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Fight sexist attitudes head-on. Show them you can deliver; that you are not second best. Florence Mugasha, Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat on the role of the organisation.

Appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2002, Florence Mugasha speaks to ReConnect Africa about the role of the organisation. Leveraging African experts in the Diaspora and the challenges of leadership for women.

The Commonwealth comprises 53 nations around the globe. It spans from the Americas to the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific and its 2 billion citizens comprise around 30% of the world’s population.

Based in London, the Commonwealth Secretariat, which was established in 1965, is the main intergovernmental agency of the Commonwealth, facilitating consultation and co-operation among member governments and countries.

Africa and the Commonwealth

Appointed Deputy Secretary-General in May 2002, Florence Mugasha is a quietly spoken woman who exudes grace, warmth and determination in equal measure. Prior to her appointment to the Commonwealth, Mrs. Mugasha had served since 1996 as the Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet in the Office of the President of Uganda. She was the first woman Head of Public Service in Africa and has been closely involved in the African Association for Public Administration and Management.

The Deputy Secretary-General outlined the importance of Africa to the work of the Commonwealth and its Secretariat.

“My advice is to fight sexist attitudes head-on…it is my brain, not being a woman, which has brought me here.”

“Africa is one of the focus areas of the Commonwealth and 43% of our work is in the continent, where we concentrate on gap filling and how to add value. We do also look at the ACP but almost half of our initiatives are in Africa and about £9 million of our budget is concentrated on Africa.”

The Secretariat organises Commonwealth summits, meetings of ministers, consultative meetings and technical discussions; it assists policy development and provides policy advice, and facilitates multilateral communication among the member governments. It also provides technical assistance to help governments in the social and economic development of their countries and in support of the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values.

“We need to deliver the Millennium Development Goals and our duty as the Commonwealth Secretariat is to make sure our member countries catch up,” she explains.

We ask Mrs Mugasha how relevant the Commonwealth is to Africa in today’s world of globalisation and given the changing nature of political and economic alliances.

“If it wasn’t relevant, I wouldn’t be here,” she replies crisply. “We have a voice in international forums. We have 53 countries and there is no way anyone cannot listen to us.”

“What we feel is very critical is that we have countries who share the same languages and institutions. The programmes that we operate are demand driven and Africa has been vocal and in the forefront. As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, we have a very big role to play where international trade, politics and conflict resolution are concerned. We have made a very big impact. Most of our countries know that we can make a difference, such as on debt relief and supporting democracy – we observe elections at their request and develop capacity for their electoral commissions.”

She emphasises that five major countries finance the Secretariat’s budget. “If they didn’t believe we were doing something worthwhile, they wouldn’t fund it. The Commonwealth is very relevant today and has assisted global dialogue between north and south and between south and south for both big and small organisations. In addition, of course, we are in constant contact with regional and national organisations such as the United Nations and the Africa Union.”

Leveraging the Expertise of the African Diaspora

Many Commonwealth developing countries face human resource and knowledge constraints limiting their capacity for sustainable development, poverty reduction and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

To address these constraints, the Commonwealth has a Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) as its principal means to deliver development assistance to member countries. The CFTC supports and develops training programmes at centres of excellence throughout the Commonwealth to build capacity in priority development areas of need.

CFTC also provides capacity-building and institutional strengthening assistance to developing member countries, especially small states and least developed members. As a provider of expert services to its member nations, the Commonwealth Secretariat deploys a varied team of professionals from across a range of sectors who share their skills and experience to maximise the development potential of member states and to build the capacity of the key national and regional institutions.

“The impact of the brain drain from Africa is one that greatly concerns the Commonwealth… ‘We have signed two protocols on health workers and teachers.’”

“The first criteria,” says Mrs. Mugasha, “is that our experts must be Commonwealth citizens. They must register with us and tell us their areas of specialisation. Quite a number of Africans have registered with us to date and we have placed many on short and long-term consultancies around the Commonwealth.”

The impact of the brain drain from Africa is one that greatly concerns the Commonwealth. “We have signed two protocols on health workers and teachers to try and control their exodus in our member countries and to allow us to train more health and education professionals,” she explains.

“There is also an international Commonwealth code of practice for the international recruitment of health workers and teachers, with Britain and Canada to try and manage migration to avoid the depletion of these skills in African countries.”

Fight Attitudes Head On

No stranger to working at high levels of governance and dealing with Africa’s predominantly male political leadership, Mrs. Mugasha is uncompromising about the impact of her gender on her role within the Commonwealth. If being a woman in a leadership position is an issue for some who deal with her, she is confident of her right to be where she is.

“My advice is to fight sexist attitudes head-on,” she says. “Show them you can deliver; that you are not second best, but that you are there in your own right. It is my brain, not being a woman, which has brought me here.”

The difficulties faced at times by women leaders, she adds, are not unique to women working in the context of Africa. “It’s not an African problem, it’s a worldwide problem.”

Commonwealth Youth Programme

One of the Commonwealth programmes that seem close to the heart of its Deputy Secretary-General is the organisation’s Youth Programme, which operates from four regional centres.

The Commonwealth Youth Programme is an international development agency dedicated to empowering young people aged 15-29 in its member countries. The programme works with young people to create the opportunity for them to become active citizens who understand that they have rights as well as responsibilities. This enables them to fully participate in development projects that create opportunities for themselves and their communities. The Africa programme, which is managed from Lusaka, offers training to build capacity in young people through universities across the Commonwealth. The programme has trained over 2000 young people since its inception. The programme also encourages youth participation in governance by involving them in politics at local, regional and national levels.

“We want young people to be involved and to have an influence on governance,” says Mrs. Mugasha. “We also involve them in governance workshops across the Commonwealth and include young people and women in our observer teams.”

“Although we are only 300 people, the magnitude of people we work with and the impact of what we do is so much.”

The programme includes an initiative that offers credit to young people to start small-scale activities and to build skills. Through centres in Guyana, Kampala and Bangladesh, young people receive training in carpentry, bricklaying, clay work, home economics and agriculture. As part of the training, the young people receive tools and a revolving credit facility as they grow their businesses.

The Youth Programme also supports the Ambassadors for Positive Living initiative, which comprises youth networks of more than 500 young people who work during their holidays on counselling and raising awareness of HIV/AIDS. The programme enables young people living with HIV virus or drug rehabilitation to exchange personal experiences, to promote dialogue amongst various stakeholders in the community and to foster behaviour change among young people.

The young people, says the Deputy Secretary-General, are trusted by their peers while the Commonwealth’s provision of transport and subsistence allowances enables University students and graduates to continue their studies while counselling others on avoiding drugs and high-risk behaviour. The programme, says Mrs. Mugasha, “has worked very positively in Africa and Asia and is beginning to trickle through in the Caribbean.”

A Rewarding Experience

In summing up her experience of working with the Commonwealth Secretariat, Mrs. Mugasha acknowledges the high expectations and workload carried out by her organisation.

“Although we are only 300 people, the magnitude of people we work with and the impact of what we do is so much,” she says. “This has been a rewarding experience; it has widened my horizons, taken me across the world and I have met so many different people. It has been a lasting experience and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”

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