Back in the old days, the United Kingdom’s view of the Commonwealth was - ‘They’re common, and we’re wealthy’.
As the Commonwealth meets again in Marrakech, Morocco, this week, the revival of this moribund organisation- a relic of Britain’s colonial past is once again under the spotlight. In terms of realpolitik the Commonwealth has recently been revived mainly to boost “Global Britain” in a post-Brexit world, in order to explore and deepen trade opportunities with its ex colonies that straddle much of the globe - hence the motto the “empire where the sun never sets”.
Many decades later these unequal relations continue. When one unpacks the Commonwealth today and its agenda, it’s a hodge-podge of themes – from climate change to healthcare and parliamentary – democracy building. These themes are already part of the UN and its work on the Sustainable Development Goals. By reviving the Commonwealth, it merely gives additional diplomatic burden on many poorer nation states who need to navigate a complex global order to secure a decent development deal.
When one unpacks for instance Rwanda’s inclusion into the Commonwealth, and the controversial migrant return deal between the UK and Rwanda – a deal criticised by human rights groups, one sees mainly a pattern of UKs foreign interests taking front seat in the Commonwealth and relations with Africa. Whereas the real work needs to be done in multilateral reforms. While some agenda items on the Commonwealth are relevant, the problem with a revived Commonwealth is that its competes with many other global forums.
Take for instance Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health, which was born out of the United Kingdom-hosted COP26. So far 64 countries have joined, more than one third of which are in the Commonwealth. Yet, when on unpacking the G7’s Just Energy Transition JET investment plan (which UK championed), this has been less about development, and mainly a new batch of “green loans” for South Africa’s energy transitions. This model has been heavily contested as they’re repayable with interest further deepening Africa’s debt crisis and fiscal space, and with many vulnerable communities and workers set to lose in this model of the just transition.
The reality is that large swathes of the Commonwealth South nations are caught in a debt trap, and African government don’t have the capacity to participate from forums that have little in terms of substantive development prospects. Many of the themes of the Commonwealth essentially mirror that of the UN, so nations are better off focusing on the UN and G77 for real opportunities.
What should the Commonwealth focus on?
A bigger question is with a mushrooming of so many formations many poorer nations attend a conference every other month. This supermarket of global forums are a drain on most poor nations, whose diplomats are stretched to capacity and often confused.
If the Commonwealth were to stay relevant, it would prioritise the following: World Trade Organisation Reforms such as need for fair trade: Fair trade is a sure-fire way to get poor nations out of poverty. The developing South has a raw deal when it comes to agriculture, trade, commodities, service and intellectual property (IP).
Loss and Damage Funds committed at CoP28: The North including UK, Canada and Australia (all Commonwealth nations) have given lip service to climate change and CoP27.
Yet, they have not made substantial contributions to the loss and damage funds. Will they keep to their promises and contribute to the UN COP Loss an Damage funds proposal?
African debt crisis and write-offs: This most urgent crisis is the current African debt crisis whereby interest on serving debt is crippling the social development and state capacity to deliver. Will northern creditors and banks write off the debt? These are the core challenges facing the Commonwealth South nations such as Ghana, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Zambia who face deepening poverty an inequality and social crisis and need debt relief and loss and damage funds to deal with the myriad economics, social and climate change challenges.
Several weeks ago, BRICS Plus in South Africa and G20 in India also concluded their summits, with core themes from these various global platforms is the realisation of the need for sustainable development, cohesion and an inclusive multilateralism. They have understood the real challenge for the world order is in the “real development” domains. It is here that the best of multilateralism co-operation in the world is required. And resources are short as under-development and structural poverty, exclusion generally leads to conflict.
The Developing South/ Commonwealth South and Africa are better off in formations such as the G77 and BRICS Plus where substantial development prospects such as the New Development Bank NDB and Green industrialisation programs that is already providing better pathways out of poverty and contributing to sustainable development.
In a post-Covid world with shifting power to the East and South, there is real developmental dividends to be gained, but nations should choose formations that add value and contribute to national economic development, and not be bystanders of an old empire.
*Ashraf Patel is a senior research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL