Foreign Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence from the Royal Commonwealth Society


The Commonwealth suffers from a growing perception that it is not living up to its purported values. At a time when the public, media and governments are losing faith in the association, pressure is mounting for the Commonwealth to realise its ambition, achieve its potential and prove its relevance.

The Royal Commonwealth Society’s Commonwealth Conversation, the largest public consultation on the Commonwealth, confirmed what many had feared about the plummeting profile of the Commonwealth and public cynicism toward the institution. Many of the Commonwealth Conversation’s recommendations were further echoed in the report submitted by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to Heads of Government in Perth.

Research conducted by the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) into favourable trading patterns within the Commonwealth suggests an underreported, and underexploited, advantage for the association.

Bold reforms must be undertaken if the intergovernmental Commonwealth is to survive in a highly competitive global environment. In order to prove its relevance, the Commonwealth must be seen to promote and uphold its stated values and principles. Implementing key EPG recommendations, including appointing a Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights, could help the Commonwealth regain its moral leadership.

The RCS’s experience at the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth prove there is a great deal of opportunity for civil society to undertake pan-Commonwealth initiatives leveraging the shared values-base of the wider institution to impact positively on the international development agenda. A revitalised People’s Commonwealth will be critical.

A strengthened and streamlined Secretariat, delivering more effective Heads of Government and Ministerial meetings, could enable the Commonwealth to make an invaluable contribution to broader social and political development outcomes. The future of the entire project relies on political and financial commitment from member governments, courageous leadership from the Secretariat and a dynamic and engaged civil society.

Author Biographies

The Royal Commonwealth Society

Founded in 1868 and headquartered at the Commonwealth Club in central London, the RCS is an international charity engaging people in the modern Commonwealth through events, educational, youth and cultural programmes, member activities and a branch network in over 40 countries. HM Queen Elizabeth II is Patron.

Dr Danny Sriskandarajah

Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah became the Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) in January 2009. Dr Sriskandarajah is an established researcher and commentator on international migration, economic development, the political economy of conflict and ethnic diversity. Before joining the RCS, Dr Sriskandarajah spent five years at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), where he finished as Deputy Director and head of the institute’s Migration, Equalities and Citizenship team. In October 2011, Dr Sriskandarajah was named one of Devex’s “Top 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders”.

Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner became Chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society in 2009. Mr Kellner is the President of YouGov, a research, opinion polling and consulting organisation. Formerly the political analyst for BBC Newsnight, over the last 30 years he has also been a journalist with The Sunday Times, The Independent, New Statesman and Evening Standard. He was a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford and the Institute for Policy Studies.

Does the Commonwealth retain a purpose and value? How has the Perth CHOGM impacted upon this purpose and value?

1. The comparative advantage of the intergovernmental Commonwealth comes from its commitment to shared values and principles, enshrined in numerous Commonwealth Declarations. The intended purpose and value of the Commonwealth, and indeed much of the purported moral authority of the institution, stems from this commitment. Ostensibly, this should be what distinguishes the Commonwealth in a crowded global marketplace: as a values-based organisation, its members united in their dedication to democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and sustainable economic and social development.

2. However, there is a growing disconnect between action and word in the Commonwealth; an impression which is far from baseless. Today, the association too often fails to “walk the talk” and this failure is doing untold damage to its reputation, identity and profile. Undemocratic regimes, human rights abuses and inequality abound in today’s Commonwealth, creating cynicism and confusion about what the association actually stands for.

The Commonwealth Conversation

3. Research conducted by the RCS further confirms the decaying public profile of the institution. Between July 2009 and March 2010, the RCS conducted the largest-ever public consultation on the future of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Conversation concluded with a call for bold reform and greater investment if the 54-member association hopes to avoid being marginalised. It is widely understood that the Commonwealth Conversation was a precursor to—and catalyst for—the creation of the Eminent Persons Group, who themselves presented a bold set of reform proposals to leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia in October 2011.

4. The Commonwealth Conversation gathered the opinions of tens of thousands of people through a range of methods including a website, nationally representative surveys, opinion polling, events and online focus groups. On average, people in developing countries were twice as likely to think the Commonwealth was important compared to developed countries. Indians value the Commonwealth more than America or South Asia. South Africans value it more than America or Africa. Yet, Canadians are four times more likely to value America higher, Australians are twice as likely to value Asia higher, and the Commonwealth comes a distant third behind Europe and America to Britons. In general, of the countries polled, the Commonwealth was least valued in Great Britain.

5. The report makes clear that the association has neither the clout nor the resources to fulfil its potential. Its official institutions, charged with promoting development and democracy across its member states, have a workforce half a percent of the United Nations and an annual budget 1% of that of the UK Department for International Development. The Secretariat’s budget has dropped by 21% in real terms within the last 20 years, despite the number of Commonwealth members rising from 48 to 54.

6. But additional funding will be no panacea. The association is perceived as failing to live out its values and principles. Bolder leadership, more ambition and innovation, and a better use of its unique strengths will be crucial to long-term survival.

7. The Commonwealth Conversation’s final report, An Uncommon Association, A Wealth of Potential, contains recommendations for the entire Commonwealth “family”, some of which were echoed in the Eminent Persons Group’s report presented to Heads of Government in Perth. The ten recommendations:

The Commonwealth must “walk the talk” on the values and principles it claims to stand for.

The Commonwealth needs stronger leadership if it is to have a meaningful voice on world affairs.

The Commonwealth is often seen as anachronistic and fusty. It needs to become bolder and much more innovative in the ways that it works.

To attract more investment and correct misperceptions of being largely ceremonial, the Commonwealth needs to prove its worth by measuring and demonstrating its impact.

The Commonwealth must stop spreading its limited resources too thinly and instead identify and exploit its unique strengths.

Greater investment is needed if the Commonwealth is to fulfil its potential.

The Commonwealth is a complex association. It must clearly communicate its identity, purpose and achievements in an accessible way.

Lengthy Commonwealth communiqués and statements appear unfocused and unattainable. They must be used to set priorities.

The Commonwealth is as much an association of peoples as it is of governments. The interaction between the two requires significant improvement.

The Commonwealth is often seen as elitist. It must reach wider, become less insular and engage beyond narrow Commonwealth circles.

The Commonwealth after Perth

8. Despite the discomforting results of the Commonwealth Conversation, the purpose and value of the Commonwealth remains. Its greatest strength is the high level of trust across the Commonwealth family, underpinned by collective values. These values, when properly protected and promoted, lend the Commonwealth credibility and moral authority. They allow the Commonwealth’s work to include the sensitive issues of governance and human rights, the latter being the defining issues of the 2011 CHOGM held in Perth, Australia in October.

9. There was much anticipation, and controversy, surrounding the EPG’s report, but many civil society representatives and indeed, even some governments, were left disappointed as many of the most potent reforms recommended by the EPG which dealt with human rights—including the creation of a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights—were “deemed inappropriate for adoption” or relegated “for further discussion”.

10. The EPG’s report distilled and codified not only the stated values and principles of the Commonwealth, but also the views and aspirations of almost 100 Commonwealth civil society and professional organisations.

11. Many civil society organisations were emphatic in their endorsement of the Commissioner role recommended by the EPG. In this act, Commonwealth civil society defined the association as one whose purpose is to uphold certain agreed upon values. When the Heads of Government failed to accept the creation of a Commissioner post, Commonwealth moral authority shifted.

12. The values of the association have been undermined by the intergovernmental actors, through flagrant human rights abuses in member countries, or the silence of an overly-cautious Secretariat. But it was the 2011 CHOGM which marked an important moment for Commonwealth civil society and the RCS in particular. The RCS, in partnership with global children’s charity Plan, embarked on a sophisticated campaign, resulting in Commonwealth leaders formalising historic first steps toward ending early and forced marriage across the Commonwealth (P. 5(f), 2011 CHOGM communiqué).

13. This success proved the Commonwealth can be a space for non-government actors to impact the global development agenda. The RCS and Plan are now targeting Commonwealth Ministerial meetings in the continuation of their joint campaign. It is unfortunate that a number of EPG recommendations (R75–78) intended to improve the impact and efficiency of Commonwealth ministerial meetings were deemed inappropriate for adoption.

14. Nonetheless, rather than continuing to knock on the door of the institutional Commonwealth, civil society organisations like the RSC can act as though the EPG’s report has been implemented; we can leverage our vast Commonwealth networks and expertise to be bold and idealistic, to speak out when the institutional Commonwealth falls silent, and to improve the development performance—and the reputation—of the entire Commonwealth project.

15. Perth could be seen as an opportunity squandered, but also as a challenge accepted. If the institutional Commonwealth does not have the appetite for change, the real purpose and value of the Commonwealth concept may still be achievable with civil society at the helm, promoting and embodying the values that so many governmental actors seem unwilling to claim.

What benefits does the UK’s membership of the Commonwealth bring in terms of trade?

16. In September 2010, the RCS published a research paper, Trading Places: The “Commonwealth Effect” Revisited, which used a revised methodology to develop work first carried out in the late 1990s by Lundan and which showed a significant “Commonwealth Effect” on trade and investment.

17. This research demonstrates that a Commonwealth country’s trade with another member is likely to be a third to a half more than with a non-member, even after taking into account other possible contributory factors such as proximity, level of development and language.

18. The research also reveals that, over the last two decades, the importance of Commonwealth members to each other as sources of imports and destinations for exports has grown by around a quarter and third respectively. Other key findings from the report:

Between them, Commonwealth countries traded around US$4 trillion worth of goods in 2008.

Intra-Commonwealth trade accounts for about one-sixth of the total value of trade amongst member states, and, because some countries do such heavy Commonwealth trade, the average for each member state is about a third.

The share of intra-Commonwealth trade has grown steadily from around 12% in 1990 to around 16% in 2008.

The Commonwealth dominates trade in some countries; for example more than four-fifths of Botswana’s and Namibia’s imports come from other Commonwealth countries; and more than 90% of the exports from Saint Vincent and Samoa go to other Commonwealth countries.

The value of trade between pairs of Commonwealth member states is between 38 and 50% higher than between pairs of countries where one or both are not Commonwealth members, controlling for other factors.

19. Over three trillion US dollars in trade happens within the Commonwealth every year and its countries have seen over 200 billion US dollars worth of investment over the last 10 years. The business-related aspects of Commonwealth membership seem to be increasingly attractive to current and potential member states. For example, it is estimated that one billion US dollars worth of new business and investment deals were done on the fringes of 2009 CHOGM, yielding a significant windfall to the host country Trinidad and Tobago. Similarly, in explaining Rwanda’s interest in joining the Commonwealth, President Paul Kagame repeatedly highlighted increased trade, investment and business opportunities as a primary motivation.

20. Our research shows that there is a considerable trade advantage to be found in the Commonwealth, providing further compelling evidence to suggest that Commonwealth membership does present some tangible benefits. But while the data collated shows there is a clear relationship between Commonwealth membership and increased trade and investment, but it doesn’t explain causality. Future research to explore the reasons for a Commonwealth effect would help to build a more complete picture. If it can be shown that the effect does not just reflect past relationships, but implies an under-utilised resource which is able to be leveraged, then the possibilities of realising growth potential throughout the Commonwealth can be improved.

21. The results of the study are also telling given that the relative importance of economic and trade issues in Commonwealth life is small. Considerable attention is given to the inter-governmental aspects of the Commonwealth, yet, apart from the relatively new Commonwealth Business Council, no other Commonwealth organisations are explicitly devoted to promoting trade, investment or business links across the association. This could well suggest that much of the Commonwealth effect accrues despite not being a key focus of Commonwealth institutions.

22. With a rapidly changing global economic landscape and the increasing ease of conducting business across the globe, the comparative advantage of historical ties is likely to be diminishing. With almost a tenth of current Commonwealth member states having not been British Colonies and the prospect of more new members with little historical ties, the Commonwealth effect may also diminish. Yet, given the relatively small scale on which Commonwealth business and trade is currently promoted, the potential for the association to nurture these links is large. Indeed, if handled well, it could well be the economic ties and not political bonds that end up being the truly unique feature of the Commonwealth.

What is the future of the Commonwealth and what reforms are needed if the Commonwealth is to be successful?

23. If the Commonwealth is to halt its worrying decline into impotence and irrelevance, and if it is to function as the strong, dynamic and transparent association it can be, it must then demand all its member states uphold the commitments they have made to democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and sustainable economic and social development. Without a willingness and commitment by member governments to see its principles upheld, membership of the Commonwealth is devalued and the association’s identity and purpose are doomed to be irreversibly undermined.

24. We would suggest there are a number of practical measures the Commonwealth could take to uphold and support is values and principles. At the intergovernmental level the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group can swiftly implement the recent revisions to its mandate, intended to allow for a wider interpretation of its role when faced with sustained human rights violations in the Commonwealth, not simply after the unconstitutional overthrow of a member government. Properly used, CMAG could go a long way towards turning the Commonwealth into an association that lives out its principles.

25. At the level of the Secretariat, more must be done to ensure the position of Secretary-General has a proactive public voice upholding the association’s values. The identity, profile and influence of the entire Commonwealth would be strengthened as a result. This particular recommendation has also been made by the EPG (R 19), which has been referred to a Task Force of Ministers for more detailed advice.

26. The Secretary-General should develop a clear and prioritised vision to maximise the Commonwealth’s contribution to development framed around:

(i)upholding Commonwealth values;

(ii)campaigning on global issues; and

(iii)networking for north-south, south-south co-operation, as recommended by the EPG.

27. The Commonwealth’s development activity is valued by its membership, but few would deny that there is considerable potential to strengthen its impact. The scale of the Commonwealth’s programmes is small in financial terms—its budget is roughly one quarter that of Oxfam. Despite this, its demand-based approach means that it works across many sectors, spreading limited resources too thinly. Some Commonwealth programmes duplicate activities already being undertaken by others at greater scale and with greater impact.

28. The Secretariat struggles to demonstrate results and needs to strengthen its partnerships with other development actors. The Commonwealth’s governance structure lacks a forum for consideration of development issues and this reduces the co-ordination across the Commonwealth family. Finally, there is a need to broaden engagement with a wider circle of civil society and private sector partners.


29. The Commonwealth is no more and no less than the people who make up its membership and the people who serve it. If the Commonwealth is to show vision and leadership for the future, it will be because world leaders believe in it and inspire it. It is a matter of isolating issues of concern to member states, identifying the most effective way to resolve them using the association’s comparative advantage, and having the determination to pursue that solution with all the vigour and power that is available within the Commonwealth.

30. Whatever the attitude of Britain, the Commonwealth has the capacity to have a world influence, but it needs at its centre a leadership that is imaginative, that can understand current global problems and that has the energy and initiative to take effective action. It also needs effective civil society networks that can help spread and realise the values that underpin the association. Britain, within a vibrant and effective Commonwealth of Nations, has more influence in the world, to advance values that we all share, than would Britain alone.

23 January 2012

Prepared 14th November 2012