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The poorest of the poor live in the Commowealth!

By Vision Reporter

Added 20th November 2007 03:00 AM

TOMORROW, the who-is-who of the commonwealth will start arriving in Kampala for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) starting Friday through Sunday.

TOMORROW, the who-is-who of the commonwealth will start arriving in Kampala for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) starting Friday through Sunday.

Opiyo Oloya

TOMORROW, the who-is-who of the commonwealth will start arriving in Kampala for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) starting Friday through Sunday.

The three-day event will bring members of the 53-member organisation ranging from the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru (pop. 13,000) to giant India with a whopping population of 1.1 billion people. There will be smiles everywhere, handshakes, beautiful speeches, wining and dining as Uganda plays the perfect host.

There will also undoubtedly be some declarations toward doing more to improve the lot of the collective two billion- plus people represented at this conference. The real issues, however, will be politely skirted around to maintain the bonhomie of the occasion.

Firstly, there is the problem of the widening economic and social gap between developing and developed countries. Since the organisation was founded in 1931, only four members, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have moved forward to established exuberant economies to support higher standards of living for their citizens. South Africa, the fifth original member has lagged behind the other four in development.

Today, the per capita income for the average South African is $5,390 per annum (still better than most members of the commonwealth) compared to $36,000 for Canada and $40,000 for Britain. The disparity between the poor and the rich members of the commonwealth is exacerbated by the preferential trade agreements that the latter groups continue to strike with other non-members of the commonwealth.

Canada has North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and the United States, and is keenly pursuing expanding trade with China. Instead of looking for closer economic ties with the poor members of the commonwealth, Britain has its European brethren to do business with. Australia has the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to trade with and does not have to worry about the lot of poor commonwealth countries in Africa.

In fact, the bulk of extremely poor people roaming the earth today live within the commonwealth member nations, where the notion of economic independence is something dreamed about but remains forever illusive due partly to circumstances beyond their control. Bangladesh, for example, has just suffered the devastating blow from Cyclone Sidr which has devastated a vast swath of coastal areas of the impoverished nation and killed at least 2,000 people. Any talk of progress for these victims is mere hyperbole—they are living real misery in real time.

But poor governance has also kept the majority of commonwealth nations from moving toward economic prosperity. Think here of Zimbabwe once touted as the economic showcase for Africa, now reduced to a leprous outsider that everyone avoids. As Mugabe marches to his own drums, deluded in the belief that he is somehow making progress for his people, it is ironic that one of the major points of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration of the 1991 CHOGM in Zimbabwe loftily stated: “we believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives.” Really? In any event, this is not just about Zimbabwe.

This is about the not so beautiful people who populate each of the commonwealth countries, the marginalised people that the conference will not talk about, the ones who have been rejected by the world around them, will toil on, oblivious that there is a gathering on their behalf somewhere in Africa. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, will strike a rich pose among the other leaders, looking smug as the leader of one of the most stable democracies in the world. Yet, what he will not admit, and his handlers will never allow anyone to question is his government’s commitments to fighting poverty back home in Canada.

Here in Toronto, for instance, as the winter sets in, the homeless people sleep uneasily on the frozen streets. When Mark Warner the Conservative candidate in Toronto Centre dared to talk about the poor in Toronto, he was tossed out of the ruling party several weeks ago.

The real question is, if Harper’s party is not keen to talk about poverty at home, why should the prime minister be serious about tackling poverty in less fortunate places far away in Africa? For that matter, why should Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard care about the dying in northern Uganda when he has practically ignored anything to do with his country’s aboriginals, leaving them to wallow in their miseries because according to him, they deserve nothing?

Indeed, host President Yoweri Museveni, speaking to young delegates last week, nailed the essence of the problem when he said: “We want all the countries of the Commonwealth to transit from third world to first world. We do not want third world countries in the Commonwealth. That means that, the wealth is not common.”

Unfortunately, the beautiful people of the commonwealth will not be interested in this kind of talk. Instead, they will find something else to talk about, like how General Pervez Musharraf is destroying Pakistan. There will be plenty of posturing as nations take sides to make an example of Pakistan. All the while, none of the developed nations will want to talk about opening up markets for developing nations to sell their products or to export technology that would be relevant for development. Then the time will come to disperse, and everyone will congratulate Uganda for being such wonderful host while quickly forgetting what the host said about taking Third World out of the commonwealth—and why should they remember it?

This, after all, is the commonwealth where your wealth is mine and my wealth is mine alone.

The poorest of the poor live in the Commowealth!

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