by Nicholas S.J. Watts, Senior Research Fellow 

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 increasingly looked set to fade, Nehru became the statesman who would be attributed the role of 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 both 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 at the time was leading a reformist government in the UK that was centrally concerned with economic recovery and political stability, both 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 prioritizes 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. 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 shared an education at a handful of universities in the UK – Nehru was a Cambridge man, Attlee went to Oxford – or even in major regional institutions, such as the University of the West Indies. And most of the member states of the Commonwealth are now small countries, many of them small island/developing states (SIDS), for whom the political economy of Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationships has far less salience and relevance, while coping with climate change and finding a path to sustainable development are issues of vital national interest.

Indeed, since the ending of apartheid, in which it played a major role, the Commonwealth’s major achievement has been to agree common ground among its members, at the 2015 Malta CHOGM, for endorsing the Paris Accord on climate change and the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). And, given the significant representation of SIDS in the Commonwealth, there is a strong case to be made that the Commonwealth could and should become an intergovernmental voice in the world for advancing a blue economy agenda, advocating for and protecting those who become the victims of climate change and sea-level rise. As global awareness of ocean challenges grows more than it has already, 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 the Commonwealth’s case.

The Commonwealth could become a forum for a broader discussion of postcolonial repatriation

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, the President of France, feels comfortable talking about returning museum artefacts to the countries from which they were acquired, 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 the Commonwealth to play in transforming governmental institutions. Education standards and knowledge transfers 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. On balance, however, the Commonwealth’s best hope for becoming more relevant and for making a difference in the world does not lie in making itself an instrument of postcolonial justice (on the reparations debate) or in remaking what is in many cases still a colonial machinery for policy implementation. It lies rather in making itself 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, among other things, be an opportunity to open a conversation across the Commonwealth about indicators of development that move beyond GDP and entertain alternative criteria for measuring prosperity and human well-being, such as those to be found in 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 might then 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. Commonwealth governments can’t do all the work themselves. So, what constructive and ongoing role can accredited (and non-accredited) Commonwealth organizations (COs) play in moving the 21st Century Development Paradigm forward? That is a question the modern Commonwealth needs to be able to answer.