16 April, 2018

Why the Commonwealth can mean more than medals

CEO Blog Member of Desert Joy voting in a Fairtrade coop ballot
by Molly Harriss Olson

Every four years, Australians are reminded of that remnant of British imperialism, the Commonwealth. And every four years, we ask ourselves the same question: is the Commonwealth really relevant?

Beyond the occasional royal tour or medal-winning moment at the Commonwealth Games, is there an opportunity for us to rethink this collection of countries, and to create a new model for trade based on shared values, rather than shared history?
Next week, as the curtains close on the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the leaders of 52 nations will gather in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM.

These leaders represent 2.4 billion people, or a third of the global population. They preside over some of the world’s fastest growing economies and are building some of the world’s emerging megacities from New Delhi to Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur to Kolkata, Cape Town to Chennai. 

While just 16 of the 52 member countries retain the Queen as head of state, trade between Commonwealth countries is expected to surpass $16 billion by 2020.

Sadly, increased trade and growth does not necessarily lead to shared prosperity. Too many people in the Commonwealth are paid exploitatively-low wages, and modern slavery and child labour remain the reality in many supply chains, from food to fashion.

The theme of CHOGM’s summit this year, ‘towards a common future’ underscores prosperity, fairness, sustainability and security. A new agenda – one built on fairness and shared value – can support the Commonwealth’s vision.

Fairtrade is active in 29 Commonwealth countries and supports more than 1.6 million smallholder farmers and agricultural workers. Some of the world’s largest consumer markets for Fairtrade are also Commonwealth nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and of course Australia.

Fairtrade, and other ethical trade initiatives, can help the Commonwealth address inequalities and unlock greater opportunities for developing countries to build sustainable economies.

Just one example of Fairtrade in action is found in Papua New Guinea, where the Highlands Organic Agriculture Cooperative, or HOAC, has improved the lives of 60,000 people.

By working with Fairtrade, this collective of more than 2,600 coffee growers has increased its capacity to produce large amounts of high quality coffee. Investment in tools and training have enhanced productivity, and farmers have gained transferrable skills. 

The benefits of Fairtrade reach far beyond the coffee gardens. HOAC, through the Fairtrade Premium, recently funded a water supply project for the local community worth more than $65,000. Schools have been constructed, female quotas have improved the lives of women, and practical programs are supporting long-term climate resilience. 

This is just one story of transformation. Our challenge is to replicate it throughout the Commonwealth. 

How do we do this?

Firstly, by promoting women’s economic empowerment. Action is needed to build the leadership skills of women and girls, to address laws and practices that restrict land and asset ownership, and access to finance, and to challenge discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Some Commonwealth countries are taking a lead, such as Canada, which is directly addressing the empowerment of women and girls through an international assistance policy.

Secondly, the Commonwealth can combat modern slavery by bringing forward appropriate laws and other policy initiatives to combat modern slavery and other human rights abuses in supply chains. Australia’s embryonic legislation and the UK’s firmly-established Modern Slavery Act are good starting points.

Commonwealth governments have a raft of policy levers at their disposal – from making a shared commitment to living wages to adopting trade policies consistent with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

But perhaps the most powerful action Commonwealth leaders can take is to back initiatives like Fairtrade, which offers a better deal for farmers and workers, and enables consumers and businesses to make ethical choices. 

Fairtrade is making a real difference in the lives of some of the world’s most marginalised people, but much more remains to be done. By unlocking the power of trade, the Commonwealth can end poverty and human rights abuses, address structural inequalities, and realise the true meaning of a ‘common wealth’. 

This would leave a legacy far greater than any gold medal.

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