Commonwealth Secretariat needs urgent reform

LONDON, England – According to a leaked internal report obtained by the BBC, the Commonwealth Secretariat in London is in “urgent need” of reform; there are “deep concerns” about the governance structures of the organisation which “lacks clarity” and needs to be “more transparent and accountable”. Furthermore, there’s a “serious and urgent need” to stabilise the organisation’s finances.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General, which is presently headed by the previous Labour minister Baroness Scotland, comprises 53 nations; most of them are previous British colonies with nearly one third of the world’s inhabitants.

Several member states have been less prepared to contribute financially to the organisation resulting in a drop in the core budget of just £32m, down from £52m in 2012/13.

However, a spokesman for the secretariat said: “The secretariat is working to mitigate a declining budget from member countries by entering into partnerships with international organisations and foundations….during recent years under the secretary-general’s stewardship there has been a significant increase in extra budgetary funding, from £700,000 in 2012 to £3.5m in 2017.”

When heads of governments elected Lady Scotland in 2015, she was directed to examine the secretariat’s operations. Three years later, she established a so-called ‘high-level group’ of mainly former Commonwealth foreign ministers whose report was never published. However, the report implied that there was “an urgent need” to reform the governance structure.

A separate survey of staff at the secretariat implied there were “strong indicators of low morale” with “high levels of dissatisfaction with opportunities for career progression”.

In light of the concerns, the Commonwealth’s 52 high commissioners London plus one senior British diplomat have drawn up new rules to attempt to enhance the responsibility of the organisation. Among other recommendations, the rules stated explicitly that “Re-appointment of a secretary-general for a second term is not automatic.”

It’s uncommon for Commonwealth secretaries-general’s position to be contested after their first term. Only six persons have held the post since it was founded in 1965 and most were reappointed unchallenged. The sole notable difference was Don McKinnon who was unsuccessfully challenged in 2003 by a Sri Lankan nominee over the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.

The high commissioners, who make up the Commonwealth’s Board of Governors, had also directed an internal audit of procurement spending arrangements by the secretariat since 2016 when Lady Scotland commenced her post amid anxieties that procedures might not have been followed accurately.

The Commonwealth Secretariat response is such that: “Since her assumption of duty, the secretary-general has made changes to the Commonwealth’s organisational structure to make it more dynamic and integrated. She is confident that the great majority of staff are hard-working and committed to the Commonwealth. They are producing exemplary results.”

Lady Scotland’s supporters insist she is making progress reforming a dysfunctional secretariat and has ruffled feathers by making job cuts. Since 2016, the secretariat has cut staff from 295 to 223.

Despite concerns of leadership a strong alternative is yet to emerge from the formal ad informal structures, albeit diplomats say Lady Scotland, who was attorney general under Gordon Brown, has started canvassing unofficially to ensure a second four-year term in 2020 and has disputed confidentially there was a rational expectation she should be reappointed unchallenged.

However, the new rules, which include regular assessments of the secretary general’s performance, are yet to be agreed by Commonwealth foreign ministers, eight of whom have already rallied to Lady Scotland’s cause. The Countries that opposed the new rules are said to include Barbados, Belize, Seychelles, Nigeria, Saint Lucia, Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis.

The matter is anticipated to come to a head at a meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers in London on July 10.