and Social in 1999 and I supervised a very wide range of subjects to the extent that I couldn’t really take a close, in detail, interest in absolutely every corner of this empire I had been presented with. Fortunately, I had excellent professionals in areas where I particularly needed them and I would say that specifically of both education and health. So, I’m very pleased that we have got, this afternoon, two experts in the field. On my left is Dr Peter Williams, whom I’ll ask to begin. He preceded Professor Stephen Matlin, whom I supervised when he was Director of the Health and Education Division in the late-90s, when I was here. Taking things chronologically, we’ll start with Dr Williams. He’ll talk about education. Stephen will also add health to his presentation because the person who had been planning to speak about health, Ken Stuart, unfortunately can’t be with us. So, Peter, can I ask you to begin please?
PW: Thank you very much. Although I am a doctor, it’s only an honorary doctorate and it was the source of huge disappointment to the Secretariat when I arrived from a chair in London University that I had to tell them that if you resign a chair, you give up your professorship. They were dying to call me Professor Peter Williams the whole time I was here and I had to tell them that I wasn’t entitled to the title. On Madhuri’s point – I hope by the way, she can take part in this session after I and Stephen have contributed, because although we are from the education and health fields, I think human resource development is wider than that and I imagine we shall get back into the discussion of technical assistance and professional cooperation generally. I think neither Stephen nor I would want that just to be limited to education and health if people have something to say about the wider scene. I don’t know if Madhuri is still here but she referred to her work as the Cinderella of the Secretariat and I think that those of us who worked in the Human Resource Development programmes and maybe particularly those of us that were Secretariat and not CFTC-based, always felt ourselves to be somewhat marginalised and Cinderellas in the Secretariat.
One accepts that the political and economic work of an organisation like the Commonwealth will always be paramount, but one result of the fact that the senior management is traditionally recruited from diplomatic ranks, with perhaps some economists, is that the areas of professional, scientific and technological development are not always as well-led by professionals as they might be. On the fact of marginalisation: before I came here I looked back at my notes, my resignation note to the Secretary-General, and was complaining that when a document like the Harare Declaration was drafted, nobody from any of the professional divisions played a part in the drafting of it. I went to four successive CHOGMs but was never on the initial list as someone to go there: and then, because things like student mobility, the creation of the Commonwealth of Learning, brain drain and other issues which connected education came onto the agenda at the last minute, I was incorporated in all four of them. It is not insignificant that when you look down the list that the ICS itself has prepared of key events in the development of the Secretariat in the last 48 years, you see that on March 7th 1988 three IRA members were shot dead in Gibraltar, but you do not see that on September 1st 1988 the Commonwealth of Learning’s Memorandum of Understanding was signed and that that was the initiation of one of the three Commonwealth inter-governmental organisations!
Now, okay, I’m trivialising but it does actually, to those of us who work in these areas, that is not insignificant because if you worked in this building in the professional fields, you did have the feeling that you were thought of at the last minute and it is of no surprise to me that it has recently been suggested that Educational and Health should follow FPRD and the industrial development division into obscurity and oblivion and nor is it surprising to me that the developing Commonwealth has united to say, “Not if we can avoid it. Keep them because they are central to what we’re about.” In a young Commonwealth, where half of the population is aged 25 or under, it’s quite understandable. I was in the Secretariat as a director. I don’t know how I managed to survive as a director for 10 years. I don’t remember it being an issue at the end of 5 years, whether the policy had changed, I don’t know. I was director from 1984-1994, almost 10 years. At the time we did have quite a continuity of staff. Towards the end of my time, the great Leilani De Silva-Packer who had been our Secretary of Education for about 15 years was finally forced out and we lost a lot of our institutional memory, but it was a tremendous help having someone who could remember everything that had happened in the past.
One relevant function in our programme – and I suppose this is paralleled elsewhere- was, I think, partly to serve and support member countries in grappling with their own problems in educational development or organising schools or training teachers or education in rural communities, whatever they needed help with. That was done partly through exchange of experience through meetings and seminars, preparing resource books, setting out the policy options and so on. Partly, it was done through direct technical assistance from the Fellowships and Training Programme and the GTA, the General Technical Assistance Programme of CFTC. Quite often they would ask us as education staff, for our opinion about what should be done, whether they should support a request, but quite often they would recruit members of the Education Programme, as we were then, to go and deliver the assistance themselves. I remember being sent on at least three university commissions in Africa to serve on those setting up new universities.
Part of our function was to help countries grapple with the international order and to develop structures for international cooperation because although education is quite largely domestic, increasingly it’s becoming more and more a place where you have to interface with other countries on Recognition of Qualifications, Student and Teacher Mobility, Brain Drain, approaching problems of migrants and a whole lot of problems that have come up since that are going to be important about general agreement on trade and services, whether you’re going to let the big multinationals into your country to actually own chains of schools, which is very likely to be on the agenda now that privatisation of education is on many countries’ horizons.
We played quite a big part in some of the big international campaigns, Education for All, setting up the Association for the Development of Education in Africa to which international agencies give support. Support and development of the Commonwealth infrastructure in education was extremely high on our agenda and in education, as you probably know – and you can pick up a bit of advertising here in the shape of a Directory of Commonwealth Education and a book about Commonwealth education cooperation – more than in any other field you’ve got this huge infrastructure in education, for example the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. People don’t realise that this is a multinational framework with bilateral assistance. People don’t realise that almost as much as is spent on CFTC multilaterally is spent by countries bilaterally on funding Commonwealth Scholarships. I mean, the UK which is much the biggest donor, particularly now that Canada is going to pull out, spent £23m this year on Commonwealth Scholarships. It is prominent and huge. The Commonwealth of Learning was brought into existence in the 1980s, during the time when I was director. The Commonwealth Institute was still there: it has since become the Commonwealth Education Trust but it has substantial resources. And then you have got all the big voluntary agencies, particularly the Association of Commonwealth Universities, a big organisation that has about 40-50 staff, even more now, although because although we were talking about the inefficiency of multilateral cooperation, in the Commonwealth field we should be proud of the fact that the UK Commonwealth Scholarship Commission is so well regarded for its management of Commonwealth scholarships in the UK that it has just been asked to take over the whole of the Chevening Scholarships Programme which is the FCO programme of scholarships, to manage that. That certainly is not a programme where Commonwealth management, not by us here in Marlborough House but by ACU, has been deficient.
Running the Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers was always important. They started in 1959 and we’re now up to the 18th conference. Of course, it was important to feed in the education dimension to the rest of the Secretariat’s work whether it was in health or HIV-Aids or whether it’s on the kinds of things that the ‘Sen Report’ has just been discussing – Civil Paths to Peace. Many areas of endeavour need a population which is educated and attuned to the problems there. How am I doing? I haven’t even been looking at the time.
Staffing and resources – well, staffing was okay. We had nine professionals in education. When I came, four of the other eight were British so I was never, during my time, in any position to offer the hope to a British applicant that they would be appointed. We had to diversify in terms of region and country. There were no women professionals when I came. We had got three or four by the time I went and I should have pointed out at the start that two colleagues here, Michael Sinclair, you heard from, who was here. Lucy Steward from Trinidad is here sitting opposite me and came just about the time I was going, I think. We had many professional women in the programme as time went on and I think even a higher proportion today. That nine – actually, at the time, we had no money, this was our problem – but we had more professionals in Education than the Overseas Development Administration did which, during the time I was here, had only six. So, we had a capacity for thinking and producing policy analysis and options which some of the other bigger agencies didn’t have and that’s why we were really highly regarded and welcome partners to them. Our difficulty was we had no money to operate with because of the structures, and the general poverty of course, of the Secretariat.
Those staff at that time, were very experienced people and internationally well-known. Stephen (Matlin) went on to be head of Education in DFID, but others went on to be deputy head of that unit, to be head of Education at UNICEF, to senior positions in the World Bank and UNESCO and to be the Chief Executive of the Caribbean Examinations Council. So, our staff were highly regarded and much in demand for help and advice, but the financial resources, as I say, were really inadequate. We had a tiny budget from the Secretariat for conferences and Expert Groups which I’ll say just a little bit more about in a moment if I have time, a very small travel budget and we were not allowed to go and use it just to go on a liaison visit to get to know ministers who were coming to the next conference. It always had to be a sort of technical assistance. Now, that’s very difficult for an international organisation that doesn’t have any offices outside London, to get to know your ministerial constituency was really quite difficult because you couldn’t travel unless it was on a sort of technical project basis.
We were very mean with our travel budget and the reason why the Secretariat now – it isn’t the reason why but a contributing factor to it – is dealing with budget airfare shops is that I would never allow my staff to go to Hogg Robinson who had the travel bureau in-house and said, “You can’t only not take advantage of your business class travel (which came in then), you can’t even have an economy class ticket. You’ve got to go to Global Link and buy a bucket-shop seat unless you can produce a medical certificate saying why you should not”. So, I was quite unpopular on that account. A lot of our programme money, that came from the Y Vote of CFTC and we could have some discussion about that. It was really quite difficult to negotiate with CFTC to get sufficient programme money to operate with. So, you had a very good staff who had a tiny budget for publications, for travel, for programme work.
A very short word about the ministerial conferences and a short word about the Expert Groups. After the finance ministers’, and possibly along with the law, conferences, the education ministers conferences are probably the best-known, well-established going right back to 1959 in connection with, which one should point out that there was an Education Secretariat here in Marlborough House for 5 years before the Commonwealth Secretariat was formed, The Commonwealth Education Liaison Unit. The conferences had two big problems. I’m talking about a time before Stephen Matlin introduced the notion of parallel forums. Now, whenever the ministers meet you’ve got four parallel forums alongside them and I really do not envy the Head of Education here having to organise a programme with a ministers’ conference and four quite well-attended parallel forums as well. It’s an interesting and useful thing but a headache to coordinate. Of the two problems which came up for us, one was the huge amount of preparatory work and to know whether or not it was justified to give up programme work in order to organise a conference. I think it was, but the question will go on being asked.
The second was that the conferences were only three years apart and ministers, being politicians, have very short lives. So, you really valued the few ministers who went on from conference to conference and would sort of champion your causes, but the danger, which is still there now, as I noticed in Mauritius at the last ministers’ conference, most of the ministers come having no idea about what the agenda is at all. Unless you’ve got a very controversial issue to wind them up, like in Mauritius the proposed abolition of the education work of the Secretariat was, it’s very difficult to get a buzz going among them. Now, we were fortunate in a sense, in my time, that we had some very controversial subjects and Sonny Ramphal loved a controversial subject and to make use of it because his great gift was to find a way through a consensus between opposing points of view and to reach something people could agree on. So people would then come out of a conference feeling really good. They’d done something about student mobility. They had created the Commonwealth of Learning. They had created a Commonwealth of Education Support Scheme or whatever it is. Even though some had gone in, particularly the ABC countries, hoping to not to reach that conclusion.
Expert Groups is the other thing I wanted to say something about. What helped us particularly was the role of Expert Groups and having senior people highly regarded around the Commonwealth who were Commonwealth champions. They were either senior public servants, senior academics, businessmen and I think there were about five of these groups in my time, not all at once. They were The Standing Committee on Student Mobility and Higher Education Cooperation, which led to the development of a lot of infrastructure in education and indirectly led to the Commonwealth of Learning; to the Commonwealth Higher Education Management Service at ACU, which is defunct now but it was extremely effective for 10 years; and quite a few other initiatives, I think. Then there were groups we set up on the Commonwealth of Learning; Review of the Commonwealth Scholarship Plan, and latterly a very important group which produced a big report on human resource development. I didn’t really stay to see the follow up which came, in Stephen’s time as Director. This one, “Foundation for the Future”, was looking at integrated human resource development.
I should have said, and I will stop in 15 seconds, is that of course in this context education was part of the Human Resource Development Group (HRDG) with Health, Youth, Gender, Fellowships and Training Programme of CFTC and the Management Development Programme. We used to have joint programmes. We talked earlier about ‘silos’. Some of our HRDG budgets had to go to programmes which linked different functional sections of the Secretariat and I think it is one of the areas where the Secretariat did extremely good work and it was a tragedy that just when this report had been issued, that for some reason and someone here may remember why, the Human Resource Development Group was taken to bits. Moni Malhoutra had been the champion of it and he was retiring at the time. Perhaps that was why the opportunity was taken to disband it but it was a very useful innovation while it lasted. Apologies, Chair.
VS: Not at all. Thank you very much. An extremely lucid account of the complications of what you were dealing with. On the last point, not guilty! Before my time. Stephen?
SMA: Good afternoon, everybody. I was director of the Human Resource Development Division (HRDD) from 1995-2001. I’ve been asked particularly to speak about Health now, because Sir Kenneth Stuart, unfortunately, was taken ill a couple of days ago and couldn’t come. Rather than play a respondent’s role, I’ve had to change my thinking on what I was going to say rather quickly. I thought it would be important to preface my remarks about the Health Department with a few general comments about the external environment in which we were all operating in the 1990s, the second half of the 1990s particularly. This was a period when the world of international development was changing very radically indeed, very fundamentally and there are two particularly key aspects that I think are worth mentioning. First of all, it was the era of so-called donor fatigue. I say ‘so-called’ because a lot of that was actually donor impoverishment due to the financial crises of the end of the 1980s. The impact obviously was on the Secretariat as well as every other aspect of development and one of the consequences was the major reorganisation and downsizing in 1993 at the end of Peter’s period and just before I came in. That was still very much indeed in the air when I took over the new division which brought together Health and Education.
Secondly, there had been, and was still going on, a whole series of world conferences on aspects of development beginning in 1978 with the Alma Ata Conference which established primary healthcare and the principles of health for all and then the Jomtien Conference on Education for All in 1990, a whole series of conferences during the 1990s on sustainable development, on women and development, on population development and of course the high point of all of that in 2000 when the main conclusions of all those conferences were summarised and reflected in the Millennium Development Summit at the UN in September 2000 which led to the Millennium Development Goals with their 2015 objectives. So, there was a very profound change going on and what was happening as a result of all of those reflections on the nature of development was that a consensus was building around a couple of key ideas. One key idea that’s been already mentioned earlier this afternoon was to do with projects and it was a growing feeling in many quarters that projects were dead as a means of carrying out international development, a growing consensus around the idea that you had to approach development at the systems-level. You had to go beyond individual training, individual capacity-building and actually engage in an entire system; whole sectors and whole of government and for those governments to be in the driving seats themselves and not merely the passive recipients of aid from outside.
There was a growing recognition of the great deal of fragmentation that existed in the world of development, more and more agencies and specialised functions coming into the field, competing with one another for resources and competing for the attention of the beneficiary government. So much so that, by the time of 2005, there was a global effort to sort that out through a conference in Paris and the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness which was all about getting more coherence, collaboration, systems-wide approaches and putting governments in the driving seat. So, that was the process under way and I think it’s interesting to look at the extent to which the Secretariat was in tune with what was happening, or was the victim of it, or was actually leading the way. The answer is that that was very patchy indeed. Peter has referred to one important aspect of the time; namely the Education Department was source of the Report ‘Foundation for the Future’, based on the world of an expert committee led by Dr Sam Pitroda of India, but actually the thinking came very much from Education Department people recognising this need to integrate Human Resource Development within broader and systemic programmes. As Peter has said, we saw the dissolution of the Human Development Group and its replacement by a more fragmented structure so that when I took over the division, there were two separate departments of Health and Education and a third element which was supposed to be an element to implement the results of that Report under my supervision. All three things were being actioned quite independently at the time and my overall function, in part, was to try to bring about that integration and a wider integration with other things happening.
At the same time, you had the so-called Technical Assistance Divisions of the CFTC behaving in a totally independent and projectised mode while the professional divisions, as Peter referred to them, HRDD and Gender and Youth Affairs outside of that loop. So, it was a very fragmented approach. Let me talk mainly now about the Health field and then I’d like to come back to a few broad remarks about Human Resource Development. At the time when I joined, the Education Department had been downsized to about six professional staff and the Health Department was much smaller; it had only three professional staff in post when I joined and it was very focused indeed. One of those staff dealt exclusively with issues of drug control and liaised closely with UN programmes on substance abuse. The other two worked on a very limited range of activities, mainly derived in each triennium from the theme and mandate of the Commonwealth Health Ministers’ meetings. Most recently when I arrived they were coming to the end of a programme on Environment and Health and particularly emphasising environmental impact assessments and the need to include health impact assessments within national environment impact assessments.
There were two particularly significant events during 1995 that were to strongly influence the health work of the Secretariat for a number of years to come. The first of those events was that, I found on arrival, a review of the Economic and Social Affairs Programme which was then under DSG Sir Humphrey Maud, had been set in motion and was just about to start. I soon discovered that this review, which was being conducted by a consultant called John Toye from the Institute of Development Studies, was not at all benign for us and was setting about proving that the Health Department was a waste of time and should be eliminated from the Secretariat. We successfully opposed that move in a battle that took several months and during the course of that battle we were forced to re-justify our existence and we did that by very carefully setting and at least ostensibly redefining the modes of working of the Health Department to be advocacy, brokerage and catalytic roles. Over the next several years we worked very intensively to activate and demonstrate that approach and I believe that’s remained at the core of the Department’s work ever since.
I’ll mention just two or three different kinds of approaches shortly. The second event in 1995 which had extremely important consequences for the Health Department was the 11th Commonwealth Health Ministers’ Meeting which was held in Cape Town in December of that year. This was, I think, the first Commonwealth Ministerial Meeting that South Africa had hosted after its return to the Commonwealth. The host ministry was determined that this should be very productive and should lead to some very tangible and memorable outcomes. The theme of the meeting was Women and Health and the Secretariat’s Health Department was given a mandate for a new three-year programme in that field. It became evident to the South African minister and officials during the conference that the Health Department had very limited resources indeed with which to deliver the mandated activities and so to help this, they proposed that interested countries should make a voluntary contribution to establish what became called a Technical Support Group for Women and Health within the Health Department. South Africa itself pledged £50,000 a year to support this.
When we got back home there was a huge discussion about whether the Secretariat in principle wanted to accept these kinds of voluntary additional contributions and to cut a long story short that was eventually agreed and during 1996 we were allowed to set up the Technical Support Group and this was a huge shot in the arm for the Health Department, both psychologically coming so soon after the battle over the Toye Report and practically in providing extra resources, more or less doubling the available resources and the available staff power to conduct the work.
So, let me just give some brief examples which illustrate the kinds of work that we were doing and some of the principles that relate to things other people have talked about today. In the advocacy area, within this three-year programme on Women and Health and with the assistance of the Technical Support Group, one of the things we did was to establish an initiative for the collection, publication, dissemination of models of good practice in Women and Health. As we developed our work on Women and Health it soon became very clear to us that what was really fundamental to the field at that time was a shift in perspective from women to gender. The Women’s Affairs Department was undergoing a similar shift of frame at that time and we soon developed a very strong collaboration with WAD, especially in the area of advocating for gender mainstreaming, which was a new idea at the time and the use of gender management systems in the health sector which is something else that WAD was pioneering. We developed a number of joint activities between the two departments, which for much of this period was under the direction of Nancy Spence. I think it’s significant that later, after both I and Nancy had left the two departments, together with Education they were brought together in a subsequent reorganisation to form units in the new Social Transformation Programmes Division.
Nancy and I jointly participated in two UN Expert Group meetings on Gender and Health in 1998 and 2000, bringing the Commonwealth experience and approaches to the global discussions on gender mainstreaming in Health and the gender-dimension of HIV-AIDS, which I’ll return to in a moment. Subsequently, I was invited to, as one of a panel of four people, to present on gender and health at a UN Special Assembly in New York.
So, there were a number of ways in which we were engaging with major international organisations in bringing the Commonwealth perspective and experience into that. In the brokerage and catalytic areas, in 1998 the 12th Commonwealth Health Ministers’ Meeting was held in Barbados and we were given a new mandate for work on Health Systems Reform. The previous decade of structural adjustment had put health systems in many countries under very severe strain and resulted in massive downsizing and loss of capacities. It’s interesting to note how the pendulum has now swung back very strongly the other way on this field with the principle of universal health coverage free at the point of access now becoming the target of countries everywhere and likely to be one of the key principles of the new post-2015 sustainable development goals.
In the 1990s many Commonwealth Health Ministers were struggling to sustain and develop their health systems and one of their very deep concerns was not only the lack of financial resources but also the haemorrhaging of human resources. Skilled health personnel were being lost to migration to richer countries either in their own neighbourhood – for example island-hopping in the Caribbean of nurses and doctors or globally, including movements to countries like the UK, Australia and Canada. At the request of Health Ministers, the Health Department began developing a Commonwealth Code of Practice for international recruitment of health workers and that required a lot of intensive negotiation but the Code of Practice was eventually accepted by Commonwealth Health Ministers at one of their pre-World Health Assembly meetings in May 2003. What’s especially interesting about this is that it was achieved at the time when the WHO was not making progress in this very contentious area, but it became a model for the WHO to follow and eventually the WHO Global Code of Practice on the international recruitment of health personnel was adopted seven years later in 2010.
Finally, on the Health Department, I wouldn’t want to conclude without referencing the subject of HIV-AIDS. The Health Department had a long-standing mandate from CHOGMs to monitor and report on HIV-AIDS and the situation in the Commonwealth. By the late-1990s it was clear that this was becoming a global catastrophe and one with a very large proportion of the global burden of HIV- AIDS being found in the Commonwealth, especially in Africa.
It was clear that this problem should not be seen only as a Health Sector problem, as the determinants of transmission of the disease and the means for limiting and mitigating its impact involved many other sectors including social and economic sectors. The Health Department therefore developed a multi-pronged strategy which included not only issuing a lot of technical and advisory publications on HIV itself and engaging in regular debates in Geneva with ministers prior to the World Health Assemblies, but taking the leadership in establishing a cross-sectoral response within the Secretariat itself, establishing a ComSec Working Group on HIV-AIDS with representatives from most divisions. We also brought this perspective back to heads of government at the 1999 CHOGM in Durban with the result that the Durban CHOGM’s communiqué included a paragraph (paragraph number 55) referring specifically to HIV-AIDS and encouraging a multi-sectoral all-of-government response. We also subsequently played a role catalytically in forming a wider action group including a large number of Commonwealth professional associations and NGOs, which for some years was named Para 55 before changing its name to the Commonwealth AIDS Action Group.
As I’m running short of time, I’ll just skip right to the end now and just return very briefly to the question of HRDD overall, the Human Resource Development Division. One of the things I became very conscious of when I joined the division was the enormous number and range of Commonwealth professional associations and NGOs with whom we had very effective interactions and who were assisting us to carry out our work, many of whom wanted to have closer engagement at the policy level in the Commonwealth and actually be able to interact with ministries and ministers. It was out of that recognition that the idea was born of creation a parallel event at ministers’ meetings that would allow for some interfacing between the unofficial and the official Commonwealths. The first opportunity to test that idea was in Botswana in 1997 at the 13th Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Meeting. We recognised the great sensitivity in the Secretariat to this; there was a lot of diffidence about engaging with the unofficial Commonwealth and a strong feeling that they didn’t want to be responsible for what might turn out to be a disaster. Therefore, one of the first things we did was to look for an external partner who would manage the parallel forum and take responsibility for that and then we would engage in partnership with them. The very effective partner that we found at that time was the British Council.
So, the parallel event in Gaborone was managed by the British Council but we did have quite significant interactions between the two events including some official sessions where there could be direct dialogue. I’m sorry to hear that that has proliferated to the extent where it has become a burden, but I think the idea which also then followed through in subsequent Health Ministers’ Meetings was a very effective way of interfacing civil society and government – part of the mandate that came to us, actually, from the Foundation for the Future. Just one final remark if I can take one more minute, Veronica. Obviously there are lots of references being made to the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work on small states, which is what I think is one of its very important areas. Something that struck me during my period in the Secretariat was that there was another opportunity that was being missed and that was as we looked at things like health systems and the way they were organised in different countries and education systems, I began to see that there are two sorts of government systems across the Commonwealth. The majority are single jurisdictions but about a quarter to a third of the Commonwealth countries – and I think it was about 17/51 or something at that time – were multi-jurisdictional in character. These are countries ranging at one end from very big countries like India down to small states like St Kitts and Nevis, which is bicameral. It included very developed countries, effectively the UK, Canada and Australia to some extent having state as well as federal systems, if you like, and of course many of the least developed countries were being set up in that way. There was an opportunity to understand how government works including in technical areas and social areas like health and education and I tried quite hard to promote that idea in the Secretariat but it was never taken up. I think it’s still a missed opportunity.
VS: Thank you, Stephen, very much. It’s a true and extremely thoughtful and detailed account which leaves me, at any rate, with the impression of how much you can do with really very small resources. Who would like to come in and comment? Yes? Richard Bourne.
RB: [break in sound]… in terms of what has actually been achieved in these two particular sectors. The thing that bothers me is that clearly it’s not got across to governments and those who underwrite the work the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Fund for Technological Cooperation. Historically, I think there has been a story of a relative decline. It was pointed out that for five years there was a Commonwealth Education Liaison Unit working here before the Secretariat was even started. It’s my understanding that James Maraj was an Assistant Secretary-General in the early 70s, solely concerned with education. In about that period, it’s before I joined the old Commonwealth Institute in Kensington but I think the UK government was putting as much money into the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington as it was subscribing to the Commonwealth Secretariat. By the early years of this century, even though some significant things have happened. Peter didn’t mention something I was personally involved in but the Commonwealth Teachers’ Recruitment Protocol parallel to the International Recruitment of Health Workers that Stephen mentioned. This was a very significant piece of work. The Commonwealth of Learning is a significant instrument but somehow this story has not really got across. So, that it becomes possible, seriously, to consider abolishing all this work within the Commonwealth Secretariat, I personally thought that there was a serious bit of backsliding circa 2000 when the one-off Commonwealth Health Ministers’ Meetings, I think the last one took place in New Zealand as a kind of 2-3 day event in 2001 was abolished in favour of these kind of half-day meetings in the wings of the World Health Assembly in Geneva.
There has been a kind of run-down of appearance in the world of this Commonwealth collaboration in fields like Health and Education. I spoke to a member of the Eminent Persons Group who said, “Come on, Richard. Why are we bothering with an Education Department at the Commonwealth Secretariat when the total budget is something like £250,000? Divided by the 54 states of the Commonwealth, what does that really mean? Isn’t it better to pull out of this entirely?” Actually, I think that’s to misunderstand a lot of the roles of educational cooperation and a lot of the possibility but somehow, in spite of the stories that the two of you have been saying, nobody has managed to get this across to governments and I think it’s time for a bit of honesty about the failure, really, to tell the world, that Commonwealth work for education and health and other human resource development issues has been and is significant.
VS: Well, thank you. I think that links somewhat into what I was saying about HIPC too – that the role of the Commonwealth. I don’t quite know why it should be – we’ll have our last session on media and communications – but I think there is a huge gap here. Who else? Sorry, I can’t see your name.
MS: Michael Sinclair. Thank you. I can verify for sure what Peter Williams said about Hogg Robinson and being of Scottish heritage I can appreciate his thoughts on that. I can also verify what Anthony said earlier about the relative ease, so to speak, my word not his, of working within a Commonwealth framework for reasons of similarity of institutions, language and so on as compared with working for UNESCO or ILO, where I had several assignments subsequently. We were very lucky to have these traditions, these commonalities of structure and organisation in the education field and so on. We should use them and if I may dare say so, think of exporting them. For example, not too far from now, Burma, almost certainly, will be a member of the Commonwealth. It’s a very poor country. Their per capita spending over recent years on education has been almost near the bottom of the list. I mention this for reasons of its own sake, also because I have some recently current connections there through personal interests.
A few words about the birth of HRDG within the Secretariat because I happened to be there – my recollection is that it was overwhelmingly an idea from the top. As far as I know, and I wish I had thought to discuss this with people like Peter Snelson, for example, it did not arise significantly from discussion between the Divisions later renamed Programmes of Education, Youth, Women etc. Rather, I think it arose, or if it didn’t arise with it, it got significant impact because of Moni Malhoutra, who I was very saddened to hear earlier today, is not at all well. Just for your information, he pressed it, very strongly and very forcefully. I also recall that at that time there was very little brainstorming about the essence of the idea as distinct from how it should be implemented and so on.
One point that has not been made in this discussion in relation to Human Resource Development and HRDG is the effect on youth as a key component in respect of what did happen, might have happened, should have happened and so on. It would be important not to lose sight of this because there are lots of interesting things happening among youth groups getting organised, partly through social media and continuing disparities of poverty and austerity increases in my country and in Britain and so on.
Finally, one reference. There is a dynamic looking relatively new organisation in Canada. The key words to Google are ‘My Commonwealth’. It’s a youth organisation which I think is a spinoff from the Royal Commonwealth Society of Canada. So, Google “mycommonwealth.org”. Thank you.
VS: Thank you. Would either Peter or Stephen like to respond both to Richard Bourne and to our last speaker?
SMA: First of all, I think your point is very pertinent about the question of small resources for Education and Health and whether that meant they could do anything useful. As you said, this critique is often based on a serious misunderstanding. That was the situation we felt when there was an attempt to close the Health Department in 1995. The accusations levelled against the Health Department at that time was that it was trying to duplicate the work of WHO – a nonsensical idea if you think about three people and £100,000 in operating funds – also, that it was failing to have an impact in its project work. Apart from showing that we did things that were complimentary to, rather than in competition with, WHO, what we really tried to nail on the head was this idea that we operated in a project mode when in fact we had always done something different. But in order to give the Secretariat the sense that something had been achieved, I said we ‘ostensibly’ redefined our activities as being advocacy, brokerage and catalytic roles. That was my analysis of what we were really about anyway, but we said, “This is what we will do for the future.”
We set about labelling everything in that way to make it quite clear that this wasn’t what WHO was doing or anybody else at the time. The same is true of Education. Maybe it had in the distant past been involved in education projects in developing countries but certainly by the time I was there we were really engaging in much broader systems-wide efforts to create tools, whether it was for the training of teachers or policy instruments and so on. These were things that countries found very difficult to get advice on from independent sources. There was a huge distrust in that period of time of major institutions like the World Bank, which had forced structural adjustment programmes down the throats of poor countries. The Secretariat was trusted and respected as a source of independent advice.
So, just briefly on the question on youth; the Youth Programme was really an autonomous activity and I think the person speaking earlier today who worked with the Youth Programme has now gone, which is a pity. During the period I was there, I found trying to work with them was extremely difficult. They had separate mandates from ministers but also separately voted money from countries and they guarded their autonomy very jealously. It was actually therefore very difficult to collaborate with them.
VS: Even the DSG found that difficult. Thank you, Peter.
PW: Two things, yes. On Richard’s point: I think we may have not been very good at self-promotion. I think I left nearly 20 years ago. I think governments were still pretty well on-side now and I think the Commonwealth of Learning particularly has done a very good job in attracting the enthusiasm and support of governments but one problem in education is and we found ourselves, I mean I’ve become a civil society operator now. I mean, the Secretariat centrally, hasn’t done a particularly good job. I’ve been secretary of a consortium of Commonwealth organisations and these two publications which there are some copies of on the chair there, were produced by civil society, not by the Secretariat, just showing what a wealth of infrastructure there is in education. The education sector, although there was a lot of Commonwealth infrastructure, 10-15 civil society organisations and Secretariat, Commonwealth of Learning, Commonwealth Education Trust. The notion of working together, not centralising the programmes but sort of consulting and trying to achieve some common objectives is not very well developed and we keep trying to make it happen.
On Youth, it is curious. Youth spend most of their time either in Education or preoccupied with Education. I think things are improving actually. Those of us in civil society have done quite a lot of work recently with the Youth Affairs Division here. They now run a Youth Forum, that’s one of the four, at the Commonwealth Ministers’ Conference. The New Commonwealth Students’ Association, which they have just shepherded into existence, is extremely interested in linking up with people in the education sector. So, I think things may get better.
VS: Thank you. Who else? Yes please, Lucy Steward.
LS: Thank you very much. Like a true Trinidadian, I crashed your party. Thanks for inviting me. I was very fortunate to work with both Peter and Stephen during the period 1994-1998. Just a few comments, I know we have mentioned the Commonwealth of Learning as a success story, and it is. The whole business about the viability or the relevance of the Education Department, to me, started when the Commonwealth of Learning was established. Instead of fostering a collaborative working relationship, we ended up, to me, coming from a staff perspective now, coming more in competition with each other. For very personal reasons that sat very uneasily with me as my husband, sitting at the back, was a member of staff at the Commonwealth of Learning at the time and I was a liaison in the division with the Commonwealth of Learning. I think people started to question then that we had the Commonwealth of Learning getting separate funding and we have the Commonwealth Secretariat Education Department with very little funding and there was a concern even then about the relevance of it. I was really surprised when I was alerted by Peter about the move to disband the department altogether.
While I was there, we never really had much funding but as Peter and Stephen said, we had the opportunity to provide a lot of thinking that went into policy and programmes. One of the successes, I think, was our work in small states. The pioneering work that was done in education in small states starting with Stephan Packer who I replaced and then it went on after I left. That was very pioneering work and it’s still quoted around the Commonwealth even though we don’t advertise what we do, the whole publication on multifunctional administrator education systems in small states and so on. I remember UNESCO, at the time, had a desk for small states and it was one person. We had no funding but we wanted to do something on the financing of tertiary education systems in small states. UNESCO had the money. We had the expertise and we collaborated with them and I remember the person at that desk in UNESCO saying it was the first time he had participated in something, in an activity, that had such a specific outcome where we were able to make some impact on the kinds of discussions about how tertiary education is to be financed in small states.
I’m stationed in Barbados now. Barbados is one of the countries that have said that education at all levels will be free. So, education at the tertiary level is free and the university is in a serious position right now, trying to find funds to pay staff because it is something that probably cannot be sustained. I think that the work in small states is something that really should continue, if I may suggest. I fear that the work that was done recently by Bray, Packer and Crossley, summarising what was done in small states seems as though it was putting it to bed. That was how it came over to me, that here are all the things we had done in small states. “It’s summarised now and it’s there. Let’s move on,” whereas I think it’s continuing. Small states will always have unique problems and I think that the Secretariat has that capacity to provide the thinking that could go into informing policies that will affect Education, Health and HRD in general. The lack of funds is something that we experienced a lot. I know about the pocket states. We don’t hold it against Peter or Stephen but the thing is by saving it that way, we were able to have money to do some of the work that we were supposed to do. We had to use some very creative ways and I remember in the case of the ADEA Work, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa. We had no money to contribute towards that, but we participated fully in it in the area of non-formal education because CIDA provided the funding but they did not have the expertise available.
So, we used their funding, provided the expertise and that was an example of the kind of cooperation and the creative way we had to obtain funding in order to carry out the work. In fact it went so far that in my last activity in the Secretariat was to establish the Association of Commonwealth Examination and Accreditation Boards. The launch of that took place in New Zealand. We got about 50 participants at that meeting and when I got back to the Secretariat, at the request of Sir Humphrey, I had to write to say how I was able to get this funding because it came from bits and pieces from all over the place. That took effort and it took away from some of the time we could have spent much, much better in terms of conceptualising our programmes and so on. Without doing that, we couldn’t really get to the countries.
In terms of youth, just one comment. I think every time we talk about youth at a forum like this, we are talking about the youth who are preparing to take our places, be in government, in parliament or wherever. I think that more has to be done to reach the youth at risk. That is not something that is easily done and it’s something that I think could probably be achieved by working with the young people themselves and probably with the NGOs who know how to reach these youths much better than we who sit around a table can.
VS: Thank you. Would you like to say something?
SMA: Maybe, I’d just like to comment on one thing out of the many important things that Lucy raised – and that’s the Commonwealth of Learning. I think it was the case when I arrived that there were very fragmented views in the Secretariat about the relationship and a lot of anxiety on the other side. COL, after a few years of operation, had suddenly hit a very bad patch. All the initial money had run out and it was getting into dire financial straits. James Maraj had recently been replaced by Raj Dhanarajan as the President of COL. I saw as one of my roles – picked up very quickly from Education staff, including Lucy’s very effective briefings – that it was our responsibility to try and help COL to survive. We worked very hard at that; and one of the reasons for deciding to choose the theme of ‘education and technology’ for the next Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Meeting in Botswana was to provide a platform for COL to show what it could do. At the same time, this provided the opportunity to resolve another part of the tension, which was to clarify that there was a role for the Secretariat more broadly, beyond anything that COL was able to achieve through distance-learning approaches – and that is to do with policies. That meeting in Botswana in 1997 was the first time Education Ministers sat down and began a regular process of pledges for COL, which I think has been the mechanism that’s ensured its continuing survival.
SMO: Thank you, Veronica. One of the things that we’ve done today, I think, is in looking at the past, we’ve also tried to look at the present and draw conclusions from what we’ve learnt from the past. I want to do that in terms of the current difficulties that the Education and Health functions face and what might be the future. We did hear this morning of the pressure from officials – there was a greater pressure from officials that had developed over time to, as it were, to micro-manage the Secretariat and obviously to attempt to push the Secretariat into the image of all the other international organisations they might have to deal with, with the same kind of checklist that they might have to administer in terms of other organisations. We’ve heard time and time again that the Commonwealth may not be susceptible of this kind of definition but nonetheless it is an unrelenting pressure from officials. Then I think that Heads of Government, every now and then, move in the opposite direction because there will be at a Heads of Government Meeting where an issue will come up, whether it’s HIV-Aids or something’ where a Head will say that “The Commonwealth has to speak. The Commonwealth has to act.” And all of a sudden the specific area of concern will be pushed into the limelight and the remorseless advance of officials will be checked for a while.
I think it’s a systemic issue in a way, a real problem. In a way, if the Commonwealth follows the path of being told that it has to keep chasing this sometimes illusory goal of comparative advantage, it will end up doing nothing and losing its global reach in that respect. We’ve heard from two directors, both of whom were strong directors and who were able to fight their corner to engage at the highest level with governments, and with international organisations, to raise funds independently and so on. Peter very politely was talking about the present situation. I’ve heard him be slightly more robust in his comments about what obtains at the present. I think we have to face the reality that, for example, there have been some pretty big pots of money in various funds, i.e. for education or for other things, which should have come the Secretariat’s way but haven’t – they’ve gone elsewhere. There have been people who have said, “Over my dead body will this go to the Secretariat.”
I’ve certainly talked to civil society people in both the health and the education sectors and they’re not, today, entirely complimentary about what they see as the core functions the Secretariat is providing to these ministerial meetings. So, my question, really, to Peter and Stephen is to be a bit more upfront with us about this issue because I know that if Peter finds himself in the Education Ministers’ Meeting and having to chip in with communique drafting or whatever it might be. That’s not really illustrating that the technical expertise is there as it should be. I wonder if both could comment on what the source of the problem is and where we have gone wrong – if we have gone wrong – and how it needs to be put right?
VS: Thank you. That’s a challenge. Shall we do it chronologically again? Peter, then Stephen.
PW: Well, that is indeed a huge challenge. I mean, I think many agencies would be prepared to use the Secretariat if they had confidence in it and in fact, I think one of the posts at the moment in the Education Department is provided, but this is historical really, by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa where we pioneered 25 years ago the idea that teachers were crucial to education development and that because of the work we had been doing on teacher management and records in developing countries and on training of head teachers, were asked to convene the Working Group for this AEDA body on the teaching profession. One staff member here now is still supported for through that agency outside. There must be opportunities, as you say, to get bilateral and multilateral money fed through the Secretariat if one is working on the right agenda. The problem is that some of the agenda that the Secretariat should, in my opinion, be working on are not necessarily the ones that are terribly fundable at the moment.
To me, it’s rather a tragedy that higher education and support for universities, which have got into a very bad state in many countries, has been abandoned. The Secretariat has followed the Education for All agenda, which is an important one of basic education for everybody. It’s difficult in a sense because if you take 35-40 members of the Commonwealth countries, they have actually achieved basic education, nearly all of the small states have. It’s just a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that haven’t, but they’re very populous countries so we do, in the Commonwealth, account for a lot of the education deficit. That is one issue. I think the Commonwealth has a huge comparative advantage in this linkage. This year is of course the centenary of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and there are all kinds of new initiatives underway. About 15 years ago, the Higher Education Unit in Education was disbanded and we’ve never got back into it and we almost did. I think most people feel that you have to take a holistic approach to education development, linking together the levels.
There’s another thing that I think is going to be really important. I mentioned it earlier. It’s this business of privatisation and marketisation of education and I think just like we were talking about, the Technical Assistance Group in the past, in John Syson and Mike Faber’s time in helping countries to negotiate. They would do the negotiation but you would give them technical support in doing it with big players, whether it’s the World Bank, IMF or whether it’s De Beers, Shell or BP. I think developing countries would really appreciate knowing how to deal with Intel and Pearson’s and other people who have open designs on controlling access to information, to education and technology. This is controversial. We’ll find that the UK government and maybe the Canadian/Australian governments won’t be very keen on the Commonwealth getting into this area but it’s the same kind of issue that Sonny Ramphal warmed to on student mobility. We didn’t really get anywhere but the spin-offs of the engagement were really rather fruitful.
I won’t speak again after this because we’re running out of time but I would just like to, we haven’t discussed today the internal organisations of the Secretariat and probably we weren’t supposed to but we probably should have another seminar on it. I’ve just read my handing-over note to the Secretary-General when I left and there is a sentence saying, “The Secretariat has the weakest administration of any organisation that I’ve ever worked for. It’s inefficient, poorly-informed, cavalier in its treatment of staff and is generally non-consultative.”
VS: Stephen, I think the last word falls to you.
SMA: Thank you. Let me say, to begin with, in answering your challenge, that I’m not necessarily optimistic of the future of Health or indeed Education but let me just speak about Health now, as Peter said something about Education in the Secretariat. I think what’s fundamental to the Health area is this growing recognition that happened during the 1990s, that health is not simply a product of development that you can wait for, that actually health is driver of and a determinant of development. That idea has become very thoroughly accepted in most development quarters. So, for example, the UNDP’s Human Development Reports beginning in 1990 with the creation of the Human Development Index puts health at the centre of any measure of development for that reason.
Perhaps even more influentially, the World Bank’s World Development Report in 1993, which was entitled, “Investing in Health,” was built on that notion that you should get health right first as one of the determinants of development. I think the side of the Secretariat that controls resources and controls priorities has been extremely slow to recognise that in spite of us shouting about that quite loudly, certainly during the period when I was here. One of the more interesting trends in the last few years has been the emergence of Health Diplomacy and it’s now become recognised that international diplomats dealing in political matters need to be educated in health and in health diplomacy because of issues such as SARS and the movement of infectious diseases and pathogenic organisms and contaminated food from around the world, amongst other things. So, it’s becoming more accepted that the training of the modern political diplomat needs to include an understanding of health and maybe that will be one of the factors that changes.
Certainly, the traditional source of staff in those aspects of the Secretariat that deal with the major decisions has tended to be in classical political and diplomatic areas and classical economic areas and they’ve not been very well educated in those [health] things and are very resistant to change. That’s been compounded by the fact that, as I think was referred to earlier, there is a disconnection between the countries that are the major funders of the CFTC and therefore in one way or another, tend to have a controlling influence over how that money is spent, and the voices that come from things like ministers meetings where ministers of health are generally very clear that they would like the Secretariat to go on doing work in these areas and have a very clear agenda that they are able to give to us. It is very unfortunate that the triennial Health Ministers’ Meetings have been discontinued. The one-day meetings in Geneva on the eve of the World Health Assembly have never been a real substitute for that. Now they’re being cut back to half a day and that would be a tragedy because what they can deal with is extremely limited.
If I could just end with one story, then I’ll give up the ghost on this. When we used to have the one-day ministers’ meetings, one of the traditions for many years has been that the Directory General of the WHO comes to the afternoon session of that pre-WHA, the meeting of Commonwealth Health Ministers on the Sunday, and engages with Commonwealth Health Ministers in this private discussion. I think it was in 1998 when Gro Harlem Brundtland had just become the new Directory General of WHO. She came and what she did was just to give a preview of her opening speech for the World Health Assembly which she intended to deliver the next day. One of the main messages in that speech was that she had just come back from negotiations with a whole group of multinational pharmaceutical companies on lowering the price on HIV drugs. She was very proud of this and was almost boasting of it in the way it was presented to health ministers, obviously expecting a pat on the back from the Commonwealth. It was a matter of deep concern to the Commonwealth, but what she got, actually, was savaged by a large number of Commonwealth Health Ministers, especially those from Africa who said, “How dare you engage in such discussions without involving us and without discussing with us beforehand what you’re doing.” This was a complete disaster for her but she got the lesson because she changed her opening speech for the next day quite radically.
We thought at the time that it would be the last time we ever saw the Director-General at one of our meetings, but on the contrary, she found that so useful and so important that she made a point of coming, and subsequent Director-Generals did always come every year and have a kind of preview of their speech and use it as a lightning rod to pick up any serious discontent with what was virtually a third of the WHO’s membership. It’s a great pity that that will be lost in the reorganisation that’s now going on.
VS: Well, a great thanks to both of our speakers for two very wide-ranging accounts of their work. May I just say – I meant to say earlier – I’m very glad that Stephen mentioned the work done by Nancy Spence and the Gender Division because that was important and we haven’t touched on that today, but I’m glad that it has had a mention. Thanks to everybody who has come to listen and intervene. I think we draw to a close in a timely fashion. Thank you.
[End of Session]