The Commonwealth remains extremely relevant

Today, the Commonwealth is a key voice pushing for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Paul Thomas Arkwright

Vice Chancellor, Members of the Faculty, Students and other guests here present, I am honoured to be here today to talk to you about the Commonwealth and its role in the world today. I am particularly pleased to be able to do it this week – Commonwealth week - the week we celebrate the Commonwealth across the world.

This week I have been discussing with Nigerians – Ministers, journalists and my own team – what the Commonwealth means today, and for them. I have been harvesting these opinions from those I have met – in person and online – and I have been struck by the sheer variety of responses I have received. Some have told me when they think of the Commonwealth, they think of the Commonwealth Games and sport. Others have said they think of Her Majesty the Queen who is the head of the Commonwealth. And some have been frank in saying that for them the Commonwealth belongs to the past, and has no relevance for them.

I found that view challenging and I disagree with that view. I think the Commonwealth remains extremely relevant today, for all its members, and that means for the UK and Nigeria both. So I want to talk to you about how I see the Commonwealth, and the relevance I think it has today and for the future.

I will start by reminding us all of what the Commonwealth is. There are 52 countries that are members of the Commonwealth today. They come from six continents, and make up a population of nearly 2.4 billion people. That means roughly one third of the world’s population lives in a country that is a member of the Commonwealth. And those countries make up one quarter of the world’s land mass. Most striking for me, as I look at this audience here today which includes many students, is that 1 billion of those 2.4 billion people are children or young adults under the age of 25 years old. That is a lot of young people and a huge amount of human potential.

As a trading bloc, the combined gross national income of all Commonwealth states is 10.7 trillion US dollars. Trade between the UK and Nigera in 2016 was 2.5 billion US dollars. Global trade between Commonwealth states as a whole is estimated today to be over 680 billion US dollars. But by the year 2020, we expect that to have grown to be 1 trillion US dollars. Those numbers are huge and show you the scale of what is happening within the Commonwealth today in terms of trade, investment and the jobs that are created out of that trade and investment.

There is more I could say about the diversity of the Commonwealth. For example it includes some of the largest countries in the world, including India, but also some of the smallest like Malta or small island states in the south Pacific. Clearly there is a strong connection between Commonwealth states and the UK and its past. But not all countries in the Commonwealth were former British colonies. Some of the Commonwealth’s newest members, like Rwanda and Mozambique have a very limited connection to British history. The fact that those countries were keen to join the Commonwealth family says something about what the Commonwealth offers today and how the Commonwealth is seen today.

So let’s move on to what the Commonwealth does offer today. I think the first thing the Commonwealth offers is a community of shared values. Not just any country can join the Commonwealth. There are core principles you must agree with and sign up to. These were set out in the Commonwealth Charter in 2012. And they are clear that countries have to pass a test to be a member and must uphold those principles to remain a member. And part of that test is evidence of democracy or as the test puts it “democratic processes” in the country in question.

Now it would be wrong to pretend that every country in the Commonwealth enjoys exactly the same experience of democracy as each other. Some countries in the Commonwealth, including Nigeria if I might say this, still have a relatively recent history of democracy. Some people – in the UK even – can forget that the return of democracy in 1999 to Nigeria is less than 20 years ago.

But what is also true is that all countries in the Commonwealth are committed to that democratic journey. And that binds them together, and in turn says something about their commitment to free speech, the exchange of ideas and their belief in the importance of open societies.

Since 1967, the Commonwealth has sent 140 election observation missions to around 40 countries across the world. The Commonwealth Electoral Network, established in 2010, spreads best practice between Commonwealth states on how electoral management bodies – electoral commissions – should operate. So shared values and a commitment to democracy are at the heart of what the Commonwealth is today.

Building on these common shared values, I think the second thing the Commonwealth offers is a commitment to peace and stability. The theme of this year’s Commonwealth week is “A Peace-Building Commonwealth”. When we talk about peace-building, some people assume that we are thinking of the fight against terrorism or military co-operation. Many Commonwealth countries are co-operating in that way. The UK for example is working with the Nigerian military, and security services, to build capacity, share information and counter these kinds of direct threats. Boko Haram is a threat that has to be countered in this way.

But there are many other ways in which Commonwealth countries are co-operating to build peace. During the Apartheid era in South Africa for example, the Commonwealth was a key voice both speaking out against injustice in South Africa and trying to help bring a resolution to the crisis by bringing people together to talk, think and support one another.

Today, the Commonwealth is a key voice pushing for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. These are the goals which all members of the United Nations are committed to and which the former Nigerian Environment Minister – and now Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed, a good friend of mine – is ensuring will be implemented.

Commonwealth leaders – including His Excellency President Buhari - when they all met at the last Summit in Malta in 2015 championed as a group the need for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. And one of their reasons their voice was so important was exactly because of the broad range of countries – both small and large, from all corners of the globe – that they represented.

In particular when we think of a Peace Building Commonwealth we are thinking of implementation of Sustainable Development Goal number sixteen which focuses on peace and development. That Sustainable Development Goal is clear on the golden thread that runs between the need for good governance, transparency and the rule of law. And how those concepts in turn underpin security, stability and growth. Mutual respect is at the heart of this, with every member of the Commonwealth helping each other to achieve and realise the potential so clearly on offer there.

Her Majesty the Queen put this still more clearly in her recent message to the Commonwealth on Commonwealth Day. She said: “The cornerstones on which peace is founded are, quite simply, respect and understanding for one another. Working together, we build peace by defending the dignity of every individual and community.”

The UK’s commitment to the Commonwealth is not just to a Commonwealth of words but also of actions. We believe Commonwealth states have a duty to support one another and build the capacity of one another. The UK is the largest financial contributor to the Commonwealth institutions and programmes, spending over 55 million pounds in the period 2015 to 2016. Through the UK’s Department for International Development programmes, we also spent 2.11 billion pounds in 38 Commonwealth countries in 2015, helping to support the development of their economies, build capacity and support the people of those countries as Commonwealth friends.

At the last Commonwealth Heads of State and Government meeting in 2015, the Prime Minister announced that an additional 30 million pounds of overseas development assistance was available from the UK government for Commonwealth initiatives. In Nigeria alone, in the period 2016 – 2017, the UK spent around 303 million UK pounds on development assistance, helping the poorest in Nigeria, supporting improvements in governance in Nigeria and helping Nigerians grow their own economy so that there are more jobs for young people here in Nigeria.

In addition, the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission, which the UK funds, awards over 900 scholarships and fellowships for postgraduate study and professional development to Commonwealth citizens each year. Separately, in Nigeria alone last year the UK awarded 53 Chevening scholarships for Nigerians to go to the UK to undertake Masters degree programmes. I hope that some of the undergraduates here today might consider applying for these schemes in the future, and become part of two of the most prestigious academic networks in the world. This is the example of the kind of practical, tangible, vibrant Commonwealth we the UK want to see.

The UK will host the meeting of the Heads of State and Government of the Commonwealth in 2018. And as part of the build up to that Summit, we want to hear from the people of the Commonwealth as to what they want from this extraordinary network. We want the Summit to set an ambitious and dynamic agenda for the modern age, tackling the issues the people of the Commonwealth want to see addressed. We want Nigerians of all ages to play a part in that conversation, fully benefiting from the network that the Commonwealth offers and shaping the Commonwealth’s future.

So I encourage you this week – Commonwealth week – to think about not just what the Commonwealth meant to you in the past but what it could mean to you for the future, and what you want the Commonwealth to become. Engage in that discussion, feed those thoughts and ideas into the Nigerian government and directly to other Commonwealth members, using social media and taking advantage of the many resources and institutions the Commonwealth has to offer.

You and I together are some of those 2.4 billion people who make up the Commonwealth today. So together let’s shape its future and make it a Commonwealth that builds peace and prosperity for all its members both here in Nigeria and across the world.

Published 15 March 2017