Relevance of Commonwealth

This week, the British High Commission Malawi is fortunate to be hosting the Duke of Gloucester.

A big theme of His Royal Highness’ visit is the Commonwealth. He arrived on Commonwealth Day on Monday, March 12. The duke is here just a few weeks before the United Kingdom (UK) hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London next month.

As we have travelled around Malawi, including visits to Kasungu and Liwonde, we have asked people for their views on the Commonwealth.

Many people have shrugged or looked uncertain. Some people have mentioned the Commonwealth Games, but do not know what else the organisation does. Others have pointed to the Commonwealth’s history, but do not necessarily see a future role.

So what is the point of the Commonwealth?

If anyone ever asks you that question, here are three things that you might consider when giving your response:

Diverse network

Firstly, by being part of the Commonwealth, you are part of an incredibly powerful and diverse network.

The Commonwealth is a growing organisation of 53 countries, spanning every continent and containing a quarter of the world’s governments and every major world religion.

Almost 800 million Hindus, 500 million Muslims and 400 million Christians live in the Commonwealth. It contains India, one of the world’s most populous countries, and Nauru, one of its smallest.

Equal voice

But because of shared heritage, language, culture, law, education and democratic traditions, it is also a bit like a family.  Because of its informal structures, it allows for a relaxed and enriching meeting of minds and culture.

Every Commonwealth nation has an equal voice and smaller nations like Malawi have a chance to have their views and opinions heard on the international stage more effectively than in the wider structures of other international organisations.

In fact, the Commonwealth is best seen as a myriad of smaller effective networks within this large network.

There are many ways in which Commonwealth countries work together with looser arrangements, including through the non-governmental side.

Malawi has itself benefitted from these networks. For example, under the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust Commonwealth initiative, Malawi has worked with partners in 12 countries across three regions of the Commonwealth to eliminate blinding trachoma.

Through the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, Malawi has united with the Commonwealth family to create a pan-Commonwealth network of forest conservation projects.

The duke was delighted to unveil Malawi’s dedication to the Canopy during his visit to Chimaliro Forest in Mzimba.

Through the Queen’s Young Leaders programme, exceptional young people from across the Commonwealth, including from Malawi, have formed a unique community of 240 influential change-makers.

And through Commonwealth scholarships, 800 people are selected each year for postgraduate study, joining a network of scholars that are contributing to international development globally. His Royal Highness met some of Malawi’s scholars and was able to formally launch the Malawian Commonwealth alumni network this week.

Economic dimension

If the network is not enough to convince you of the Commonwealth’s value, then there is a growing economic dimension to the Commonwealth too.

Its combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has doubled since 1990. It contains several of the world’s fastest growing economies that will shape the global economy of the future, including South Africa and Nigeria.

The middle class in the Commonwealth has expanded by one billion people in the last two decades, and it contains 31 percent of the global population as a whole, representing a huge and growing consumer market. Perhaps most importantly, trade between Commonwealth countries has seen phenomenal growth, rising from about $200bn in 2000 to more than $600bn today and likely to surpass $1 trillion by 2020.

There is a clear trade advantage with bilateral costs for trading partners in Commonwealth countries on average 19 percent less than between those in non-Commonwealth countries.

Certainly in the UK, Brexit has focused minds on future trade and economic relations and global roles and we are excited about the opportunities we now have to expand relationships with Commonwealth partners like Malawi.

Finally in a world in which democracy and human rights are under assault in many quarters, the Commonwealth stands against oppression, racism and religious intolerance, giving it the potential for real moral authority as an international organisation.

The Commonwealth’s achievements are often unsung – from helping to bring an end to the monstrous injustice of apartheid to aiding Sierra Leone it its return to stability.

It has brokered agreements between troubled neighbours in Africa, helped calm tensions during contested elections in fragile democracies, and advised small States in international negotiations and at the United Nations (UN).

In this period of transition in world affairs, greater cooperation among the member States of the Commonwealth and more effective action to promote the values that bind us and that ultimately make us secure, are prizes worth striving for.

So the UK looks forward to hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in April under the theme “Towards a Common Future”.

The summit will reflect the richness and depth of the Commonwealth though a series of events in the run-up to the Summit and during the week of the summit itself, and the Summit’s priorities will have a strong youth focus.

As His Royal Highness travelled around Malawi, he has sung the praises of the Commonwealth and urged Malawians to join the debate on the priority issues that will be under discussion. I hope you will too. #ourcommonwealth.

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