Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the Ramphal Institute


The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) needs to do more to stress the value of the Commonwealth, recognising that between a quarter and a third of the UN membership belongs to this association, and they include countries of growing political and economic importance; it should publish its aims for UK participation in Commonwealth affairs, to be reviewed at intervals by the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The development of their nations and peoples is a key concern for the majority of Commonwealth governments, including fast-growing economies such as India. This requires a joined-up and longer-term approach to development issues by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS).

Given the small resources available to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Secretary-General should be encouraged to focus on a few key international issues – such as the current world economic slow-down, climate change, international migration , governance and democracy – and outsource other important issues where the Commonwealth can add value to authoritative Commonwealth partners (eg the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association. )

The FCO should value and strengthen the role of the Commonwealth in providing intellectual leadership on international issues, utilising its diversity which is a preventative against groupthink; in this respect the work of the 2009–2011 Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development, which comprised two former heads of government, a runner-up in the 1999 election for the Commonwealth Secretary-General, two prominent academics and two leading civil society persons, is a useful example.

The FCO should build on the valuable partnership established in 2011 when Lord Howell assured the Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development of UK Government support in the run-up to the Perth CHOGM. The Ramphal Institute’s high-level access, and range of international contacts, offers a significant asset to Britain’s international outreach.

The FCO and other government departments should put more effort into coordinating positions with a wider range of Commonwealth partners in Commonwealth and international negotiations, recognising that even where a common approach is unlikely the clarification of difference can be helpful.

Ramphal Institute: What it is

The Ramphal Institute was founded as the Ramphal Centre for Commonwealth Policy Studies in 2007 and formally launched in Marlborough House in 2008, at an 80th birthday celebration for Sir Shridath Ramphal (Secretary-General, 1975–1990). Trustees decided in December 2011 to rename the organisation as the Ramphal Institute. In its short life it has promoted the Ramphal Comission on Migration and Development (2009–2011) chaired by Mr P J Patterson, lately Prime Minister of Jamaica, which supervised the publication of three reports (see It has also carried out a major research project with the Food and Agriculture Organisation on the role of overseas diaspora communities in supporting agricultural modernisation in nine countries; this was in conjunction with the Commonwealth Foundation and International Migration Institute, Oxford. It is currently exploring a Commission-style exercise on climate change adaptation, and negotiating a further project with the FAO.

The Institute has ten trustees with Mrs Patsy Robertson, a former Director of Information in the Commonwealth Secretariat as Chair and Richard Bourne, first Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, as Secretary. Our 22 Patrons include the former Heads of Government of Botswana, Cyprus, Jamaica, Mozambique and Singapore and other prominent Commonwealth personalities, among them Lord Patten and Glenys Kinnock in the UK.

Mrs Robertson and Mr Bourne would be pleased to give oral evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

What is the future of the Commonwealth and what reforms are needed if the Commonwealth is to be successful?

1. The Ramphal Institute, London (formerly the Ramphal Centre) sees a key value of the multilateral Commonwealth, for most of its governments and peoples, as being to promote their socioeconomic development. The Commonwealth is no longer playing a significant role here. Key donor agencies -- the Department for International Development (UK), the Canadian International Development Agency and AusAid, the Australian government aid agency – have lost confidence in the Commonwealth Secretariat and its associated Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation. Other governments do not look first to the Commonwealth in seeking to build alliances, and in obtaining assistance for their development. If the Commonwealth is to have a stronger sense of ownership in future, it must be seen to struggle for and achieve progress for its poorer citizens around the world.

2. In earlier periods the intergovernmental Commonwealth has balanced the modest, practical “grey matter” interventions of its CFTC technical assistance programme with major beneficial operations on the international scene. This has utilised the convening power of an association which brings together countries from North and South, at differing stages of development, of varied sizes and in different continents. The important symbolism of its crusade against racism in southern Africa was backed up by the establishment of seventeen expert groups between 1975 and 1990 which examined issues such as promoting successful negotiations for the Law of the Sea (originally put forward by Malta).

3. Other Commonwealth initiatives have included: advocating debt relief for the poorest countries which resulted in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries agreement in the 1990s (a Commonwealth crusade initiated by an Expert Group chaired by Lord Lever in 1984, followed up by Commonwealth Finance Ministers in Trinidad in 1990 when John Major was UK Chancellor of the Exchequer); focusing on the vulnerability of small states, and the risk of unfair discrimination against their financial services by the OECD which led to a joint World Bank-Commonwealth Secretariat report in 2000; pioneering work on the salience of climate change, in 1989, and youth unemployment. These achievements should inspire a much more proactive approach in the 21st century.

4. More recently the impact of the intergovernmental Commonwealth has been fitful. For instance, the Heads’ meeting at Port of Spain in 2009, just prior to the Copenhagen climate change conference, produced an important proposal for a climate mitigation fund which was adopted. But no senior Secretariat figure went to Copenhagen to assist Commonwealth delegations in the subsequent talks. The recent Heads’ meeting in Perth had little to say about the world’s economic crisis, although five of its governments were due to attend the G20 meeting in Cannes only a few days later. There was little expectation of follow-up for the statement on Food Security at Perth, and the Commonwealth Secretariat had had no capacity to follow through with a leaders’ commitment in 2009 demanding urgent action to stop the depletion of marine fish stocks.

5. Unfortunately the Commonwealth Secretariat has only modest capacity: a rotation policy among its staff risks losing good people after only three years; small states’ issues, regarded as a Commonwealth speciality, only has one dedicated professional. Governments often prefer to work unilaterally instead of building cooperative Commonwealth initiatives. When Gordon Brown, then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, launched the Commonwealth Education Fund, a UK-based Commonwealth campaign to abolish school fees for basic education in 2002 reversing a 1990s donor strategy which emphasised “cost recovery” in social services – he failed to consult the Commonwealth Secretariat or any other organisation such as the Commonwealth Education Committee.

6. Will the Eminent Persons Group report of 2011 to Commonwealth Heads, if adopted in full, make a difference?

A total of 38 out of the 106 recommendations are devoted to “Development and Functional Cooperation” and related “Advocacy and Consensus Building.” The crucial one, from a development viewpoint, is Recommendation 21:

“The Secretary-General should develop a clear strategy, marked by identified priorities, to maximise the Commonwealth’s contribution to the achievement of the development goals of its member states. Such enhanced development work, informed by Commonwealth values and aspirations, by Commonwealth positions, and with guidance from member governments, should include: (i) advocacy and consensus building on pertinent issues as required; (ii) networking between all member governments for co-operation; and (iii) provision of assistance for institutional development.” Recommendation 22 proposes that there should be changes in the Secretariat’s structure and systems to deliver this vision, and the Commonwealth should be conceived of as “a central knowledge and coordination hub (a Network of Networks).”

7. The Ramphal Institute would go further, recognising that the Commonwealth Secretariat’s capacity is likely to be limited, and would urge that the Secretary-General must play a strategic role in inviting qualified Commonwealth bodies – for example the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Commonwealth Business Council and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum – to carry out specified tasks within this broad mandate, and assist them in mobilising the necessary resources. We would include the Ramphal Institute, itself among such bodies. This is in the light of EPG Recommendation 24, the EPG’s recognition of the significance of international migration for Commonwealth development in the 21st century, and the work of the Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development. This first Commission, chaired by the Hon P J Patterson, lately Prime Minister of Jamaica, oversaw the preparation of three reports in 2010–11 by expert academics from the UK, Jamaica and Australia. EPG Recommendation 24 proposed that the Secretariat continue its collaboration with the Ramphal Institute.

8. From a UK perspective it is worth recording that the Ramphal experience, focused on the Commonwealth, suggests that not all UK government departments have shared the recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office enthusiasm for the Commonwealth, or awareness of its potential. In 2009, when terms of reference for the Ramphal Commission were debated at Warwick University a senior DFID official was a participant and had a hand in devising the second of ten terms of reference: “The Commission will consider brain drain, brain waste and brain circulation and, having regard to the need for pro-poor development, will consider the situation of unskilled migrants, gender issues, and the scope for improving training in destination countries.” Prior to the 2010 election, one of our Patrons, Vince Cable, called on Douglas Alexander, then International Development Secretary, to seek support for the work of the Ramphal Centre. But DFID, also approached by a Ramphal Commissioner from Bangladesh, was unwilling to provide support for the Commission. This may in part have been due to a prior commitment to a much more expensive Foresight Project under the Government Office for Science, which led to the 2011 report, “Migration and Environmental Change.”

9. However the outcome of the Perth CHOGM vindicated the efforts of the Ramphal Commission, with a strong passage in the communiqué on Migration and Development, and recommendations to all member governments to participate in the upcoming Global Forum on Migration and Development in Mauritius, and to take forward the stalled international talks on what can be a divisive issue. The UK government was one of several that had insisted this matter be put on the Perth agenda, and the Ramphal Institute would argue that the practical and political impact of its three reports – “People on the Move: Managing migration in today’s Commonwealth” – is, thanks to the Commonwealth, significantly greater than that of the Foresight exercise.

10. In 1995 the UK Prime Minister, John Major, said of the Commonwealth, “We must use it or lose it.” The Ramphal Institute now believes that the Commonwealth could do much more to promote practical, solution-based approaches to the needs of its developing states, that the UK could cooperate more effectively with its Commonwealth partners in pursuing its international objectives, and that the Foreign Affairs Committee can provide forward-looking advice to UK policy-makers which have lacked clarity in how best to use the several Commonwealth instruments available.

24 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012