Is Commonwealth membership still relevant to countries today?

Sunday June 19 2022

Rwanda Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vincent Biruta (left) and Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland at a press conference in Kigali. FILE PHOTO | NMG


As world leaders descend on Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, questions linger about the organisation’s relevance in the 21st Century.

This year’s theme is “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”.

Read: Kigali day schools to close for CHOGM week

Analysts agree that the Commonwealth’s convening power — bringing together developed and developing countries from the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia Pacific — is its strongest link.

Critics say the Commonwealth is largely a talking shop. The absence of a formal constitutional framework limits its ability to impose sanctions on members that violate its values.

The challenge for the 57-year-old Commonwealth and the Secretariat is how to remain relevant.


“We live in a time of change, challenge and uncertainty. The pandemic cost Commonwealth countries more than $1 trillion in 2020 alone,” Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Commonwealth Secretary-General told members of the Eastern Africa Association at their annual summer reception on June 8 in London.

“We have a big job to do to help countries build back — and build back better. Climate change is now at code red for humanity — and the window for action is rapidly closing.”

She added that there is a need to help Commonwealth countries “navigate the dangers of conflict and instability in our world, not least in rising global food and fuel prices”.

Free association

Membership of the 54-member organisation was initially limited to former British colonies but evolved to the current “free association” of independent states, with the admission of Mozambique (1995) and Rwanda (2009). Togo is expected to officially submit its bid to join during the Kigali CHOGM.

Read: Rwanda drops everything for upcoming CHOGM

Zimbabwe is also expected to submit its request to re-join the bloc, which it left in 2003.

Analysts question what tangible and incremental development assistance the organisation will provide to its 32 small members, and 13 vulnerable and to least developed members.

With the Secretariat running on a budget of £50 million ($61 million) it is difficult to have meaningful impact.

“The future demands an expanded rather than, as some may wish, a receding development role for the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Secretariat,” Ransford Smith, former deputy secretary-general of the Commonwealth (2006 to 2013) told The EastAfrican.

Christopher Thornley, the High Commissioner for Canada to Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, says the Commonwealth has to focus on key areas where it has a comparative advantage.

“The primordial challenge of our time is climate change. The Commonwealth has shown itself willing to tackle this subject.”

According to Jo Lomas, UK’s Commonwealth envoy, the priority is delivering where it can really add value.

“For example, in supporting intra-Commonwealth trade ... We will continue to prioritise women and girls too, particularly in delivering on our commitment of 12 years of quality education by 2030,” she told The EastAfrican.