Big ideas still in search of funding

Neil Sears previews the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Edinburgh.

It's a long way from the dusty heat of Botswana to the autumnal chill of Scotland - but for the Commonwealth it's just one conference following another.

The Commonwealth heads of government meeting, which starts today in Edinburgh, follows hard on the heels of the 13th conference of Commonwealth education ministers staged in Gaberone, Botswana, in late July and early August.

And wildly different although the two venues are, that very difference illustrates the challenges faced by the Commonwealth in the modern world.

For although this grouping of 54 countries is desperate to prove it is more than an expensive talking shop and an irrelevant throwback to imperial days, it is hard for concerted action to take place throughout its membership when those members are at such different levels of development, and when investment in its projects is so low.

In Botswana, the education ministers met primarily to discuss technology and the challenges of the 21st century. Ministers were urged to educate their children to use the computer technologies of the future.

Those calls will no doubt be echoed in Edinburgh - but talk is easy. Using modern technology is considerably more straightforward in relatively wealthy countries like Britain.

Richard Bourne, a key figure in a number of Commonwealth organisations, who attended the Gaberone meeting on behalf of the London Institute of Education, said that the necessary advances in information technology needed funding.

"My feeling is that there has to be a Commonwealth programme with aid donors like Clare Short's department (the Department of International Development), but also with private sector involvement," he said. "There's no way otherwise that schools around Africa or in Bangladesh are going to get wired up.

"How quickly it's going to happen I can't say."

As the Commonwealth has a total budget of only some Pounds 30million a year, it may be some time.

Also up for discussion in Botswana was human rights education - with the ministers deciding that next year, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be dedicated to strengthening school teaching on the subject.

In the Commonwealth, however, few things are quite as simple as that. Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the prime minister of Malaysia, who has recently been quoted attacking a sinister "Jewish conspiracy", is said to be planning to call for the Declaration itself to be rewritten.

Yet Mr Bourne says that different beliefs about human rights are less of a problem than the rigidity of many countries' national curricula.

"Each national curriculum is very specific, and there's often not much concentration on international treaties," said Mr Bourne, who chairs the trustee committee of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

And ignorance of those treaties is not concentrated in the poorer countries. A survey of children across the Commonwealth found British children particularly ill-informed.

"More than 90 per cent of the Northern Ireland sample were unaware of the United Nations Convention on The Rights of the Child," said Mr Bourne. "But 70 per cent of Indian kids of the same age did know about it - as did half of the Zimbabwean kids."

Yet despite all the variations across the Commonwealth, there were signs that it does have the potential for great unity.

"Some of the shared problems are remarkably similar," said Mr Bourne. "Over the past few years many Commonwealth countries have been trying to get additional funding into the educational system: through parents, communities, commercial sponsorship, even through user fees. There's a lot we can learn. " The Gaberone gathering of more than 40 education ministers and senior civil servants included greater shows of unity than expected, he said.

"We had a round-table meeting on human rights attended by a number of ministers and officials, but also by Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary of Britain's National Union of Teachers, and a representative from an Indian union," said Mr Bourne. "The union reps were saying that unions should have a larger role in international conferences - and they were cheered to the rafters. A lot of the ministers were actually ex-teachers themselves, and they were all clapping. "

Such scenes of shameless enthusiasm for teaching unions could be repeated closer to home soon: pressure is already growing for Britain to host the next education ministers' meeting in 2000, with Newcastle and Birmingham already being touted as prospective venues.

The coming meeting of heads of government in Edinburgh is unlikely to feature too much unbridled passion: but the good news is that some steam could be generated by the Commonwealth Youth Forum being staged alongside.

Some 200 young people from all the countries in the Commonwealth have already arrived in Britain, and are to congregate in Scotland to discuss issues such as homelessness and youth power.

Paul Wilson, co-ordinator of the forum, said he expected some full, frank and relevant discussions. "Most of the population of the Commonwealth are young people," he said.

"They'll be looking at the Commonwealth and asking what its future is, and what it's actually doing - and they're not going to have the wool pulled over their eyes."

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