Commonwealth – the soft power network of the future

Lord Howell: 'We want the Commonwealth to play a key role in the unfolding opportunities and challenges that our increasingly networked world brings.'

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The Rt Hon Lord Howell of Guildford

Good morning.

It is a great pleasure to be here today, at what you have already heard is the centenary anniversary of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), or what it was called then, in July 1911, the Empire Parliamentary Association.

We are proud and privileged to be hosting this event and I hope that the focus and support that this Government, and Parliament, is demonstrating, shows you how valued the Commonwealth network is in the UK.

As you will know the aim of the Conference is to provide an opportunity to share best Parliamentary practice on a range of issues and policy areas that affect us all, no matter where we govern. And although the UK has a long and established Parliament, it does not mean that we think we know it all or have nothing to learn on how we can do things better. As time moves on in the interconnected world that we now inhabit, we must all strive to seek out new ways of thinking and tackling international problems such as security, sourcing energy, counter proliferation and climate change and to seek out new and more transparent ways to govern and connect with our citizens; our national citizens and more broadly how to connect to the citizens of the commonwealth, and the world. That is one of our biggest challenges as a commonwealth network and a subject that I would like to return to a little later.

Network for the 21st Century

So why are we so interested in the Commonwealth now? The Commonwealth is the soft power network of the future. The sheer breadth and diversity that the commonwealth typifies is extraordinary and is something to be celebrated.

For those that know me, you will know that I have always been interested in, supported and known that the commonwealth network has not been fully utilised. That is why I was thrilled to take this work forward in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The commonwealth provides a network unlike any other in the world. Our badge and brand of democracy unites us all.

The UK Government sees the Commonwealth network as a vital strand of our British foreign policy. A network that needs to be fully utilised by all its members as we navigate the new international landscape and the rise of emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Alongside economic power and influence shifting east and south, we now find ourselves more interdependent on other countries than ever before as we tackle global problems. The Commonwealth continues to bring together such a diverse range of countries and people across the world which is what makes it so increasingly relevant and ideally suited for the 21st century - we want it to play a key role in the unfolding opportunities and challenges that our increasingly networked world brings.

We want the Commonwealth to continue to make its voice heard, especially on the climate issue, and the related issues of energy security and energy transition. This is particularly important as 32 of the smallest and most vulnerable states belong to the Commonwealth. Dr Mike Cherrett, an official from the Foreign & Commonwealth office, will talk to you in a moment in more depth about this gravely important issue.

And the Commonwealth network provides us all links to other global networks which can benefit us all. For example, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia link us to ASEAN and make up a quarter of its entire GDP. Canada is the third largest economy in the Commonwealth, and an important gateway to the USA for many countries, and Britain can provide a gateway into the European Union. 44 of the G77 countries are members of the Commonwealth, as are 19 of the 39 African Union countries, 12 of the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, 10 of the Pacific Island Forum, and seven of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. This equates to huge opportunities for our partnerships within the Commonwealth to help us all to compete in these peripheral markets.

The Commonwealth network with its shared principles of democracy, good governance, similar legal systems and a shared language is ideally placed to provide solid foundations for doing business and a platform for trade, investment, development and in turn prosperity for all its members. I see an increased commitment to democratic values and increased trade as two sides of the same coin.

Growing Commonwealth Trade

There is a growing economic dimension to the Commonwealth’s Success. Trade worth over $3 trillion happens every year within the Commonwealth. Its combined GDP nearly doubled between 1990 and 2009. It contains several of the world’s fastest growing economies that will shape the global economy of the future, including India, South Africa, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore, and five members of the G20. The middle class in the Commonwealth has expanded by nearly one billion people in the last two decades. And the Commonwealth contains just under a third (31%) of the global population as a whole, representing a huge and growing consumer market.

The relative importance of intra-Commonwealth trade has increased significantly over time. Over the last two decades the importance of Commonwealth members to each other as sources of imports has grown by a quarter and by a third as destinations for exports. More than half of Commonwealth countries now export over a quarter of their total exports to other Commonwealth members.

The recent Royal Commonwealth Society paper that you will be familiar with, ‘Trading places: the Commonwealth effect revisited’, made it clear that there is indeed a ‘Commonwealth factor’ when it comes to intra-Commonwealth trade. The research found that when both trading partners were Commonwealth members the value of trade was likely to be a third to a half more than when one or both of the trading partners was a non- Commonwealth country.

This ‘factor’ can be explained in part by the common history, culture and beliefs that tie Commonwealth member states together. Other factors that make trading between Commonwealth member states preferable and more economical include the common language - English, and the shared legal systems.

The fact that the Commonwealth is good for business can be clearly seen in the facts. Five of the top 10 countries in which to do business are Commonwealth countries, and 17 of the top 20 countries in which to do business in sub-Saharan Africa are Commonwealth. No wonder the Commonwealth brand is increasingly sought after, and the Commonwealth ‘badge’ increasingly valued.

Commonwealth not just rhetoric

And it is not just rhetoric. Commonwealth member states are investing in the Commonwealth family where the wealthiest countries in the world, sit alongside some of the poorest. Australia and India are increasing their commitment to Commonwealth countries in Africa. AusAid has pledged £210 million for 2011/12 for Africa, with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, which is, as you all know, predominantly Commonwealth. India provides about £7 million a year to the 19 African members of the Commonwealth through its Special Commonwealth Assistance in Africa programme. And you would have heard from the Right Honourable Andrew Mitchell, UK Minister for Development, on the increased bilateral assistance funding to 27 countries, over half of which are in the Commonwealth. In addition to the UK’s total contribution of £30 million annually to Commonwealth development programmes and institutions.

We want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade. We want the Commonwealth to become a leading voice in the global economy, working to liberalise trade, break down barriers for international business, resist protectionism and contribute to the Doha Development Agenda.

CHOGM, Eminent Persons Group and the future

And as one of the major donor states, we are pushing hard, alongside our commonwealth partners to help this network adapt in order that it may achieve its full potential and therefore meet the needs and aspirations of all its members.

It is not just the UK that is waking up to the Commonwealth’s great potential. As you will know at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad and Tobago all Commonwealth members recognised the need for the Commonwealth to look to the future and ensure we are an organisation that fully realises its potential on the global stage, plays to its strengths, upholds its values and works to increase the prosperity of all its members.

The next Heads of Government meeting in Perth in October, in now what is less than 100 days, has the potential to be a transformational one for the Commonwealth. We have a real opportunity to shape the Commonwealth network to react, engage and lead on the world stage, a stage on which the Indian Ocean, and all the states surrounding it are increasingly taking a central place.

At Perth Heads will consider the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group; contemplate the findings of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) review; and importantly, as a united body, discuss the complex global challenges that we all face.

The UK has strongly supported the Eminent Persons Group process and we welcome their emerging recommendations of championing commonwealth values; advocating for small and developing countries by taking collective interest in issues such as debt relief and climate change, and ensuring that Commonwealth institutions are fit for purpose, focussed and working to commonwealth strengths and most importantly are connecting with the commonwealth citizens. We feel it is important that the Commonwealth returns to its brand strengths of democracy and development.

We want a strengthened CMAG that protects our values, but is also able to work constructively and offer encouragement to those facing challenges to democratic development. We believe that small and vulnerable states should feel that the Commonwealth network offers them a solid platform from which to voice their opinions and to receive timely assistance and support on issues such as climate change. And we want the Commonwealth to lift the prosperity of all its members through increased free and fair trade.

Our challenge between now and October is to raise awareness of, and build support for, the EPG recommendations. We are working closely with like-minded partners and the EPG members themselves to do this, identifying opportunities for outreach events in all regions of the Commonwealth.
It is right that the EPG process is a public one, as we are all interested parties in the future of the Commonwealth. So everybody, every member of the Commonwealth, every parliamentarian in this room, must play their part, by stimulating and taking part in the debate and then putting these words into action to shape the future of the Commonwealth.

As I said, Perth could and should be a defining moment for the Commonwealth. Heads will need to take bold and vital decisions, in response to the EPG recommendations, which will shape the role of our unique organisation, help it to realise its potential and forge associations and its brand identity with the youth of the Commonwealth, so that it may have more impact in the future. None of us should shy away from accepting the Eminent Persons Group’s challenge.

It is apt that the official theme for CHOGM 2011 is, Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience. It captures one of the Commonwealth’s key strengths - its enduring resilience. We fully support Australia’s desire as hosts to strengthen the Commonwealth’s effectiveness in supporting democracy, including the essential work that women play across the Commonwealth network as Agents of Change, the protection and projection of human rights, supporting the rule of law and good governance. I hope that this conference can begin insightful discussions that can continue at CHOGM, that build on the solid foundations of our shared commonwealth values, but that arm us with agility to respond to the new global landscape.

Updates to this page

Published 26 July 2011