Why study the Commonwealth in the 21st Century?

Following the welcome news that the Institute of Commonwealth Studies will not close, David Salmon champions the continued and extensive benefits of Commonwealth Studies.

Posted on 02/09/2021
By David Salmon

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.