Today I was in one of the study rooms at my University when I heard a fellow British student explaining to an American student his understanding of what the Commonwealth is and (ironically) what it means to member states to be a part of it. To sum up the exalted depiction of the Commonwealth that this individual conjured up, he mentioned how, based on recently reading an article about New Zealand’s rejection in their referendum to change the flag, that people do really still want to be affiliated with the Commonwealth. Another example included the Queen’s face still being printed on the Australian dollar as a sign of Australia’s everlasting loyalty to the royal family and the Commonwealth– failing to mention however the outrage that was also sparked by this. In all fairness, this was only a snippet of a conversation, but in explaining the Commonwealth to another individual, who is from a culture that does not have an equatable intergovernmental organisation and whom– I presume –has never really encountered it before, I find it worrying that it seemed to be reduced and packaged to the superficialities of flags and printed money, when the implications and expectations of being a member of the Commonwealth are so much more significant.
I’ve come to realise that the definition of what exactly the Commonwealth is changes drastically, according to the required diplomacy of who is asking and who is answering. Before we get into some shady territory, let’s start with the real, unvarnished facts. Formerly called the ‘British Commonwealth’ (before the British realised that the title might not be such a good idea, and decided to drop the allegiance to the crown from its statute whilst they were at it), the Commonwealth, formed in 1949 is rooted in British colonisation, or as supporters might rather prefer to hear it called, the British Empire. The idea behind it was to help assist with the process of ‘decolonisation’ of the British Empire by providing the countries with increased self-governance over its territories. The symbol of this organisation which now declared its member states as ‘free and equal’ is Queen Elizabeth II.
For supporters, the Commonwealth is an uplifting success story of British foreign policy, with the boasting statistic of it being home to 2.4 billion citizens testimony to this. Rather than being an organisation with a political agenda, it is one which prides its members states’ diversity in socio-economic development, religion and race, whilst also celebrating a shared common language and ‘historical link’.
For non-supporters, the Commonwealth is a glorified post-colonial trophy prize that consoles the British’s loss of their Empire whilst also claiming to somehow provide member states with a ‘free and equal’ platform (as if freedom is something you can actually give to people) and in reality, exerting very little influence and helping very little to realise any socio-economic growth. It is, in other words, primarily formed of a group of states brought together under the ‘unfortunate’ circumstances of having been plunder and exploited by the English.
But opinions aside, what does the Commonwealth promise to deliver? Well in their own words they are working with 53 other states to help ‘boost trade, celebrate diversity, strengthen governance, protect human rights, promote gender equality, regenerate the environment, create prosperity, and amplify the voices of small states’. If you ask me, that’s a whole lot of ’empowering’ to be done by the support of a Nation that still needs to work on their own corresponding issues.
The Commonwealth boasts that it is able to offer a platform for smaller states to voice their concerns regarding a range of related issues (according to the categories mentioned above) and in doing so, receive the necessary support and connections to foster change. Yet, considering that the Commonwealth has hardly any geopolitical power what is it really offering its state members? It has has no executive authority, very little– if any influence over non-members, no trade bloc privileges, not to mention it most definitely does not have the budget to play the global role it wants to assume. These countries would be better served investing their time and money into other organisations such as the UN or in their own intergovernmental organisations such as ECOWAS and EAC. Clearly, these member states each have a unique cultural background and very difficult histories which first need to be understood and acknowledged before a framework for development can be created for them. Does the Commonwealth even take into account cultural significance of traditional female roles or do they just hypocritically parade the need for ‘gender equality’? Do they truly identify the roots of public debt and corruption? Is their debit management programme suitable and effective for that particular state in terms of its cultural background? Is the benchmark for progression based on Britain’s own ‘progression’? I ask these questions because I am not certain whether even the state members ask these themselves, and let’s not pretend that the white-saviour industrial complex is still not a big issue for African nations.
As my fellow student rightly pointed out when he offered to have a debate, he, like everyone else, is entitled to his own opinion. Nonetheless, I say this– as a reminder to myself first and foremost –that it is our responsibility to make sure our opinions are as well informed as possible because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of a single narrative. In this case, the narrative of what looks good on paper and believing that what’s good on paper is what actually works. I would highly encourage anyone interested in the topic to do their own research, and most definitely critically engage with what I’ve written– don’t just take my word for it. Here are just a few (reliable) links to help you get started: