Voice of the people
Dominica-born Patricia Scotland has been breaking barriers her whole life – and in 2016 she became the first female Commonwealth Secretary-General. We asked her what that means, and what she hopes to achieve
Q What does the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General entail?
As the chief executive of the Commonwealth Secretariat, my job is to work with our experts and development partners to turn the visions of our heads of government into action and positive change for all Commonwealth citizens.
Q What might be a typical day?
Representing 53 countries means that no two days are the same. Today I might be in London hosting a conference on youth employment; tomorrow I could be in Poland attending a conference on climate change. But wherever I am, my aim is the same: to develop and harness the talent and resources in the Commonwealth and turn them into solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing our member countries.
Q What are the best things about your role?
The people I meet. I have been so inspired and I have learned so much about the amazing talent and potential in our Commonwealth. I am convinced that, with our vast and diverse human resources, our biggest obstacles are easily overcome. This really gives me hope for a Commonwealth with a bright future.
Q And what are the worst?
Seeing human suffering – though it spurs me on to do more and to focus on concrete outcomes for the 2.4 billion people I serve.
Q Your career has been full of ‘firsts’. What gave you the drive to succeed?
In my life, I have encountered a number of crossroads. As a young black girl growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, a career advisor told me I should forget about furthering my education, but should settle for a job at a supermarket. A few years later, my lecturer declared that, though he had confidence in my ability to be a great barrister, he was worried I was setting off on a path to disappointment: I was not an Oxbridge graduate, I had no connections, I was a black woman. Every time I arrived at these decision points I could hear my parents’ voices ringing in my ears, saying that when God gave us a talent it was our duty to find it, hone it and use it for the benefit of others. If we do that, we can by His grace change the world for the better.
This early encouragement, and the strength I find in my faith in God, is what propels me down the sometimes bumpy path to achieving what many claim is impossible – such as becoming the youngest and first black woman to be appointed Queen’s Counsel, and the first female Attorney General for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Q You are a role model – do you feel that pressure?
Having strong role models is important for everyone. There are special people who have been instrumental in helping me to build my own resilience and to refuel my perseverance when I am facing some of life’s toughest challenges. And, actually, I think we all need to strive to be good role models, because there is always someone looking at us or even looking up to us.
If I am considered a role model, I count it a great honour and a big responsibility. I will endeavour to continue to inspire those I have the privilege to meet or reach, to join our efforts to improve our communities, our countries, our Commonwealth and our world.
We all need to reach the point where we understand that we are the final arbiter of our destiny. We have too many examples in history – our Rosa Parks, our Paralympians – that tell us we do not have to allow our circumstances to construct insurmountable barriers.
Q What are the challenges of being a woman in your role?
There are challenges that still face women in every position. But there are upsides, also. I look forward to a time when the gender of a person filling a role will not be a talking point. Until then, getting more women into leadership is a priority, because research on this issue tells us that, when we have equal numbers of men and women working together, they deliver much better outcomes than when either gender is dominating.
Q How did your background qualify you for this role?
You need to be able to handle politically and culturally sensitive issues while upholding the values of the Commonwealth Charter, which include equality, tolerance and the promotion of human rights. My years in private practice as a barrister and serving at the highest levels of government – as Under-secretary of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as Parliamentary Secretary and Deputy to the Lord Chancellor, as Minister of State and Deputy Home Secretary – have given me the skills and wisdom I need.
I also think that being born in Dominica – a small, developing island – growing up in the UK and travelling to different parts of the world have given me important insights into the cultural and political perspectives that define the Commonwealth.
Q Climate change seems to be a key focus – why?
In the first week of my tenure as Secretary-General, I hosted a climate change conference, because I believe wholeheartedly that this is one of the biggest crises facing our world. The increasing frequency and intensity of the storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and floods that are affecting the globe are irrefutable proof of the serious threat that climate change poses.
Currently, the Commonwealth Secretariat has strong programmes to help countries deal with the impacts of this problem. For example, we have installed experts in government departments in developing states to help them make successful applications to hard-to-access climate-related funding. So far, we have helped our members secure over £4 million; £207 million more is in the pipeline. This is complemented by a portal to help them plan ahead for disasters, and our relentless advocacy on issues such as a global recognition of a country’s vulnerability when determining eligibility for financial assistance.
Q You are in the third year of a four-year term. Have you achieved what you hoped to so far?
It has been a very busy three years and there is a lot to celebrate. In fact, we have seen our governance rating from the UK Department for International Development increase from a C to an A+. At a landmark Heads of Government meeting in London last year, large-scale initiatives such as our Commonwealth Blue Charter to protect our oceans were announced. We are making progress towards boosting cheaper and faster trading between our countries, and we are finding innovative solutions to deal with global challenges such as debt and climate change.
These are just some of our achievements. But we understand that we are living in troubled and troubling times, and there are still many challenges to navigate. We are continuing to build on our successes and to roll out new innovations, such as our Common Earth project to tap into cutting-edge solutions to climate change.
Q How can individuals make a difference?
Everyone can do something to make the world a better place. Start in your community: take stock of your talents and resources, and look to see how you can contribute.
I invite readers to visit the innovation hub on our website, which showcases the many talents that exist in the Commonwealth. They will see inventions such as apps to help young people’s personal development, and eyewear made from coconut waste. I hope that these will inspire our visionaries and innovators to share their ideas and inventions.
Q Finally, tell us a little about your home island…
Every time I fly into Dominica, it takes my breath away. Despite its development, it has managed to preserve its personification of paradise. With rich, green vegetation, rolling hills, 365 crystal-clear rivers and a stunning coastline, it is a place I am proud to call home. Even after storms and hurricanes tried to strip it of its glory, it remains a resilient reminder of the beauty to be found in the Commonwealth.
• Born 19 August 1955 in Dominica
• Moved to the UK with family, growing up in east London
• Trained as a lawyer; became the youngest woman and the first black woman to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1991
• Became the first black woman to be appointed Deputy High Court Judge, Recorder and Master of Middle Temple
• Joined the House of Lords in 1997 as Baroness Scotland of Asthal
• Served as a minister in the Foreign Office, Home Office and Lord Chancellor’s Department
• Undertook major reform of the criminal justice system, including the introduction of the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act
• Appointed Attorney General in 2007 – the first woman to hold the post
• Founded the Eliminate Domestic Violence Global Foundation in 2011
• Elected Alderman of Bishopsgate in the City of London in 2014
• Became first female Commonwealth Secretary-General in 2016
Quick-fire top 5
1 Favourite food?
That’s easy – it has to be plantains. Nothing can beat a sweet slice of just-cooked plantain. It instantly takes me back to Mama’s table.
2 Favourite place to relax?
At home, with friends and family.
3 Favourite sight?
A beautiful sunset.
4 Favourite activity?
5 And your VERY favourite thing?
Engaging with young people, exchanging ideas and conversing about their dreams and aspirations. Witnessing their refreshing perspectives, their confidence and courage and their inspiring vision gives me hope for a brighter future.