The Commonwealth grows but still struggles

The Commonwealth grows but still struggles
President Cyril Ramaphosa pays a courtesy call on Her Majesty the Queen at the Windsor Castle. President Cyril Ramaphosa is on a working visit to London to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled to take place 19 - 20 April 2018. Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

The biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. which President Cyril Ramaphosa will be attending in London this week with some 40 other leaders of the 53-nation club, will be a “right royal occasion”, as the Brits say.

Commonwealth leaders attending the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will be holding their main meeting in St James Palace and their customary retreat in Windsor Palace and Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the organisation, will host them for dinner in Buckingham Palace.

Queen Elizabeth is known to cherish her role as the Commonwealth’s formal head and so has invited its leaders into her homes, as it were.

The Commonwealth is very personal for her,” says a British diplomat.

Which would be a bit ironic, if the BBC were to be believed, because it has reported that the Commonwealth leaders will be discussing, among many other things, whether or not the British monarch should remain the organisation’s head after Queen Elizabeth is gone. Or whether the member states should instead elect their future heads.

Commonwealth Secretariat officials insist the succession issue will not be discussed this week. But Elizabeth turns 92 on Saturday so the decision will have to be made quite soon.

The queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, is playing a prominent role in the summit’s youth forum, helping to maintain the royal family’s association with the Commonwealth.

Britain would presumably be punting for its monarch to remain head of the Commonwealth, which has risen in importance to the UK because of its impending exit from the European Union.

Increasing economic, political and other ties with other Commonwealth states is an important part of “Global Britain”, the country’s strategy to maintain and expand its international presence after Brexit.

Hosting this meeting therefore was something of a windfall for the UK and Prime Minister Theresa May. The summit was originally to be hosted by the tiny Pacific island state of Vanuatu until a cyclone damaged much of its infrastructure, so it was moved to London.

So May will chair the meeting at which leaders will discuss an array of political, economic and environmental problems under the theme of Towards a Common Future.

London must also be pleased therefore that the Commonwealth is growing. Though often still thought of as a rather anachronistic club of Britain and its former colonies, that’s no longer quite true. Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed in 2007 that “an applicant country should, as a general rule, have had a historic constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member…” but added, “save in exceptional circumstances”.

Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, was admitted in 1995 and Rwanda, a former German and Belgian colony, in 2009. So might be the tiny West African state of Togo, a former French colony, which has applied to join, though not yet formally.

According to Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, five more states have expressed an interest in joining. Gambia, which had walked out five years ago under President Yayha Jammeh, rejoined in February 2018 under new President Adama Barrow.

President Robert Mugabe withdrew Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in 2003 after it refused to lift its suspension of Zimbabwe in 2002 for undemocratic behaviour. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who toppled Mugabe in a largely bloodless coup last November, has said he would like to rejoin.

The Commonwealth Secretariat, Britain and South Africa, are keen for that to happen and so are other members. However, diplomats say Zimbabwe won’t join at this week’s summit as it has not yet formally applied and the process takes some time. But Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo will attend as an observer.

The UK would be willing to support re-entry provided Zimbabwe meets the admission requirements including demonstrating commitment to free and fair elections,” a British diplomat said.

Some other Commonwealth members are likely to take the same approach.

Commonwealth officials cite the continuing interest of new states in joining whenever they are asked, which is quite often, whether the club is still relevant in the 21st Century.

They reply that as an association of countries with common values – including democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and for free enterprise – as well as common customs and administrative procedures and (largely) a common language (English), the Commonwealth still has much to offer its members.

As a good concrete example, Scotland offers, in her biennial report, the “19% Commonwealth Advantage” in trade between Commonwealth members.

Brendan Vickers, economic adviser on international trade policy in the Commonwealth Secretariat, in his report, Revitalising World Trade: Issues and Priorities for the Commonwealth, explains the Commonwealth Advantage by saying that although the organisation is not a formal trading bloc, it has been found that when both bilateral partners are Commonwealth members they tend to trade 19% more and generate 10% more foreign direct investment inflows than otherwise.

The Commonwealth Secretariat ascribes this to “Historical ties, long-established trading relations, a familiar administrative and legal system, the use of largely one language, English, as the means of communicating with foreign partners and large and dynamic diasporas…”

Partly as a result, Vickers reports:

Intra-Commonwealth trade in goods and services has almost tripled since 2000. The share of intra-Commonwealth trade in Commonwealth countries’ total global trade has also increased, from about 15.2 to about 18% during the same period. Intra-Commonwealth trade is projected to surpass US$1-trillion over the next five years or so, and to reach close to US$2-trillion by 2030 even under a low growth scenario.”

Vickers suggests there could be scope for trade deals between “global Britain” post-Brexit and interested Commonwealth trading partners. There could also be “tremendous opportunities” to boost the UK’s trade post-Brexit, though negotiating such trade deals would take time.

However, Asmita Parshotam, of the SA Institute of International Affairs, cautions against Britain using the Commonwealth as a tool for national gain. She suggests that the growing importance of other groupings such as BRICS has reduced the Commonwealth’s importance.

And she advises the UK against competing with the European Union for allegiance from the many Commonwealth states which are also in the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) development partnership with the EU. This could jeopardise the greater benefits which these states derive from the EU, she suggests.

Vickers proposes nevertheless that the UK and the other richer Commonwealth states, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, should expand the duty-free access they now give to least developed states (including the many in the Commonwealth) by also admitting services and services suppliers from those countries, duty free.

He suggests this could cushion the small states against the unprecedented downturn in global trade. In 2016, world trade volume expanded by only 1.9% compared with average growth of about 6% over the almost three decades (1980–2007) prior to the global financial and economic crisis in 2008.

Certainly Ramaphosa made clear, as he left for London this week to attend the summit, that he thought the Commonwealth remained relevant, mainly for economic reasons. Even after the colonial period, he said, the Commonwealth remained a very important platform “which we are seeking to utilise to advance our economic interests”.

He said the Commonwealth’s focus had recently shifted to promoting investment and he presented his participation at the summit as part of a major drive he was launching to secure at least $500-billion of investment over the next five years.

The summit will of course focus on more than trade and investment. Ramaphosa’s office has also mentioned the discussions on 21st Century security threats; increasing the resilience of small and vulnerable states facing climate change (especially its impact on oceans); advancing the Commonwealth’s shared values and democracy, good governance and inclusivity.

It said South Africa would also be using the opportunity to lobby leaders for their votes for its bid to be elected to serve on the UN Security Council in 2019 and 2020 and to promote the centenary year of the birth of President Nelson Mandela.

A Commonwealth Secretariat official said the Commonwealth leaders would focus their discussions on “boosting intra-Commonwealth trade; security by greater co-operation to tackle global terrorism, organised crime and cybercrime; fairness through promoting greater diversity and good governance; and sustainability by building resilience among small, developing and vulnerable states to deal with climate change.”

The leaders are expected to adopt a Commonwealth Cyber Declaration, a Declaration on the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment, and the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter, which will establish the framework for sustainable ocean development. This is particularly important when so many Commonwealth members are small island states.

Despite its growing membership – mostly in small states which derive benefit from the largesse of the bigger, richer members – the Commonwealth’s financial woes suggest it is still struggling to justify its existence.

Scotland points out in her latest report that core funding for the Secretariat has dropped from £51.9-million in 2012/2013 to just £32.3-million pounds in the 2018/2019 budget, a decline of over 37%. This is mainly the result of decreases in voluntary contributions from member states. However, the richer states continue to fund key projects.

But the declining budget has forced Scotland to cut costs quite drastically, including slashing the Secretariat staff from 295 in June 2016 to 223 currently. Among the retrenchments were three deputy secretaries-general.

So the Commonwealth doesn’t offer much hard cash to its members. However, the word “toolkit” appears countless times in Scotland’s report, underscoring that the organisation’s main contribution to its members is in sharing know-how and Commonwealth values.

That can be highly political, as when the Secretary-General used her “good offices” to defuse a crisis in Zambia in 2017 by persuading President Edgar Lungu to drop ridiculous treason charges against opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema for refusing give way to Lungu’s motorcade.

The Commonwealth also engages members for violations of the Commonwealth Charter, and has in the past suspended offending states, such as Zimbabwe, for doing so. The Commonwealth also sends election observer missions to most of its member state elections as another way of boosting democracy.

It is not always successful, though, in instilling its values.

For example, 40 of the 53 member states reportedly still outlaw homosexuality, despite the Commonwealth Charter asserting that members are “are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.

The Secretariat’s response to this anomaly is to say that it “provides technical assistance to national institutions such as national human rights institutions, parliaments and faith leaders in order to build capacities to engage in national dialogue on issues around inclusion and equality”.

The organisation is also trying to improve movement of citizens between member states.

In the judicial field, it has recently produced a model law for member states on judicial service commissions, to help ensure independence in the way judges are appointed, disciplined and dismissed.

The Commonwealth’s more technical and economic toolkits typically include a Climate Finance Access Hub which does not provide members with funds itself, but helps them to tap into climate funds elsewhere, such as through the UN.

It has also produced a Commonwealth Trade Finance Facility which will help especially the Commonwealth’s 31 officially designated “small states” gain access to vital finances to boost trade such as export credit and guarantees.

And the Commonwealth is rolling out its Meridian debt management toolkit to help member states manage their debts, a rising problem across the developing world right now.

The Commonwealth’s Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) initiative helps to improve the capacities of sports administrators and other officials to boost sport as a means for promoting youth development and peace.

And then of course there are the Commonwealth Games which have just ended. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.