The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, last held in the UK 20 years ago, has become imbued with a new sense of purpose in this post-Brexit era. Yet, as the recent controversy surrounding the treatment of the Windrush generation has shown, the Commonwealth remains surprisingly prominent in the minds of the public, if not necessarily in those of their politicians.
Successive British governments have tried to manage a delicate balancing act between the UK’s blemished imperial record and the group’s potential as a future trading bloc. This has become particularly salient since the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
Strong voices around the Cabinet table are calling for the Commonwealth to become a core tenet of the UK’s future diplomatic strategy. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a £212 million fund to support girls’ education in Commonwealth member states was certainly part of a long-term charm offensive.
Yet despite the renewed focus in the UK, forging a coherent plan to re-engage with the Commonwealth remains challenging. Member states’ competing and conflicting priorities are compounded by the organisation’s staggering geographical diversity.
Commonwealth of contrast
The Commonwealth is marked by contrast. Its citizens make up over a third of the world’s population. This makes the organisation unique – both in terms of its diverse membership and geographical reach. It represents some of the smallest and largest nations in the world, while simultaneously containing both some of its wealthiest and most impoverished citizens. Its populations face a diverse range of challenges, from climate change to inequality, hunger to human rights. Such diversity of experience naturally leads to divergence of opinion. Securing agreement in the notoriously consensus-led organisation is a constant brake on meaningful change.
All of this is further complicated by the Byzantine politics which periodically wrack the organisation’s Marlborough House headquarters. Shepherding the Commonwealth’s hundreds of partner groups is a constant bureaucratic headache.
Global Soft Power
But for its advocates, meeting these challenges is more than worthwhile. They herald the Commonwealth as the soft power network of the future: a globalised collective of independent nations who possess shared values and international purpose. Unlike the UN – which as recent events in Syria has shown, remains perpetually stymied by the veto power of the permanent Security Council members – each of the Commonwealth’s 53 members have an equal say.
The united declaration issued by all Commonwealth leaders in the days leading up to the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, the argument runs, is testament to the power of the organisation’s collective action. The declaration, demanding an ambitious and legally-binding outcome from the Summit, was a defining catalyst in garnering almost universal international support for the Paris Climate Agreement.
Elsewhere, the Commonwealth Secretariat continues to offer technical assistance to member states who are battling with a range of modern global challenges, from climate change mitigation to combatting modern slavery and financial corruption. This technical expertise is back in vogue, and as the aid cycle slips away from cash grants towards capacity building, the Commonwealth is well placed to convene such efforts.
Fit for the future?
To its critics, however, the Commonwealth remains a historical anachronism fit only for photo shoots and waffling communiqués. There is, they argue, no real potential or desire for meaningful action. Much less reform.
Whatever your stance, it is clear that in a complex world, the global challenges of the 21st century require collective responses which transcend political and geographical boundaries. In this regard, the Commonwealth has shown a unique potential to address complex challenges where other international bodies have failed.
Where once the global community talked about poverty, the narrative has now shifted towards addressing inequality and promoting shared prosperity. Where there was previously a focus on hunger, there is a now a shift toward providing nutrition, feeding urban populations and tackling lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity.
On gender, the debate has moved from education to tackling violence and is now shifting towards issues of representation, pay and stereotyping. Other issues have also come to the fore, such as migration, technology, trade, big data, sustainable economies, and youth unemployment.
Many of these global issues are keenly felt right across the Commonwealth. Citizens of all member countries are facing adverse problems related to these challenges. For many, domestic solutions continue to remain all too sporadic and unequal.
Meeting challenges head-on
There is little to be gained by the Commonwealth becoming another global network where member states can air grievances or set lofty goals. The world is already full of action groups, committees, and organisations committed to multifaceted and often contradictory policies. Rather, if the Commonwealth is to truly break free from the legacy of the past and move proudly into the next chapter if its history, it needs to focus on tackling these global challenges head on.
So as the Commonwealth’s 53 heads of government meet to discuss the organisations’ future, it is worth remembering that for many of their citizens the Commonwealth remains detached, opaque and out of touch. This summit provides another chance to remind them, and the world, that it still has a place and part to play.