Did the Commonwealth Summit live up to its promise

Did the Commonwealth Summit live up to its promise

But aside from the motorcades and fancy dinners, what was achieved and how did they do against our 5-point plan for Fairtrade & the Commonwealth?

Hitting the headlines

Aside from the succession issue, which seems to have been decided on without too much debate (Charles will be the next ‘Head’), there were two other issues which provided a backdrop to the Summit.

The first of these was Brexit, despite this not being an official item on the agenda. There was a fair amount written about increasing trade across the Commonwealth (members currently account for just under 9% of the UK’s global trade), and even some commentators proposing a ‘Commonwealth Free Trade Agreement (FTA)’, although this has never been on the table as a realistic or desirable option. The ‘Windrush’ scandal was also front and centre and understandably dominated a lot of the media coverage, but behind the scenes, there was discussion on a whole host of other topics.

Women’s Empowerment

I had been successful in gaining accreditation to the ‘Women’s Forum’ and was treated to a series of speeches from Prime Ministers and Presidents past and present. Unfortunately there were limited opportunities to participate as a delegate, but on the side-lines, the Fairtrade Foundation was able to engage in a number of interesting conversations and meetings, including a parliamentary event on Gender & Trade hosted by ActionAid, a seminar with Commonwealth trade unionists organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and even a roundtable with President Mutharika of Malawi.

So how did Fairtrade agenda fare? On two issues – Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Modern Slavery, I think we can be broadly positive about outcomes although there is still ‘room for improvement’. 

The Summit communiqué (outcome document) included a commitment to a ‘gender-responsive approach to the development of trade policy’ and among other things, the Prime Minister announced UK investment of £7m in a new initiative: ‘She Trades Commonwealth’. In her words, providing training for women entrepreneurs, connecting them to market and investment opportunities, and helping firms overcome barriers to engaging with women-owned businesses”.

This all seems like good news but I was struck by the lack of focus on women’s rights – let’s by all means support women entrepreneurs, but let’s not forget the much larger number of women who are currently in low-paid and sometimes dangerous work (in sectors like tea, flowers and of course the garment industry), without a voice and at risk of harassment and violence.

Transparency & Modern Slavery

On Modern Slavery, there was some additional money from the UK and also vocal support from Australia where the government is bringing forward its own legislation which is likely to be stronger than the UK’s Modern Slavery Act on supply chain transparency. However the challenge is enormous – a report published to coincide with CHOGM highlighted that only 3 countries (of the 53 Commonwealth nations) have mandatory reporting for business, and only 45% of Commonwealth countries have labour laws that reach the most vulnerable – including migrant workers and those in the informal sector. Will this now change as a result of the Summit?

Continuing the fight for a living wage

On our other asks – around trade and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), investment in voluntary standards and the promotion of living incomes and wages, there is less to report back.

There are some positive references to Agenda 2030 and to ‘inclusive and sustainable trade’ in the communiqué and accompanying trade declaration, and this language helps pull the policy debate in a helpful direction. Climate change was also highlighted very effectively by Small Island States like Jamaica and we know all too well from Fairtrade producers in these countries, how vulnerable they are to extreme weather events like hurricanes.

At the end of it all, I left feeling as I often feel in the wake of international summits – slightly deflated but conscious that we can’t give up!

When the Summits are over, the hard work often begins – the work to turn the warm words and pledges into real change for those who need it, especially those who produce the things that we eat, drink and wear, but who are often forgotten and who are still working without a genuinely living income or wage.