End of Year Message from Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon
Released: 30 Dec 2004
Casting a shadow over all else in 2004 is the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that struck in the very last days of the year.
The disaster has overwhelmed several countries in Asia, brought destruction as far away as the East African coast and leaves no country untouched.
“Governments, civil society organisations and individual citizens are making Herculean efforts”
As the new year dawns, the sheer scale of the loss and devastation is still unfolding, while the biggest disaster relief effort in human history gets under way.
Governments, civil society organisations and individual citizens are making Herculean efforts to alleviate the impact of this catastrophe, but more help is urgently needed. Many in the international community have reacted swiftly and I have appealed to Commonwealth governments to be as generous as they can in providing emergency aid. The world needs to reach new heights of generosity in responding to this staggering disaster, and I urge everyone to help as much as they can, in whatever way they can.
In the space of an hour, countries were devastated by the tsunami. If only every person on the planet could contribute what they earn in one hour, we would generate more than enough resources to cope with the earthquake’s consequences.
While the scale of this latest natural disaster in the Indian Ocean is almost unprecedented, its impact on ordinary people’s lives is, sadly, all too familiar. Earlier this year we saw Hurricane Ivan carve its own trail of devastation through Grenada, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean. When I was in Grenada recently, I met families who had lost almost everything they owned, and who were struggling to put their lives back together.
Following that disaster, Grenada’s neighbours in the Caribbean as well as others in the global community rallied round with food, shelter and building materials. This spirit of solidarity and collective action is very much what the Commonwealth is about. I am sure that it will come to the fore once again as several Commonwealth countries in the Indian Ocean struggle against adversity.
Preparing for and coping with natural disasters will no doubt take centre-stage in Mauritius in January, at the International Meeting for small states – which make up just over half our members. World leaders will have a chance to map out joint action on a range of long-term challenges: from global warming and sustainable development to debt relief and global trade. We will see the solidarity of small states in action, with the Commonwealth playing an active supporting role.
Fair and open world trade is one of the few possibilities for developing nations, small and big, to grow out of poverty and prosper. The golden opportunity offered by trade is a well known fact. However, it is also a fact that the vast majority of the world’s population still lives on less than $1 a day. Meanwhile, huge distortions in global trade are perpetuated by trade subsidies and barriers that benefit a few and choke off opportunity for most. The Commonwealth has members who are active on all sides of the world trade negotiations. 2005 will be a ‘make or break’ year for those negotiations, and we will play our part in bridging the divides to get the best outcomes possible for all.
Freeing up trade is part of the story, but there is a real danger of export industries in some developing countries being thrown out like the baby with the bath water. When subsidies and trade barriers come down, developing countries could suddenly find themselves competing in an open market where others yet again have the competitive advantage. We need to ensure that trade liberalisation is carefully paced and sequenced. We also need to make sure that the countries affected receive assistance to adapt and diversify their economies.
Another important meeting scheduled for next year will be the review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). On the eve of the 21st Century, world leaders committed themselves to eight ambitious but achievable Goals. Most notably they pledged to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015; to put every child through school; to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria; and to reduce child mortality by two thirds by 2015. Five years on, the news is not good. Most countries are not on target and on current performance, many of the MDGs will not be met for another hundred years. That is simply not good enough. We must all act urgently if we want the MDGs to be more than worthy but unfulfilled international promises.
The challenges are huge. Take education: 75 million children in the Commonwealth don’t go to school because they have no school to go to. We must redouble our efforts to provide them with the opportunities they deserve by training more teachers, building more schools and raising standards. Earlier this year, Commonwealth governments agreed to implement a Teacher Recruitment Protocol to regulate the movement of teachers between Commonwealth countries. Next year’s Commonwealth Day theme – Education: creating opportunity, realising potential – recognises the key role education can play in increasing growth and generating better prospects for all our Commonwealth citizens.
Another important tool which fosters development is information technology. Global communications and the Internet are engines of economic growth. But today, many countries in the developing world miss out on these opportunities. Africa accounts for 15% of the world’s population but only 1.6% of Internet users. North America, by contrast, has 5% of the world population and more than 25% of Internet users.
Tackling this “digital divide” will be part of the discussions of more than one quarter of the world’s political leaders when they meet at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in November 2005. Leaders will be exploring ways of bringing us all together through networks – whether electronic or otherwise – in order to create growth and development. Those leaders will also be seeking to build on the Commonwealth’s strong track record in promoting democracy and human rights.
It is not only governments that can make a difference. Every citizen has a role to play. Through the vast network of Commonwealth civil society bodies, individuals in every nation of the Commonwealth are having a real impact on the future of their communities.
As world events have shown over the last few years, the keys to increased stability are greater solidarity, democracy and economic growth. Isolation is not the answer. In our interdependent world, our daily lives can be affected by events taking place thousands of miles away. No one is immune from the shockwaves of natural disasters, financial crises and terrorist attacks. No one can afford to ignore the misery caused by poverty, HIV/AIDS and lack of education. In today’s world, there are no bystanders. We are all participants, and we can all help improve each others’ lives. That is what the Commonwealth will continue to be about in the year ahead.