Today, October 16th is Blog Action Day. Running since 2007, this year’s theme is inequality. Below we look at the past and present of inequality in the Commonwealth for governments and citizens. Join the global debate on inequality by blogging yourself or commenting below!
The name of the ‘Common-wealth' suggests from the outset that those within enjoy equality or a mutual stake in its resources. The topic of ‘inequality’ provides an opportunity to examine whether this name truly reflects that assumption. The Commonwealth of Nations is over 60 years old and made up of formal political members and 2.2 billion citizens whom they represent. To understand inequality and equality it is necessary to examine the different experiences of governments and citizens from history to the present.
The roots of the Commonwealth are certainly founded on inequality. The British Empire, from which the Commonwealth emerged, was based on the false premise that Britain was superior to much of the rest of the world and therefore justified in controlling it through an unequal political hierarchy. This was an arrangement that came to be backed by the myth that ‘whites’ were culturally and racially superior to other races and therefore justified in controlling trade, decision making and the use of violence within the Empire. But while many critics see the Commonwealth as nothing more than an Imperial hangover, the entire status of formal political inequality has been reversed. In the modern Commonwealth membership is entirely voluntary and based on the political equality of independent sovereign states rather than the subservience of colonies to the Empire. This means that member governments, whether realms, former colonies or new members with no historical ties to the British Empire, have equal decision making rights, equal membership of committees and councils and equal access to the good offices and technical assistance offered by the Commonwealth Secretariat. Political equality is particularly important to smaller members and island states, which often find the Commonwealth a more conducive forum in which to raise their issues and voice for collective advocacy on the wider global stage. This is a far cry from the injustices of Empire.
So is inequality a thing of the past for the Commonwealth? The answer is sadly, no. While member states experience formal political equality in the Commonwealth, inequalities of outcome and opportunity criss-cross the Commonwealth along numerous fault lines, reflecting global realities. The Commonwealth is a formal association of states which is unequal in terms of natural resource wealth, economic strength, population size, military and soft power. But the Commonwealth is also a collection of people – the ‘People’s Commonwealth’. Inequality of opportunity can be found amongst citizens reinforced by discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, class, caste, race, sexuality and gender identity. This feeds into inequality of outcome with the most glaring inequality presenting itself between the wealth of the very rich and the poor. Poverty can be found in every country in the Commonwealth and those with huge amounts of wealth can often be found close by. The formal inequality of empire is long gone but its legacy remains, and social and economic inequality amongst citizens is still very present.
The Commonwealth aspires to be a values-led organisation. These values are set out in the Commonwealth Charter, with ideals of social justice, human rights and development at the centre. The Commonwealth Charter, endorsed by the members and signed by the Head of the Commonwealth, should be used to hold governments to account. Article II is opposed to discrimination on many grounds, Article IV promotes tolerance, understanding and religious freedom, Article IX commits members to remove wide economic disparities and eradicate poverty while Article XII recognises the importance of Gender Equality. These articles, which tackle the causes and manifestations of inequality, serve to remind governments of the need to push for urgent action on inequality. But what is there in terms of action? During the Apartheid era the Commonwealth assumed global leadership and took action, rallying against racial inequality in South Africa. Governments showed that immoral racial inequality could not be tolerated and showed the Commonwealth at its best. The challenge now is for the Commonwealth, as an inter-governmental organisation, to build consensus and galvanise action for social justice and equality. This will honour the aspirations set out in the Charter and, with the help of their citizens, extend equality to people across the Commonwealth.
The negotiations of the post-2015 development agenda present an opportunity to champion the equality agenda. On poverty citizens must push their governments to reduce the damaging effects of extreme economic inequality. On climate change those countries most affected by it must be given an equal place in decision making to those countries which contribute to it the most. On political equality the Commonwealth must continue its historic action on racial inequality and push for the equal rights of all its citizens. The Commonwealth has shown in the past that it can use membership equality to take action on the inequality of its citizens, but with inequalities of many kinds so pervasive across the Commonwealth it still has a lot of work to do.