The People’s Commonwealth

Commonwealth Foundation Director Vijay Krishnarayan talks to Elizabeth Stewart about the organisation’s new focus.

From its inception, the Commonwealth recognised that it was an organisation with civil society at its heart. “The many professional networks were seen as vital to creating the institutional capacity of the newly-independent states,” explains Krishnarayan.

So in 1966 the Commonwealth Foundation was created, an inter-governmental organisation, working alongside the Commonwealth Secretariat to promote Commonwealth values through civil society.

As the scope of NGOs grew exponentially, so the Foundation’s remit expanded to support local in-country NGOs – whether they were associated with Commonwealth or not – to help deliver Commonwealth programmes. The Anti-Apartheid movement, for instance, relied heavily on the actions of civil society – from unions, to cultural groups and churches.

As the millennium dawned, the Foundation realised it could use its broad knowledge of Commonwealth institutional structures, common to many member states, to build capacity in civil society groups to help them engage more effectively with governments.

Renew and refocus

Coming up to the present, the Commonwealth recently underwent an intense period of self-examination, culminating in the Commonwealth Charter – and once again, civil society has been placed at the heart of the organisation, says Krishnarayan.

“Chapter 16 of the Charter refers to the importance of civil society as a partner in development and the advancement of Commonwealth principles and values.”

But which values take priority is a perennial Commonwealth debate. “We wanted to avoid the debate becoming polarised between those who want to emphasise democracy, governance and human rights and those that say the emphasis should lie behind human development and the social agenda,” explains Krishnarayan.

“So we came up with the narrative of ‘participatory governance for development’ to make the point that good governance and development are indivisible. If you want good development outcomes, people need to be involved.”

The Foundation then scrutinised the way it operates in order to have maximum impact with the small resources at its disposal (it has a budget of £3.7 million and a staff of 20).

At the heart of how the Commonwealth Foundation operates is through effective local partnerships and being a broker between state and non-state.

The Foundation does that in four ways: through culture and creative expression; by building the capacity of civil society organisations to engage with each other at a regional level and develop their skills in relation to policy and advocacy; encouraging interaction between civil society and governments; and lastly by becoming a knowledge hub where civil society groups can share experiences and best practice.

This was in evidence at the Commonwealth People’s Forum at the 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka. “Because of the controversy surrounding the summit, we consulted the Sri Lankan civil society groups to see if we should attend. They were eager for us come and we got a good declaration on the post-2015 development agenda which was welcomed at the heads of government dialogue. In that way we were able to execute our mandate of enabling dialogue between state and non-state.”

Promoting culture

Also falling under the remit of the Commonwealth Foundation is promoting cultural expression. Whereas in the past this focused on ‘high art’, the Foundation’s programmes – such as the Commonwealth Short Story Prize or Commonwealth Shorts, a capacity building scheme to give writers or directors the opportunity to make films on issues that concern them – are now much more accessible.

The 46-member organisation disburses £1 million in grants to NGOs – based purely on what will deliver the best outcomes and impact, says Krishnarayan. However, support for projects tends to focus on three cross-cutting themes: gender equality, environmental sustainability and cultural respect and understanding. “Anything we do is shot through with those strands,” he says.

Ultimately, membership of the Commonwealth Foundation is voluntary so to continue its work, it has to demonstrate its relevance. “This is a results-based business and no multilateral organisation has a divine right to exist,” he concludes.