Honourable Ministers, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here in Cardiff today on the final day of this sixth Commonwealth Local Government Conference. And I am particularly pleased that the theme for this conference, ‘Energising local economies: partnerships for prosperous communities’, draws on so many elements of the UK’s vision for a Commonwealth of the 21st century.
Some of you may know that I have long been a Commonwealth enthusiast.
The Foreign Secretary highlighted in his Commonwealth speech in Sydney in January that the UK is committed to upgrading its relationship with the Commonwealth. We want to help to reinvigorate and strengthen it, so it can reach its full potential as a beacon for democracy, development and prosperity. Furthermore, we see the Commonwealth network as a key element in British foreign policy as we adjust or position to the new international landscapes and the rise of the great emerging economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Today I want to focus on why the British Government believes that the Commonwealth is such an important international organisation, how your work contributes to this, and how we can work together to revitalise this unique organisation.
Why the Commonwealth is important
The Commonwealth is an extraordinary network of countries. Spanning every continent, embracing all the world’s major faiths, encompassing developed and developing states, and comprising a third of the world’s population, with half of that population under 25 - our future generation.
Its members include many of the fastest growing and technologically advanced economies in the world, strong markets of today and tomorrow. It contributes significantly to international affairs, brokering agreements between African neighbours and calming tensions in fragile states during contested elections. It provides a forum for smaller nations who may feel their voices are lost in larger multilateral structures. It is an organisation not just of governments but of networks such as this one and it’s an organisation with great potential for tackling the global issues of our time. The Commonwealth Local Government Forum is central to all of this.
The role of local government/CLGF
As the Prime Minister noted in his message to you, local democracy- as promoted by the CLGF- is a key component of the Commonwealth core values. I am pleased to note the increasing political recognition within the Commonwealth for local democracy and good governance as the agreement of the Aberdeen Agenda by the Heads of Government in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 shows. By supporting local governments across the Commonwealth the CLGF plays such a valuable role in ensuring that the Commonwealth can uphold its core political values.
The UK has been able to support valuable work in partnership with CLGF, most recently providing study visits to Provincial legislators and Ministers from the four provinces of Pakistan. And through our Department for International Development we have funded Good Practice Schemes in Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Ghana and Jamaica. I hope these programmes can be built on and developed not only for the good of those countries involved, but for the benefit of every country in the Commonwealth in raising standards and promoting good governance across the network.
I would also like to mention the work CLGF is doing with local government in Zimbabwe on local peer reviews to strengthen local democratic structures. This is a vital part of repairing and restoring Zimbabwe’s democratic structures and preparing it for a future when it can return to the Commonwealth family.
I was also delighted to hear about the Young Professionals’ Forum that took place just before the Conference. I had the opportunity to meet with some of the participants this morning. It was an inspiring meeting and I was thoroughly impressed with the eager engagement and ideas that the participants brought to the table. Events and forums like this, in which young people from across the Commonwealth can meet, exchange views, share best practice and build networks that will impact on their adult careers and direction, is one of the many strengths of our Commonwealth network. It is particularly important to support these youth networks given that many member states have young populations, who are often affected disproportionately by social and economic change. I welcome the fact that this conference will be taking into account their insightful recommendations.
As I said earlier, I’m pleased that the theme of this conference, ‘Energising local economies: partnerships for prosperous communities’ has enabled discussions on how to enhance growth at a local level and that you are able to take valuable lessons from Cardiff home with you. At this time of global economic uncertainty the promotion of economic opportunities is imperative to ensuring vibrant and liveable communities. Local government is well-placed to respond to the needs of local communities, and work with a range of other partners to deliver public services and promote economic development.
I welcome the recommendations of the conference, as they illustrate the important enabling role local government plays in local economic development, and in forging and maintaining partnerships with other spheres of government, the private sector and civil society organisations. Central governments must commit to supporting this work, through effective decentralisation, in terms of policy and oversight, helping to open up access to financing mechanisms and local development funds to make local economic development a reality across communities in the Commonwealth. I hope that these recommendations will be taken into account by Heads of Government in Perth in October.
The work I’ve described is what makes the Commonwealth the unique organisation that it is today. But in the ever changing global outlook we must do more to reinvigorate the Commonwealth to help it reach its full potential. The vision for the future should not just be the UK’s vision. The vision must be shared and it must encompass all members who will shape it to ensure it is meeting everyone’s needs.
Many of us are thinking the same. At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago, all governments recognised the need for the Commonwealth to look to the future; to ensure we are an organisation that fully realises its potential on the global stage; that plays to its strengths, upholds its values and works to increase the prosperity of all of its people.
The next Heads of Government meeting in Perth in October will be pivotal. We have a real opportunity to shape the Commonwealth network so it can react, engage and lead on the world stage. Heads will have a chance to consider the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group and to contemplate the findings of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) review. And to discuss the most pressing global challenges we all face, such as climate change
We would like to see a revitalised Commonwealth focussing on its brand strengths of democracy and development, a strengthened CMAG protecting our values, but also offering encouragement to those facing challenges to democratic development. We want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade. We want the Commonwealth to become a leading voice in the global economy, working to liberalise trade, break down barriers for international business, resist protectionism and contribute to the Doha Development Agenda.
The Commonwealth network with its shared principles of democracy, good governance, similar legal systems and a shared language is ideally placed to provide solid foundations for doing business and a platform for trade, investment, development and in turn prosperity for all its members.
In Port of Spain Heads agreed on the need to look carefully at our future, and in Perth Heads will need to take vital decisions, in response to these recommendations, which will shape the role of the Commonwealth, help it to realise its potential, and have more impact in our networked world in the future. Now is the time to utilise this unique network of ours, ensuring our collective voice is heard and heeded in the 21st century. As the Queen said in her 2009 Christmas message, the Commonwealth is “in lots of ways, the face of the future”.