Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
CHRI Home   Contact Us
Volume 12 Number 2
New Delhi, Summer 2005

Small Change Needed - What the Secretariat is
Costing the Commonwealth

Richard Bourne
Head, Commonwealth Policy Unit (CPSU)

The Commonwealth Secretariat, the key international agency which serves all 53 member states, turned forty on 25 June 2005. However, much as the cause is for celebration, its clear that the Secretariat is stuck in a time warp. High time that the finances and the structure of the Commonwealth Secretariat were overhauled, before it completely reduced in real value, resulting in adverse consequences for the work it could do and the values it is meant to represent.

Neither of the two recent reviews of the Commonwealth under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia in 1989-91 or under President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa in 1999-2001 have dared to tackle this. The present structure seems to have been put in place in the mid-sixties, in a pale reflection of the system which paid for the United Nations.

Problems galore…

  • The subscriptions now bear little relation to the growth, or ability to pay, of different member countries. Specifically they distinguish between“developed” and “developing” countries in a way that cannot be justified.
  • Four countries - the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zeland pay nearly 61 per cent of the budget between them, which means that they can often negate proposals which might be attractive to other members.
  • The subscriptions have not kept pace with the changing costs of an international body, so that staffing has dropped from around 420 in 1990 to around 280 in 2005. The total budget in 2003/4 was only £11.4 million.
  • Arrivals such as that of South Africa or departures like Zimbabwe tend to be dealt with in an ad hoc fashion when it comes to the Secretariat subscriptions; these have failed to take into proper account the fact that there has been a net increase of four members in the past 15 years.
  • Membership of the Commonwealth is supposed to equate to that of the payment of subscriptions to all inter-governmental bodies, but fails to do so. South Africa and Bangladesh are among the governments which have chosen not to join the Commonwealth Foundation that supports civil society, arts and professional links and Australia last year also pulled out of the Commonwealth of Learning, the distance teaching service.

Why it matters

The Secretariat hangs on to a definition of a “developed” state which ignores the analysis of the World Development Report which found in 2004, that 13 of the 53 member states were rated as having “high” human and economic development. The implication is that no developing state will ever stop being “developing,” and some would say that the idea that only largely white states are “developed” is grossly racist.

In fact the gross domestic product per head in Singapore in 2004 was $20,886 as compared with $14,872 in New Zealand, and on a purchasing power parity basis Singapore was still ahead. On a purchasing power parity basis India’s gross domestic product (GDP) at $2,799.6 billion was larger than the UK’s at $2,6180bn, and its growth rate of over 7% in the last two years was more than twice that of the UK. Yet, the UK’s 30% contribution to the Secretariat budget (£3.43M) was nearly ten times the size of India’s 3.34% (£381,965).

There is no doubt that, when the Secretariat budget was first put together, it was designed to have a redistributive element. Richer countries were expected to pay more. But all this has got set in stone and Colin Ball, former Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, is not the only one to have said publicly that the richer countries have used their financial muscle – although their absolute contributions are tiny by UN or European Union standards – to say no to Commonwealth innovations.

Leaving the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and New Zealand aside there are only four levels of subscription. Three countries (Nigeria, Malaysia and Singapore) pay 1.37% each (or £156,674 in 2002/3); 15 (from Bangladesh to Zambia) pay 1.02% each (or £116,648); ten (from Bahamas to Sierra Leone) pay 0.59% (or £67,473); and 17 ( from Antigua and Barbuda to Vanuatu) pay 0.35% or (£40,026). The arbitrary nature of all this was illustrated when Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth and the 42 states in the three cheapest categories were each asked to pay 0.01 % more— just over £114 a year.

There are some peculiar consequences of this system. Secretariat budgets never rise by more than the cost of living – zero net growth. Commonwealth NGOs are supposed to be in principle representative of every member country. This is almost a condition now for “accreditation to the Commonwealth” under the rules operated by the Commonwealth Secretariat which give NGO status at Commonwealth summits, and for funding by the Commonwealth Foundation. However more member countries do not equate to more NGO members or to supply more income for the NGO members.

The Commonwealth Foundation is embarrassed to support activities in countries which do not subscribe to it. Further, it has switched off funding for civil society in Zimbabwe, even though Robert Mugabe never consulted his people before taking the regime out of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has played a fine role in helping black South Africans, during South Africa’s absence in the apartheid years.

At heart, the issue is that the Commonwealth has not adjusted to the changing balance of power within it. The key change is the rising economic and political significance of India, particularly in the context of warmer relations with Pakistan. The UK’s international development committee in Parliament has reported that aid to India ought to be phased out as unnecessary, and some experts anticipate that within 20 years the Indian standard of living will be close to the UK’s.

Already the last two runners-up in elections for Commonwealth Secretary-General have come from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. A readjustment of the financial basis for the Secretariat, and the other inter-governmental institutions, ought to be linked to the electoral campaign of the next Secretary-General in 2006-7, and that to renewed purposes for the Commonwealth.

It would be easy to imagine a coalition put together by countries like India, South Africa and Nigeria – perhaps behind an Indian-backed Pakistani1 for Secretary-General. It should not ignore the needs of small states, but it would signal that many Commonwealth countries are making a success of their development, even though issues of poverty and human rights abuse have not gone away. The UK, Australia and Canada should still be the largest contributors to the Secretariat budget, but their share should drop below 50%. Subscriptions, and the current banding system, ought to be reviewed every ten years.

The Commonwealth is a mutual association, not owned by any member or handful of members. Its strength lies in its diversity, not only for its own citizens but for the wider world, for it cannot be an island. Yet in UK company law a shareholder with 30 % of the shares is assumed to be the owner, where no other shareholder has a larger holding. The Shridath Ramphal2 years demonstrated that, politically, the Commonwealth was autonomous, responding to the demands of its broad constituency. It is time to take this logic further.

Africa Commission on Human and People’s Rights

The 37th session of the Africa Commission on Human and People’s Rights met in Banjul, Gambia from 27 April - 11 May 2005.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, composed of 11 African experts, was chaired by Commissioner Salamata Sawadogo. The Commission addressed the necessity to operationalise the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as the violations of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Zimbabwe and Togo.

Commissioners attending the 37th session

The Commission specifically discussed the human rights situation in Togo, drawing attention to the absence of freedom of expression among other violations of human rights. More than 100 people died and thousands more were wounded in Togo before, during and after the presidential elections that ended on 24 April 2005.

The Session was attended by 300 participants representing 28 State Parties, 6 National Human Rights Institutions, 6 Intergovernmental Organisations, and 110 African and International Non-Governmental Organisations.

The 38th Ordinary Session of the African Commission will be held from the 21 November -5 December 2005 provisionally in Nairobi, Kenya.


CHRI Newsletter, Summer 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

Copyright Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Published by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, B-117, 1st Floor, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi - 110017, India
Tel: +91-11-26850523, 26864678; Fax: +91-11-26864688; Email:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.