A case for the Commonwealth (at last!)

I don’t know any Australian who thinks we should not be a member of the Commonwealth. It is part of our history and heritage. Even Republicans, like me, support it.

But I know very few who could name something useful the Commonwealth has done to make lives better for the poorest people in developing country member states.

However, a recent initiative is showing very positive signs of delivering real benefits.

The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust was formed in 2011 at CHOGM in Perth. Quite obviously it was established to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It was given a time-limited mandate and the various member states contributed money (including Australia) either directly or through fundraising efforts. The Trust has also been successful in corporate fundraising.

An independent Board chaired by former British PM, Sir John Major, was set up and the Trust Secretariat is headquartered in London. After considerable research it established the elimination of avoidable blindness and the development of youth leadership as its two priorities.

And it is starting to have an impact.

An example is the extremely welcome Trachoma Initiative in Malawi. The campaign aims to fully eliminate blinding trachoma across Malawi by 2019. The Initiative is based on a large-scale program of surgery, antibiotic distribution, facial cleanliness and environmental improvements (SAFE).

The trachoma initiative will be replicated in Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Uganda and Commonwealth countries in the Pacific.

The embarrassment for Australia is that this program will extend to activities in Australia due to the continuing prevalence of trachoma in some indigenous communities: the only example of the existence of this disease in any developed country.

It is too early to draw definitive conclusions but the early signs are definitely promising.

Apart from the direct benefits, the significance of this is that it may indicate a way forward for the Commonwealth. Time limited and focussed activities with a lean and targeted administration and a clear mandate.

Independent assessments by the UK and Australia have found the Commonwealth to be a notably inefficient vehicle for delivering development assistance. It may have other diplomatic and relationship building merit, but overall it has not been successful as a development agency.

Perhaps it should move away from endeavouring to do broad-scale development and focus on a catalytic role in the development of organisations like the Trust or its successors.

Bob McMullan was formerly Parliamentary Secretary for International Development and is Adjunct Professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University.

Bob McMullan

Bob McMullan has had a long and distinguished career in the Australian Parliament as one of Australia’s pre-eminent Labor politicians. He is a former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development (2007-2010) and Executive Director for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.


  • I hate to disagree with my former good-guy MP Bob but I do feel quite strongly that, as important as the subject of Trachona is, that it is not the role of the Commonwealth to buy into such activities.

    I am speaking from the point of view of someone who worked in a number of Commonwealth countries and who did gain an appreciation of that colonial heritage, much to my surprise. But I think its role ought to be restricted to what it does best, and where no other organization operates ie stick to the heritage of British governance systems, including those related to parliament and law.

    Joel Negin’s terrific chart in his article in the same volume clearly illustrates the plethora of agencies which exist – and remind of the need to be focused, and stick to what one has the mandate for and the related expertise/skills/resources. There is already much overlap between agencies and some are spread very thin, providing quantity not quality.

    I would suggest that the Comm. should stick to what it does best, and if there is no need for those types of interventions, it should be dissolved.

    • Margaret’s thesis that there are already enough players in the eye health field and we don’t need the Commonwealth to duplicate has some validity. The difference between us arises because I did not explain the role of QEDJT adequately in my initial contribution. They have been very aware of the need not to duplicate. They have in fact been a much appreciated source of new funding for existing players such as Sightsavers and Fred Hollows Foundation and very powerful advocates for eye health actions by the member governments of the Commonwealth. I appreciate their efforts both as a citizen of the Commonwealth and as President of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, through whom QEDJT has coordinated with existing providers. The Trust is proving an asset without duplicating efforts and have acted in accordance with the spirit of the aid effectiveness principles.

  • Great article Bob. You are right that it is embarrassing for Australia that trachoma persists in some of our indigenous communities. As the Chairman of Ninti One Limited (and the Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP)) Dr Tom Calma AO recently publicised, the health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia is a global shame. Indeed, for the world’s oldest culture, with all of its unique beauty, trachoma is but one of a long list of embarrassing situations. For example, a woman in the NT has an 80 times chance of being hospitalised due to assault compared to a non-indigenous woman (yes, eighty times) and one-in-eight children born in a group of remote communities in Western Australia’s Kimberley region has foetal alcohol syndrome.

    So, you might ask, why does Australia have such a well-resourced and successful aid program yet we haven’t translated this wisdom to benefit indigenous Australia?

    More energy needs to be injected into learning from experiences in international development (and vice versa).

    ACFID is active in this area and they prepared a paper entitled: ‘Effective Development Practice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities’, in February 2014. The Practice Note sets out to explain good practice principles for international non-government organisations (INGOs) and other interested parties engaging in development initiatives in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (A&TSI) communities throughout Australia.

    The ANU Development Policy Centre has generously given me a speaking slot at next week’s Australasian Aid Conference, where I will be delivering a paper on ‘International Development and Indigenous Australia: Learning from each other’. My survey of aid practitioners and people working in indigenous Australia has identified particular areas where we can learn from each other, and I will be describing these at the conference.

    It’s great that the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust (the Commonwealth) is supporting the elimination of blinding trachoma in Australia – and thank you for bringing it to our attention. Ninti One is helping to improve eye health in remote Australia as part of the ‘Vision CRC’ within the Brien Holden Vision Institute.

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