Trade and aid 'go hand in hand,' says head of Commonwealth Secretariat

Patricia Scotland, secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations. Photo by: Commonwealth Secretariat / CC BY-NC

Improving international trade should go hand in hand with global efforts to lift countries out of poverty, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations has told Devex.

Patricia Scotland said that under her leadership, the organization’s secretariat is working to improve trade between its 52 member states. Better commercial relationship can help feed into other development priorities, such as women’s empowerment, she said from the sidelines of the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting in Apia, Samoa.

Her comments will strike a chord among development practitioners already primed for a more trade-focused aid agenda. The new development secretary at the U.K. Department for International Development, Priti Patel, recently announced her intention to use meetings with foreign leaders from countries that receive foreign aid as opportunities to forge new trade deals.

The Commonwealth is a separate entity from the U.K. government and is funded by contributions from its voluntary members. Among them are some of the poorest in the world, such as Malawi and Mozambique, and also the richest including Canada. They are guided by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which provides technical assistance and advice, but not grants.

Scotland became the first female to be elected by Commonwealth member states’ governments to lead the Commonwealth in April. Originally from Dominica, she was raised in London, England, and trained as a lawyer. Scotland became the first black woman to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel, a high-ranking senior barrister, in 1991 at age 35 — the youngest woman ever to hold such a post.

Trade goals

Despite its independence from DfID’s aid agenda, Scotland echoed Patel when in July she told members of the U.K. Parliament’s House of Lords the Commonwealth she would “turbo-charge” efforts to increase trade advantages between members.

Scotland told Devex the Commonwealth’s objectives differed from those of the U.K. government but that both trade and development strategies should be used to generate wealth across countries. “It’s not either, or — it’s both,” she emphasized.

Scotland sees trade as vital to improving development indicators across the Commonwealth, she told Devex. According to research published by the Commonwealth Secretariat — the Commonwealth’s agency — in 2015, bilateral trade costs between member countries are about 19 percent lower than between other trading partners. Scotland said the body was currently researching what policies and practices could reduce those costs further.

“What we’re looking at is how can we make that advantage a 30 percent advantage,” she told Devex. “We have the same language, which is English. We have similar systems in terms of parliamentary democracies which have been based on the Western models and similar institutions. All of those things give us a practical advantage when we work together.”

The Secretariat is investigating common “instruments” member states could use to aid trade agreements, Scotland explained, such as template contracts, legislation or best practice regulation. She added that better trade could lead countries to enhance infrastructure and provide better education and health provision to their populations.

“Many international global companies will be working in all or most of the 52 countries, so having something which is portable between commonwealth countries is seen by most as a real commercial asset.”

Women and violence

Among the priorities for her tenure, Scotland has pledged to work to help end violence against women. At the meeting in Samoa, ministers, campaigners, senior government officials and civil society representatives from across member states committed to a four-point plan to get more women into leadership, end gender violence, address climate change and boost women’s economic empowerment.

Scotland told Devex the Commonwealth’s plans to boost trade would also benefit women in particular, as she wants small, medium and large-sized businesses to reap rewards from the new arrangements.

“The easier we make it for small and medium-[sized] enterprises to trade with each other, not just the big guys, the easier we make regulation,” she said. “It’s likely we’ll get more SMEs coming to market, and hopefully a large percentage of those in the future will be women’s.”

Scotland suggested the result for female traders would be increased financial empowerment and a greater sense of autonomy, as they would become more financially independent.

As a further measure to help improve laws protecting women against violence, the Commonwealth Secretariat gave East African lawmakers judicial bench books. These legal guides include information on and examples of cases concerning family break down and violence, and are intended to help judges and magistrates make more informed decisions. Scotland said the secretariat intends to produce such guides for all its member states.

Looming challenges

Scotland said her other priorities in office would include tackling climate change, improving good governance and human rights and supporting progress for young people. Of the member states, 31 are small and vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As such Scotland has pledged to “reverse” climate change. One initiative the Commonwealth is pursuing to achieve this aim is its Multilateral Debt Swap for Climate Action initiative, which will enable countries to reduce their public debt in exchange for a commitment to use debt repayments to finance local climate change projects.

Despite her legal background, Scotland said she intended the Commonwealth to operate by finding common solutions, rather than finger-pointing.

“We have been contemplating on what joins us, setting good standards, then working with people who want to address the problems in their own countries,” said Scotland.

“It’s a positive as opposed to a wave your finger and basically make it much more difficult for people to fess up if they have a problem. It’s not just your problem, it’s all of our problems,” she added.

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About the author

  • Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.