Making the most of the Commonwealth’s potential

August 17, 2009

d2– Danny Sriskandarajah is Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society. The opinions expressed are his own –

In recent years the Commonwealth has become an easily derided organisation. From its inception as a clever way of easing de-colonisation to the heady 1970s and 1980s when the association showed a radical dynamism on issues like Apartheid, the international association has shown itself to be unique and useful.

However, today, the Commonwealth risks being drowned out in a more crowded field of international organisations, many with a clearer sense of purpose, more collective will and better resources.

Before the 2002 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in Durban, South Africa, Tony Blair reportedly said he would rather be at home watching football than meeting his fellow heads of state. A candid indictment of how irrelevant the Commonwealth has become?

Polling done in seven member countries to mark the launch of a public conversation on the future of the Commonwealth shows some worrying signs. Globally, only a third of people polled could name any activity carried out by the association and only about a third of people in Australia, Canada and Great Britain would be sorry if their country withdrew altogether.

No international organisation has a pre-destined right to exist and these poll results should be a wake up call to ask whether and how this association will be relevant in the 21st century.

This year the Commonwealth is 60 years old, and some have said that the association risks easing into a low-key retirement. Yet the organisation contains some of the worlds most developed and dynamic countries: two members of the G8; two members of the G8 plus 5; five members of the G20 and one member of OPEC. Outside Japan and the USA, the cutting edge countries in information technology and e-commerce are all Commonwealth members. The booming economy of India, the world’s largest democracy, is a founding member.

The Commonwealth will never become a trading bloc, like NAFTA or the EU. But the common cultures, legal systems and regulatory frameworks across so many Commonwealth countries are a great incentive for trade and cooperation between them. The Commonwealth itself accounts for some 30 percent of world trade.

Much more should also be made of the incredible people-to-people links that exist between Commonwealth countries. Buttressing the inter-governmental Commonwealth is an unparalleled network of civil society organisations and business networks that promote the exchange of ideas, people and much more. Organisations like the OECD or APEC cannot boast such a hinterland.

On issues like climate change, the Commonwealth could offer a unique informal space for dialogue between countries that might otherwise be at loggerheads in negotiations over binding commitments. Indeed, past leaders frequently say the true value of the Commonwealth lies in the opportunity for a unique informal dialogue that happens at Commonwealth leaders’ retreats.

Access to international markets presents great opportunities for poorer countries to trade their way out of poverty. If all Commonwealth countries, from giants like Canada to minnows like Tuvalu, agreed to take a decisive and common stance on trade issues, the Commonwealth voice could be a powerful force to kick-start the stalled Doha Development Round.

Through the Commonwealth Conversation, the largest ever public consultation about the future of the Commonwealth, the Royal Commonwealth Society hopes to help the Commonwealth recapture its relevance. As it stands the organisation is not articulating its strengths, aims or ideals.

This sixtieth anniversary presents a crossroads for the organisation. It can retire from the international stage it has served so well in its first 60 years or it could reinvigorate itself with renewed purpose to face the challenges of the 21st century. We should remind ourselves of the Commonwealth’s potential, and fully utilise this network to our advantage. Whether it is through promoting shared values or an agenda to tackle shared challenges, the Commonwealth needs to show it can make a real difference on key issues.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The Commonwealth is useful but it needs to be more grassroots. Why can’t the Commonwealth get local government leaders from around the member states together. That would help people compare notes who don’t have the resources for expensive ‘Fact Finding’ missions.


Posted by Andre Walker | Report as abusive

Andre – The Commonwealth Local Government Forum may be the organisation you’re looking for.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

The “Commonwealth” is an increasingly irrelevant body which should be allowed to die a natural death. There are far more relevant organisations such as the WTO and the UN which should be encouraged to become meaningful independent arbitrators of issues such as conflict, trade and climate change (although to me that one could be a red-herring to distract and crowd out other issues from the headlines). The Commonwealth has proven its ineptitude on issues ranging from Apartheid South Africa and the Smiths personal fiefdom of Rhodesia, corruption and dictatorship in any number of former British colonies through to more current issues such as Mugabe, Sri Lanka and Fiji. What’s the point in supporting a toothless talk shop… although if you’re lucky you might get to meet the Queen?

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

Peter H – I agree that the Commonwealth is increasingly irrelevant. The recent farce over Fiji is a case in point. Sri Lanka, Gambia… Zimbabwe.

However, your comments regards South Africa and Rhodesia (as it then was) are unfair. The Commonwealth gave great assistance to anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, particularly through their then Secretary General. He was not just a beurocrat, but an activist and campaigner. That is what is badly needed now.

Regards Rhodesia… it was the 1979 Lusaka declaration and Commonwealth pressure (from former Aussie PM Malcolm Fraser, amongst others) which forced Thatcher to agree to the Lancaster House conference which resulted in the end of Rhodesian minority white rule.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive