Image: © Commonwealth Secretariat

In the seventh of a series of scholarly articles marking the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, Dr Nicholas Watts, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) , examines the organisation’s strong development role on sustainability which improves problem solving and relevance.  

The relevance of the Commonwealth can only be established in a political context. When the Second World War ended, for example, and the British Empire started to fade, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was regarded as the creator of the modern Commonwealth as a new, pluralist grouping of nations with a commitment to common values.

This was also a time when the search was on for global and regional intergovernmental arrangements, such as the UN (1945) and NATO (1949), that could make a material contribution to post-war development and to peace and security. This helped make a Commonwealth relevant to Clement Attlee, who was leading a reformist government in the UK, one that was centrally concerned with economic recovery and political stability in Britain and abroad.

Today, of course, the political context in which we might establish the relevance of the Commonwealth has changed appreciably from what it was in the post-war years. From a UK perspective, for example, Brexit prioritises the negotiation of new global trading arrangements in which some Commonwealth countries might have a major role to play, but in which the relevance of the Commonwealth as a whole is much less clear.

Commonwealth leadership and membership now much more diverse

The leadership and membership of the Commonwealth are now much more diverse than either Nehru or Attlee might have imagined. Leaders are no longer likely to have been educated at a handful of UK universities – Nehru went to Cambridge and Attlee to Oxford – or even in major regional institutions, such as the University of the West Indies.

Many Commonwealth members are now small islands and developing states (SIDS). For them the political economy of Britain post-Brexit has far less salience and relevance, while coping with climate change and finding a path to sustainable development are issues of vital national interest.

Since its crucial role in the ending of apartheid, the organisation’s other major achievement took place at the 2015 heads of government meeting in Malta where its members agreed to endorse the Paris Accord on climate change and the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). Given the significant representation of SIDS, there is a strong case to be made for the Commonwealth to become an intergovernmental voice for advancing a blue economy (open source) agenda, advocating for and protecting those who become the victims of climate change and rising sea levels.

As awareness of ocean challenges grows, the global profile and relevance of the Commonwealth could also grow. Therefore, there is a case for Commonwealth relevance – but more work needs to be done to assess its on-going achievements. A defensive mind-set restricting access to information and debates around policy making in the Secretariat certainly doesn’t help its case.

There are other ways in which the present-day Commonwealth could raise its visibility and demonstrate its relevance on the global stage. For example, in an era where Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, is comfortable talking about returning museum artefacts to their respective nations, the Commonwealth could become a world forum for a much broader and more pointed discussion of postcolonial repatriation. There could also be a role for it in transforming governmental institutions.

Education standards and knowledge exchange have long been a Commonwealth strong suit. And the notion that Commonwealth organisations devoted to education and the development of skills for the SDGs could be the basis for giving member states the ability to collect and use the data they need for evidence-based policy evaluation is both powerful and attractive. This is the Commonwealth in potentia.

Sustainability and personal well-being at heart of Commonwealth future

However, its best hope for becoming more relevant and make a difference in the world does not lie in becoming an instrument of postcolonial justice (on the reparations debate), nor in remaking what is in many cases still a colonial machinery for policy implementation. It lies in transforming into a model for development that meets the SDGs and the climate goals to which the Commonwealth is already committed.

It lies in setting the parameters for and in pursuing what might be called a ‘Commonwealth 21st Century Development Paradigm’, with the Commonwealth acting as an organisational world leader for development according to the principle of universality in the SDGs.

This would be an opportunity to start a conversation about indicators of development that move beyond GDP and entertain alternative criteria for measuring prosperity and human wellbeing. Examples are the Social Progress Index, the Happy Planet Index, or the Legatum Prosperity Index. On these indices, Malawi and Rwanda deliver better outcomes for their people than a more traditional calculation of their GDP per capita suggests.

The universal applicability of the SDGs would invite the transfer of Commonwealth examples of good practice to the broader pursuit around the world of an approach to economic and trade expansion where measures of personal wellbeing are firmly rooted in sustainable livelihoods.

It would also be an opportunity to bring some closure to a long-festering and still unresolved dispute within the Commonwealth about the role civil society can and should play in achieving Commonwealth objectives. These governments can’t do all the work themselves. So, what constructive and ongoing role can accredited and non-accredited, Commonwealth organisations play in moving the 21st Century Development Paradigm forward? That is a question the modern Commonwealth needs to be able to answer.

Dr Nicholas S J Watts is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Also in this ‘Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting’ series:

Crisis, what crisis? The Commonwealth’s cross-racial character makes for a saner world and ensures its relevance

On the record: the grassroots relevance of the Commonwealth 

When the future is bright, who needs a phoenix? 

Beyond compare: a commonwealth of people and ideas

Student voices from Commonwealth countries

Visible engagement – essential for the rule of law and human rights

Commonwealth of nations – not Britain

From apartheid to Brexit – decolonisation is a two-way street

The Commonwealth and me – a view from West Acton, the last in this series, will be published on 18 April

More information

Re-engaging with the Commonwealth? Gambia and Zimbabwe (16 April)

The state of the Commonwealth (19 April) British Library debate and launch of Professor Murphy’s iconoclastic book, The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth in which hestrips away the gilded self-image of the Commonwealth to reveal an irrelevant institution wallowing in imperial amnesia’ (Joanna Lewis, associate professor of international history, LSE).