The Commonwealth: why it struggles to remain relevant

Aug 1, 2014

Still described as 'neo-colonialist', the organisation is trying to prove it's about more than just politics


This weekend, Glasgow bids farewell to the Commonwealth games, but the debate about the importance of the organisation itself will continue long after the athletes have left.

The Commonwealth, made up of 2.2 billion citizens from 53 independent nations spanning six continents, has divided opinion for most of its existence.

But after celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, how relevant is an organisation that has often described as an "extension of colonialism"? A former director general of the Royal Commonwealth Society admitted to Channel 4 news that there is "widespread disinterest" and discontent within the organisation itself.

How do ordinary people feel about the Commonwealth?

In 2009 the Commonwealth conducted its largest-ever global poll across several member states. The results from Jamaica, Australia, South Africa, India, Canada, Malaysia and the UK revealed a "worrying mix of indifference, ignorance and imbalance".

The organisation discovered:

  • Support among developed countries is lowest. 
  • Only one in three people could name anything the Commonwealth did.
  • A quarter of Jamaicans think the organisation is run by Barack Obama. 
  • Britons were the third least likely to care about the Commonwealth.
The colonial legacy 

Formerly known as the British Commonwealth, the organisation was originally seen as a way of uniting former British Empire colonies.

Last year, the Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth, becoming the second country after Zimbabwe to sever links with the organisation. President Yahya Jammeh described it as a "neo-colonial institution".

"It has become clear that the sole purpose of the body is to promote white interests - that is why it was founded and that continues to be the case today", Didymus Mutasa, who was foreign affairs secretary for Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party when it left the Commonwealth told the BBC.

But commentators say these exits were more likely in response to criticism faced from other member states on their human rights record.

Human rights abuses 

The Commonwealth is often criticised for not going far enough to take action against countries guilty of severe human rights abuses.

In 2011, an eminent persons group made up of figures from across the Commonwealth suggested that widespread homophobia needed to be tackled, particularly in countries where it interferes with efforts to address and treat HIV/Aids, Al Jazeera reports.

But current statistics suggest little has changed. Of the 53 Commonwealth nations, 42 currently have anti-homosexuality legislation, with punishment varying from fines to the death penalty, the International Business Times reports. Campaigners argue that nothing has been done by the organisation to push for a change in these laws and attitudes.

But it isn't all about the politics 

Controversies and politics aside, its proponents argue that there is a much more human aspect to the Commonwealth. There is a section of the organisation commonly referred to as "the people's Commonwealth", which comprises of "hundreds of voluntary, independent, professional, philanthropic and sporting organisations" that work to help better the lives of people in those countries, according to research published by the Canadian Historica-Dominion Institute.

It gives everyone a voice 

Every two years, leaders meet at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to discuss issues affecting each country and the organisation as a whole. By allowing equal representation for all states it gives smaller nations an international platform they wouldn't otherwise have and creates a "forum for ideas that often do not get onto the mainstream agenda", says Professor Tim Shaw, director of the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Trade and aid benefits for developing nations 

Rwanda is the Commonwealth's newest member after being admitted in 2009, following a six year-long bid. President Paul Kagame told Voice of America that the trade and investment benefits would prove to be "pivotal" to the Rwandan economy and that his country had joined the Commonwealth "in the pursuit of opportunities and openness for Rwandan citizens".

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