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Theme: Education and youth

Seasonal message from the Director-General

Excellencies, colleagues, partners, and friends of the Commonwealth Foundation,

The festive season is a time to pause and reflect on our changing world. One event that loomed large for the Foundation in 2022 was the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who, as head of the Commonwealth, dedicated her life to serving its people. We pay tribute to her steadfast and devoted service.

‘COP27 in Egypt presented a valuable opportunity to advance our strategic agenda on climate change and the interests of the Commonwealth’s small and vulnerable states.’

In terms of our own work, the past year has been an exciting one, with a major highlight being our hosting of the Commonwealth People’s Forum in partnership with the Government of Rwanda. We were thrilled with the level and quality of engagement: over 250 delegates from across the Commonwealth were involved, including civil society leaders, government officials, lawyers, journalists, academics, and activists. The Foundation team developed a short outcome video that was shown to Foreign Ministers in Kigali. You can watch it here. We are already planning for the next People’s Forum that will be held in Samoa in 2024: looking at ways that the Foundation can bring the people of the Commonwealth together (in person and online) to discuss and debate the issues that matter most to them.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has continued to grow this year, attracting new writers from more Commonwealth Member States. The 2022 prize was won by Ntsika Kota for his story ‘and the earth drank deep’. Ntsika is the first writer from Eswatini to be shortlisted for the prize, and the second overall winner from Africa. In a record year for entries, he saw off competition from 6,729 entrants worldwide to take the £5,000 prize. A hitherto unpublished author with extraordinary talent, Ntsika’s success reminds us of the power of the prize to unearth world-beating literary talent in all corners of our Commonwealth.

Finally, COP27 in Egypt presented a valuable opportunity to advance our strategic agenda on climate change and the interests of the Commonwealth’s small and vulnerable states. The Foundation hosted three online events as part of our Critical Conversations series in the lead-up to—and immediately after—COP27. These events—which brought together a wide range of activists and decision-makers—considered how to advance the needs and interests of those most affected by climate change. We were delighted that over 7000 people registered to attend online.

‘The issues that are at the heart of our work: climate, health and freedom of expression, continue to require urgent attention.’

The Foundation also hosted two in-person events at COP27: bringing together the President of Vanuatu, the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and leading figures in international law and climate advocacy to consider how the tools of international law can be used to secure climate justice for some of the Commonwealth’s smallest and most climate-vulnerable countries. Attendance at both events was at full capacity and drew widespread media attention ahead of the historic agreement to establish a funding mechanism for loss and damage.

The issues that are at the heart of our work: climate, health and freedom of expression, continue to require urgent attention and the Foundation has begun planning in earnest for the year ahead. We were delighted to receive a record number of applications to our open grants call. Much work has gone into simplifying our grant-making to improve access and we are confident that these changes will help ensure that smaller civil society organisations in smaller Commonwealth countries benefit from this funding stream. We are also in no doubt that, among the thousands of submissions made to the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a new cohort of world-beating writers will emerge to claim the regional and overall prizes that will be announced mid-year.

‘Member-State commitment to the Charter is critical if the Commonwealth is to survive and thrive.’

The Foundation is also gearing up to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Commonwealth Charter: a bold and forward-looking statement of Commonwealth values and principles. Member-State commitment to the Charter is critical if the Commonwealth is to survive and thrive. The Foundation will be doing its bit to bring the voice of Commonwealth civil society into anniversary celebrations for the Charter. Please sign up to our mailing list to receive updates on these plans.

Once again, thank you to all those who have contributed to our work, most especially our governors and the Foundation’s expanding network of partners. I look forward to working with you in the coming year as we join forces to advance the principles and values of our Commonwealth.

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation. 

A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform

Commonwealth Heads of Government decided to create an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to advise them on reform of the association at their meeting in Port-of-Spain in 2009.

This decision by Heads of Government was taken at a time when the world was – as it now still is – in the midst of an economic crisis. The old order of economic power was changing. Climate change showed signs of endangering global economic activity and the safety and livelihood of millions of people. It posed threats to the very existence of a number of countries. Terrorism, too, threatened the security of states and presented a serious challenge to international peace.

Heads of Government decided that in such a world, it was important to build a stronger, more resilient and progressive Commonwealth and to make it more relevant to its times and to its people in the future. They made it clear that they wanted the Commonwealth to continue to be an important player in the world, drawing on its rich diversity to help build global consensus around the Commonwealth’s core values including peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality, economic development, and freedom of expression.

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Why study the Commonwealth in the 21st Century?

Some argue that studying the Commonwealth is no longer worthwhile, a viewpoint that is emblematic of a larger discussion surrounding the Commonwealth and its purpose in the 21st century.

This debate came to a head in October 2020 when a proposal was put forward to close the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. After considerable public reaction, a committee was assembled, led by former UK Foreign Secretary Sir Malcom Rifkind, to discuss the future of Commonwealth studies and of the Institute. I joined a public discussion on the issue organised by three members of the of the Committee representing the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

The Committee’s report was released in early August. In receiving the report, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of London affirmed that the main recommendation would be accepted: the Institute of Commonwealth Studies will survive. This is good news for those of us that believe that the Commonwealth has an important role to play in global affairs.

The Committee’s report alights upon many of the reasons why studying the world through a Commonwealth lens is important. For example, the report emphasizes the role that Commonwealth Studies can play in the climate change discussion and in facilitating the next generation of thought leaders. It also recommends that Commonwealth Studies can be expanded from its traditional base and be a ‘think-tank type generator of new ideas for the modern Commonwealth.’ This approach best facilitates robust discussion and partnership among fellow Commonwealth institutions, member states and the wider societies that they benefit.

‘The Institute has a role to play in finding common solutions to questions of sustainable development, climate change and good governance.’

I would like to offer some additional points of emphasis. In particular, I believe the Institute has a role to play in providing what I term ‘intellectual reparations’ (exploring historical injustices and ways to address them) as well as in finding common solutions to questions of sustainable development, climate change and good governance.

Intellectual reparations

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London has facilitated conversations and research on a range of present-day and historical injustices not spoken about enough by the international community. This process of self-reflection has focussed on tackling the British Empire’s legacy of exploitation and brutality, acknowledging that the Commonwealth has a special role to play in this work.

To further this work, citizens of developing countries in the Commonwealth should be permitted greater access to the Institute’s expansive libraries and special collections—so they can also analyse the past and present in order to build a better future.

Facilitating opportunities for academics from the Global South

Providing educational opportunities through research fellowships is another avenue to increase knowledge acquisition between Commonwealth Member States and peoples. International journals such as The Round Table also have a role to play and can be used to encourage the growth of Commonwealth scholars by providing a global platform for their research. More schemes of this kind will ensure that citizens from diverse backgrounds can contribute to research and the advancement of Commonwealth

Promoting multilingualism

Currently, concerns exist surrounding the dominance of the English language in the Commonwealth. The organisation’s diverse membership allows for greater promotion of multilingualism and research in indigenous languages and cultures. Even though there are some notable qualities that unite the Commonwealth family—similar institutions of governance, shared values and history—it is through the celebration of our diversity that we can derive strength and better ideas.

‘It is through the celebration of our diversity that we can derive strength and better ideas.’

Academic collaboration to support nation building

Possibilities for collaboration between academic institutions throughout the Commonwealth exist in many subject areas including economics, governance, and cultural studies. There is a practical advantage to Commonwealth collaboration in these areas, arising from similar governance, legal, and financial systems.

Trade is one such area that deserves further research due to the possibilities that exist for economic development. For instance, it has been noted that inter-Commonwealth trade is 19% cheaper than trade outside of the Commonwealth. Given the plethora of large and emerging markets in the Commonwealth, such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria, there are significant opportunities for development and growth which must be better understood.

Developing a common agenda on the international stage

Examining how inter-governmental relationships can be strengthened and equalised is vital, especially when developed and developing nations are brought together under a common banner.

There are also unexploited opportunities for developing a Commonwealth consensus on major issues in international fora, whether it be the United Nations General Assembly or the Conference of the Parties (COP).

‘There are also unexploited opportunities for developing a Commonwealth consensus on major issues in international fora’

At present, Small Island States make up almost half of total Commonwealth Membership. The Commonwealth represents one of the longest standing groupings of these nations and is well positioned to further their common agenda, most notably on climate change but also on rules governing the tourism and agricultural sectors that tend to dominate small island economies.

Any research institute focussed on the Commonwealth should explore how this unique network of countries can leverage its collective strength more effectively.

David Salmon is a journalist and a member of the Youth Advisory Council to the Jamaican government.

Dear Young Leaders: if you do just one thing today…

We hope you were among the hundreds of young people from 66 countries who connected live for Young Leaders Speak—the third event in our Critical Conversations series of online events.

Held in collaboration with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and Commonwealth Youth Council, the event provided an opportunity for seven distinguished young leaders to reimagine the Commonwealth. They discussed shared colonial legacies of dominance and violence and—crucially—how the Commonwealth can build a more just and equitable future. If you missed the event, you can watch it here.

Our panellists want you to continue the conversation and, above all, to take action—and it’s their hope that the books, articles, and videos listed below will inspire you to do so.

Darrion Narrine, a social justice advocate from Trinidad and Tobago, recommended three books that he credits with deepening his understanding of race and race relations. As Darrion says, ‘racism and “othering” also has an economic benefit for some people. These books raise the consciousness around this.’ The first is Capitalism and Slavery written by the late Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams. Williams looks at the economic factors which contributed to the end of slavery in the British Empire arguing, contrary to mainstream narratives, that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was based on economic necessity rather than any supposed moral awakening.

‘Is the Commonwealth living up to its aspirations and values?’

The second is Plantation Economy by George Beckford, which has contributed significantly to economic thought in the Caribbean. It examines issues of underdevelopment, the significance of plantations to developing economies, and the influence of European powers and the slave trade. The third book recommended by Darrion is Britain’s Black Debt by Sir Hilary Beckles. Beckles argues for reparations for the enslavement of Africans with a focus on the Caribbean, examining the movements that are advocating for reparations.

Kakembo Galabuzi, an environmental entrepreneur from Uganda, called for greater engagement from young people in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ‘It’s important to understand our role in Sustainable Development and [how] we shape our ideas and actions towards achieving the set goals.’

Kakembo also encouraged us to watch an interview by Simon Sinek on Millennials in the workplace; ‘I share this because it’s important to understand and reflect on our weaknesses and forge a way to do better. We are the future and the present of this planet, so we have no choice but to do better than those before us.’

‘If you’re reading this but don’t see yourself as a Young Leader, then you might be asking “how can I help?” Alicia Wallace has an answer’

Nondomiso Hlophe, a gender consultant from Eswatini who also joined the panel, agreed that it is vitally important to acknowledge history—but urged us to always keep the future in mind: ‘The one thing that I would like [people] to know and learn about, to re-read and critique—especially with youth and an equitable future in mind—is the Commonwealth Charter. Ask yourself: does this document truly reflect the past, present and future of the Commonwealth? Is the Commonwealth living up to its aspirations and values? And what can you do to live a life in line with the Charter?’

The Foundation’s Graduate Interns, who introduced Young Leaders Speak, also shared their recommendations.

  • Fisayo Eniolorunda suggested Black Skin, Whitehall: Race and the Foreign Office, 1945-2018. The article documents the history of race in the UK’s Foreign Office and is a useful source for discussions on race, inequality and identity in Britain today
  • Kevwe Edekovwere urged young leaders to read Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala, the popular UK historian and rapper. The book is part autobiographical and part commentary on the consequences of Britain’s colonial legacy
  • Nausheen Khan suggested reading Afua Hirsch’s book Brit-ish—a book that she feels is relevant to young diaspora communities who grapple with multiple identities throughout the world—and not just those living in the United Kingdom
  • Olivia Bourge draws inspiration from reading Amanda Gorman’s poems and watching her spoken word performances
  • Vivian Ngere recommended this article by Ashfaq Zaman. Zaman sees the Black Lives Matter movement as a turning point at which Britain can finally come to terms with its colonial past and build a better relationship with diaspora communities.

If you’re reading this but don’t see yourself as a Young Leader, then you might be asking ‘how can I help?’ Alicia Wallace, a movement builder from the Bahamas who moderated the conversation, has an answer: ‘Find ways to get others to support the work of young people working for equality and justice,’ she said. ‘Invite others to attend their events, share links to their work, recommend their services, or start a giving circle to make donations. Amplify their voices and send resources their way to help increase impact.’

What are your recommendations? Post them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #CriticalConversations. 

Director-General joins committee led by Sir Malcolm Rifkind on future of Commonwealth Studies

The University of London has confirmed the membership of a Committee to conduct an inquiry into the future of Commonwealth Studies at the University.

The creation of the Committee, to be chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former UK Foreign Secretary, was announced late last year following a consultation about the future of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University’s School of Advanced Study. The Committee includes among its members the Foundation’s Director-General Dr Anne T Gallagher AO.

Dr Gallagher said:

‘The Commonwealth brings together almost a third of humanity and, in our present uncertain, fractured world, it deserves nurturing and support.

‘It is an honour to join Sir Malcolm and colleagues on this committee as we consider how the University of London can best continue to support the cultivation of a critical understanding of the Commonwealth; its complicated legacy; and its potential to contribute to a future based on justice and equality.’

Sir Malcolm Rifkind commented:

‘I am delighted that we have a Committee that could not be more experienced and committed to the welfare of the Commonwealth. We look forward to providing the University of London with our conclusions and recommendations on the future of Commonwealth Studies at the University.’

Committee Membership

  • Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Chair) – Former United Kingdom Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
  • Lord Boateng – Former British High Commissioner to South Africa
  • Dr Anne Therese Gallagher, AO – Director-General: Commonwealth Foundation
  • Dr Nabeel Goheer – Assistant Secretary-General, The Commonwealth Secretariat
  • Professor Asha Kanwar- President and CEO: Commonwealth of Learning
  • Mr Michael Kirby AC CMG – Former Justice of the High Court of Australia
  • Lord Luce – Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham
  • Dr Joanna Newman – Chief Executive and Secretary-General: The Association of Commonwealth Universities
  • Sir Ronald Sanders – Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States
  • Mr Stephen Twigg – Secretary-General: Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA)

Committee Objectives

The Committee will have three key objectives:

  1. To consider future provision at the University of London for Commonwealth Studies in terms of focus, purpose, structure and functions
  2. To recommend partnerships to support scholarship in this area and ensure its relevance and impact;
  3. To identify potentially viable sources of sustainable funding beyond the University and short-term research grants.

Announcing the establishment of a Committee in December, Professor Wendy Thomson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London said:

‘Over the last two months, we’ve met with a range of stakeholders with Commonwealth affiliations who have shown a renewed interest in the future of the Institute and a commitment to supporting the study of the modern Commonwealth at the University. Sir Malcolm and the Committee will be able to explore a range of new and exciting partnerships.’

The Committee will invite submissions from interested organisations and individuals. These can be submitted directly to the Committee via its secretary, Dr Conor Wyer: conor.wyer@sas.ac.uk. The Committee hopes to conclude its work by the end of June of this year.


For media enquiries contact Leo Kiss via l.kiss@commonwealth.int.


Imagination is key to our Commonwealth’s future

In collaboration with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and Commonwealth Young Council, the Commonwealth Foundation’s third Critical Conversation—with Darrion Narine, Kavindya Thennakoon, Emmanuelle Andrews, and Kakembo Galabuzi Brian along with pop-up speakers Lance Copegog and Nondumiso Hlophe—centred the perspectives and needs of young people in the Commonwealth. All active in the Commonwealth space, the speakers were both critical of the existing structure and optimistic about our collective ability to build a more just, equitable future.

At the start, it was important to acknowledge the past, probing Kavindya’s decision to write an open letter to Commonwealth institutions challenging them to acknowledge and speak about the shared colonial legacy of dominance, violence, and atrocity. The speakers resisted the appeal of reform, instead focussing on the need to completely reimagine the systems we know. We cannot expect systems built to oppress and subjugate to be simply repurposed for equality and justice. We have to start again. Young people need to be at the forefront, providing the imagination and innovation required to build anew.

‘Recognising the expertise of young people and the value of their perspectives is critical to the development of a better Commonwealth’

As a queer Black feminist from the Caribbean, deeply interested in collaborative future-making, moderating this conversation was both a pleasure and confirmation that imagination is a tool for social justice. My work has primarily focussed on women’s and LGBTQ+ people’s rights with emphasis on expanding the understanding of gender, gender-based violence, and feminist policymaking. One of the most difficult aspects of this work is convincing people that we can create something new. My participation in regional and international networks has shown me that cross-regional collaboration, idea sharing, and skill trading are incredibly valuable and among the easiest ways to learn to think differently. Learning what others are doing often prompts more bold, interesting ideas and the confidence that a different world is possible. For me, Young Leaders Speak was about finding paths to create the Commonwealth we want.

Not only did the speakers have the opportunity to connect, talk about important issues, and raise their profiles, but also to participate in an exercise of going beyond representation. The event itself was not the intended outcome. The Commonwealth Foundation focussed on giving young people space to set a new agenda and make demands of Commonwealth institutions. Young Leaders Speak shed light on the challenges young leaders face and told people in positions of power what they need to change. This is the kind of conversation that is important to me—participants choosing the direction and issuing challenges to the people and institutions with the resources and power to take them on.

A theme that continually came up was the tokenism young people experience, being invited to spaces as ‘the young person’ rather than having their specific areas of expertise highlighted and contributions valued. Kavindya said, ‘We go into a panel[…] and our name is just “young person,” and that completely erases the years of [experience] that we have.’ Recognising the expertise of young people and the value of their perspectives is critical to the development of a better Commonwealth. In our conversation, the demands of young people were made clear. They reject tokenism and generic representation and demand strategic, radical inclusion that focusses on their expertise, skills, and interests and how they contribute to the space. Young people are experts in specific areas because of their commitment and that must be acknowledged beyond opportunities to attend occasional meetings.

‘Commonwealth institutions must be committed to spending money on high-impact programmes and activities. Young people need to be involved in financial decision-making processes.’

Darrion pointed to the need for intergenerational dialogue. Many of the issues we face today are not new. Some people have been working to address them for years and they have gained knowledge through their experience. They can look back and determine which strategies did or did not work and, combined with the ideas that young people already have, contribute to the development of new approaches. Kakembo added that it is important for us all to be able to offer differing opinions, then work together to find common ground. Both Darrion and Kakembo emphasised the importance of listening. It is critical for young people while positioning themselves as leaders and experts in their fields, to commit themselves to continuous learning, consultation, and openness to new information and ideas. In turn, older generations need to be willing to share information, offer insights, and support the work young people are doing. Forming strong relationships across generations is key to moving toward the future we all want.

While opportunities to physically convene can be beneficial, particularly for advocacy, young people are critical of the use of limited funds for travel, accommodation, and venues for large conferences. It is not enough to be transparent in spending. Commonwealth institutions must be committed to spending money on high-impact programmes and activities. Young people need to be involved in financial decision-making processes. There are often more cost-effective, innovative ways to connect people, host discussions, and ensure clear outcomes. By involving young people in planning processes and budget discussions, new methods can be created, tested, and put to use, allowing more funds to be dedicated to substantive work.

Young people want to see real change resulting from high-level activities. Kakembo pointed to the waste of resources and the need to redirect them to areas of greater impact. It has been repeatedly noted that Commonwealth-wide meetings have been useful for advocacy, technical discussions, development of policies, and commitments, but they have not automatically resulted in change on-the-ground. For that reason, young people demand higher investments in implementation, follow-up, and impact assessments. Commonwealth institutions need to hold governments accountable—insisting that they follow through on commitments—and support young advocates in the long-term work of agitating for implementation.

This vision for the future of the Commonwealth is not at all far-fetched. It requires significant changes to the way we are accustomed to thinking and working. It is not enough to checkboxes or use inclusive language. Speakers envisioned a discrimination-free, queer and feminist future, where racial and gender justice are a reality. They said that to get there, they need the agency to know, state, and contribute to creating what they want.

In other words, the people being impacted today need to be involved in the design of tomorrow. Emmanuelle prompted us to start with radical imagination. She asked, ‘What do we want our world to be?’ Creating an equitable, just future is not about working within existing systems, but making demands first, and having systems built around the desired outcomes. Young Leaders Speak challenged us to think beyond what we know. We have to dare to envision the world we want. Commonwealth institutions have been called upon to decentralise power, recognise young people’s expertise, direct funding to high-impact activities, and dedicate resources to follow-up on commitments. As for young people, we have to activate our imaginations. The future is being created every day.

Alicia A. Wallace is Director of Equality Bahamas.

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Commonwealth: pragmatism and ideals

The creation of the modern Commonwealth is one of the most curious and extraordinary developments in world affairs since the end of the Second World War. The British Empire comprised a third of the globe: the biggest empire in history where famously ‘the sun never set’.

Colonialism had been brutal, crippling, humiliating and deeply unwelcome to many of the people who lived under it. The early and mid-twentieth century saw many movements that argued strongly for independence and with it the end of British rule. Almost until the end, this was resisted by Britain, sometimes violently. The fall of Britain’s Indian Empire, and with it the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan in August 1947, was a momentous occasion.  Undivided India was the most important possession in the British Empire and its loss signalled the beginning of the end.

After years of deep colonialism that inflicted subservience and deprivation on so many people, and where countless men and women had fought for freedom, why would a country like India join an organisation like the Commonwealth, which was indelibly tied to the empire that caused its subjugation?

‘In Nehru’s pragmatic view, a new state like India needed allies and international influence in its post-independence existence’

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was a strong believer in internationalism. But the British Commonwealth of Nations, as it was known at the time, was anything but international: an exclusive group comprised of the ‘old Dominions’: countries like Australia, Canada and South Africa, that were led and dominated by white settler communities. In fact, before Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart joined in 1947 there were no non-white Prime Ministers in the group. But Nehru believed that the Commonwealth could be a force for good. His idealism inspired him to see the Commonwealth as something that could help humanity come together.

In Nehru’s pragmatic view, a new state like India needed allies and international influence in its post-independence existence. After the devastations and divisions of the Second World War and the late colonial years, in particular, Nehru believed the Commonwealth could bring to the world ‘a touch of healing’. Several leaders from across the old Commonwealth were deeply apprehensive about India’s inclusion due to racial and political reasons, but eventually, the advantages were seen. The freedom fighters voluntarily joined the coloniser in what was then, something utterly new.

‘The freedom fighters voluntarily joined the coloniser in what was then, something utterly new’

India’s powerful example would soon be followed by states from across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, creating a unique modern organisation built from the ruins of empire, but enhanced by the principles of equality and freedom among former colonial peoples. In London in 1949 the eclectic mix of States declared themselves to be ‘united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress’.  No longer a white man’s club, the Commonwealth in those early days, recognised the need to adapt to the new circumstances or face extinction.

Taking the Commonwealth’s story to the present day, the ideals that surrounded the inclusion of India have not always been lived up to. More than 70 years after that idealist moment, the Commonwealth finds itself in very different circumstances. Its relevance is widely doubted. Its political powers are supine. Its presence is routinely ignored. In fact, there are near-constant calls for the Commonwealth to be wound up due to both perceived and real failures.

It is, however, premature to pen the Commonwealth’s obituary. Making a difference does not always mean generating headlines. The Commonwealth’s strengths have been in education, practical training, sport, and sharing expertise on everything from agriculture to law. These attributes are enhanced by the wealth of experience and the variety of cases within the Commonwealth that are underwritten by a common history.

‘Such a scheme would see the exchange of ideas, the meeting of souls, the forging of partnerships and collective ambitions for the future’

In order to revitalise interest and relevance in the Commonwealth, the focus must be on the fact that one in three young people age 15-29 on this planet live in the Commonwealth. The future is theirs. In an uncertain world, the Commonwealth can help this group realise its potential. Substantial investment and pathways must be established to foster opportunities for the young.

The UK and other wealthy members still provide dedicated scholarships for students to study and train in their countries. But these important bonds of friendship and connection are woefully limited, while a key institution is under serious threat of closure: the respected Institute of Commonwealth Studies founded in London in 1949.

A new Commonwealth education scheme needs to be established: a scheme that would not only support bursaries but also encourage the Commonwealth’s young people to think imaginatively. Like Europe’s Erasmus education exchange programme, the Commonwealth could create a scheme to answer the needs of its own youth. A Commonwealth-wide scheme, named after Nehru who himself benefitted from studying abroad and whose ideals are in harmony with the idea, would encourage students to not only study in each other’s countries but also to engage culturally, socially, athletically and professionally.

The scheme would also demonstrate that the Commonwealth is more than just London and foster appreciation of the matchless nexus the Commonwealth creates—drawing together places and peoples from Johannesburg to Jaipur and beyond. Such a scheme would see the exchange of ideas, the meeting of souls, the forging of partnerships and collective ambitions for the future and would have the potential to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and change the world for the better in subtle, but worthwhile ways.

At the very least it is worth remembering, as the Historian Anthony Low put it, the Commonwealth ‘provides the readiest means available to use for orienting ourselves sensibly to the most of our fellow humans’. It is time for the Commonwealth to engage in pragmatic idealism once more.

Dr Harshan Kumarasingham is a Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Edinburgh. 

Space for change?

Often, when I talk about striving to make human rights progress within the Commonwealth, I’m met with raised eyebrows. The Commonwealth? I’ll hear, is that really the right place to be pushing for progress?

It’s a healthy scepticism I come across time and time again, especially from those who are well-versed in the long-lasting impact of the British Empire on its former colonial subjects. The Commonwealth, for many, feels like a vestige of a foregone time, a time in which certain countries were under the thumb of others, a time where the imposition of British law and values upon a litany of diverse and distinct cultures went largely unscrutinised by the global community. And so, the Commonwealth’s origin story, and the fact that its existence cannot be uncoupled from the legacy of empire, continues to ring loud in the ears of many. Especially those who are still dealing with inherited colonial laws that expressly discriminate against certain communities.

‘For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens’

It was in this light that the Commonwealth Foundation held the first of its Critical Conversations series, bringing together a diverse array of thinkers and doers to examine the Commonwealth’s past and reimagine its future. It was a chance to have an honest conversation about the legacy of the Commonwealth while also discussing its potential as a space for progress, where decision-makers and activists can come together and challenge each other to create a fairer and more positive future.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to some, the Commonwealth has proven itself as a useful space for civil society organisations to come together and advocate for positive change. This wasn’t necessarily a view shared by all panellists, but it is a truth I have seen in action. As Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, the United Kingdom’s leading international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) human rights organisation, I have found that the organising done to create awareness and advocate on LGBT+ human rights issues at Commonwealth-specific fora, such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), has often had a resounding impact.

The work of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), a network of 62 LGBT+ organisations across the Commonwealth, for which Kaleidoscope Trust acts as Secretariat, is a testament to this. TCEN aims to create a positive and more equal future for LGBT+ citizens in the Commonwealth, in a context where 34 of 54 Member States criminalise homosexuality as a direct result of inherited colonial-era laws. For LGBT+ activists in the Commonwealth, an acknowledgement of the past was the first step toward envisioning a more equal future. And so TCEN went about advocating for this exact thing—a statement of acknowledgement and regret from the UK government.

The network achieved this primarily by centring the voices of young grassroots activists in our advocacy both before and during CHOGM 2018, which was held in London. This simple act, of creating opportunities for the lived realities of LGBT+ people to be heard in high-level diplomatic spaces, was enormously impactful.

It included creating a platform for Melusi Simelane, a young gay man from eSwatini, to talk about the safety and security of LGBT+ people in his country at the Committee of the Whole, during an event for Commonwealth accredited civil society organisations to present priorities relating to CHOGM to high-level Commonwealth officials. It also included working with the Commonwealth Foundation to ensure Zeleca Julien, a lesbian activist from Trinidad and Tobago, was able to speak about her experiences fighting for equality at the opening plenary of the Women’s Forum at CHOGM 2018, the first time an LGBT+ person was granted the opportunity to do so.

Beyond these specific examples, we also aimed for as much LGBT+ civil society representation as possible at Commonwealth events. CHOGM, for example, is a unique opportunity for LGBT+ organisations to come face to face with diplomatic or parliamentary representatives from their countries or regions, an opportunity that few other diplomatic spaces provide. Where they might not be able to safely do so in their own countries, representatives of TCEN organisations were able to hold their national-level parliamentary representatives to account within a Commonwealth space.

TCEN is one of many examples of how the Commonwealth can be used as a force for good, particularly for the LGBT+ community. But TCEN is only the beginning. As our work has continued, we have sought to ensure we are building a more intersectional human rights movement in the Commonwealth, working with youth organisations and those fighting for women and girls rights to make sure that the progress we achieve can also support the aims of other marginalised groups.

For the Commonwealth to be seen as a space for change, it must continue to adapt to the wants and needs of its most marginalised citizens—and that includes examining the mistakes of the past, mistakes that have led to staggering inequalities, and aiming to rectify them accordingly. So long as the Commonwealth can continue to create spaces for the likes of TCEN to make their voices heard, it deserves to be championed as a promising avenue for real progress.

Phyllis Akua Opoku-Gyimah (Lady Phyll) is Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust.