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.

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