by Alan Osborn
In a world of increasingly sophisticated communications and rapidly
changing economic patterns, the Commonwealth may be about to play a
moresignificant role in the lives of its citizens than at any time for a
generation or more.
This seems particularly true in Britain where the ``UK Year of the
Commonwealth'' has been welcomed by the Government and by institutions
as aspur to give the Commonwealth a much sharper focus in British life.
David French, the newly appointed Director General of the Commonwealth
Institute, whose role is to promote the Commonwealth within Britain,
commented that "the Commonwealth has all the characteristics of organisations
that will flourish and succeed in the 21st century - that is to say
it's very light on structure and very strong on networks. That's the most
powerful thing that could be possibly said about it and for me a very
hopeful sign of the future''.
The Commonwealth is today as close to a family of nations as the
modern world can deliver. There are 53 members, astonishingly diverse in
their wealth, geography and culture yet bound by a common belief in
democracy, respect for human rights and the fight against poverty and injustice.
Growing from a handful of British colonies in the 19th century, the
Commonwealth now has a population of 1.6 billion - a quarter of the world's
and exists in every corner of the globe. Of the 53 members, 16 are
constitutional monarchies which recognise Queen Elizabeth II as their
Head of State, 32 are republics and five have their own monarchs.
But the Commonwealth is less an alliance of governments than it is of
peoples - an informal network of non-governmental organisations,
professional groups and committed individuals, linked through the
The Commonwealth itself is run by a 360-strong secretariat which
the focal point for its members. Based in London, the Secretariat is
staffed by 30 countries under the Commonwealth Secretary-General,
Emeka Anyaoku from Nigeria.
All member countries contribute to the budget on an agreed scale but
theCommonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC) which provides
hands-on expertise, advice and training to countries in need depends
on voluntary contributions. A number of more specialised bodies such
as the Commonwealth Youth Programme and the Commonwealth Science
Council (CSC) are also located in London but the Commonwealth of
Learning which fosters distance education is in Vancouver in Canada.
Between them the Commonwealth institutions offer valuable instruction
indemocratic technical and legal procedures particularly at times of
elections. More than 50 experts, for instance, helped South Africa in
itshistoric 1994 elections.
The Commonwealth is rich in natural resources, producing more than
the world's exports of cocoa, jute, rubber. tea, bauxite, nickel and
But all but four of its members are classed as developing countries
have an average Gross National Product of less than 500 dollars per
Economic development is thus a key aspect of the Commonwealth's work.
Experts advise poorer members on debt problems, restructuring,
privatisation, unemployment, food production, trade and exporting and
theencouragement of private enterprise.
The Commonwealth also serves as a forum for sharing scientific skills
through the CSC, for cooperation in education and for mutual
the fight against crime. Shared sport is a an outstanding Commonwealth
tradition. The Commonwealth Games, held every four years, are a major
on the international calendar, while cricket reigns supreme as the
game,'' played widely within the Commonwealth and almost nowhere
The Commonwealth's fundamental beliefs were set out in the 1971
Singapore Declaration which committed members to supporting the
United Nations, promoting equal rights, fighting racism and colonial
domination. The Harare Declaration of 1991 placed a new emphasis on
open, efficient and fair government while pledging assistance for
those countries embarking on democracy for the first time.
Since Britain joined the European Union in 1973 the Commonwealth has
inevitably assumed a lower profile in the UK. But a strong body of
opinion in Britain regrets this, arguing that Britain's membership of
the Commonwealth is unique among the European nations, offering a
priceless opportunity for the UK to bridge the gap between the
world's rich and poor. Now, as Britain prepares to host the biennial
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh from
24-27 October, there are clear signs of a change.
In a Mission Statement in May, the foreign secretary Robin Cook
said that the Government would aim to ``strengthen the role of the
Commonwealth, improve the prosperity of its members and improve the
cooperation between members.''
The theme of CHOGM this year is ``Trade, Investment and Development: the
Road to Commonwealth Prosperity.'' The government heads will also
discuss the status of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, the role of the Commonwealth
Ministerial Action Group and future membership.
The summit is expected to approve new criteria for Commonwealth
entry, in effect largely codifying existing conventions. Countries will have to
have an administrative or political connection with Britain or another
member of the Commonwealth, be a sovereign independent state and abide by the
basic Harare principles.
Beyond this, all members have to accept that the working language of
theCommonwealth is English and that the Queen, as the symbol of the
free association of the member countries, is the Head of the
Yemen, Palestine and Rwanda have all expressed an interest in joining
the Commonwealth. Fiji is likely to be re-admitted before the Edinburgh
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