Current Affairs

The ‘club’ is uniquely significant today

The ‘club’ is uniquely significant today
  • PublishedNovember 10, 2017

The UK will host the next Commonwealth Heads of State Summit in April next year. This time, the meeting of the “English-speaking club” takes on an added significance, with Britain preparing to exit the European Union and seek stronger trade and cultural ties with the rest of the world. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for the Commonwealth at the Foreign and Commonwealth office, talks to Anver Versi on why the body is more relevant than ever in today’s world.

What is the Commonwealth’s role now in the current global environment?

What makes the Commonwealth quite unique is that there is a shared common culture, a common history, common governance principles. 

There’s much replicated in terms of the way we do business; our justice and educational systems are intrinsically linked and of course, we have a common language. These are major strengths and foundations on which to build an organisation. To have all of this already in place is a huge opportunity for all of us.

When you look at Commonwealth trade specifically, it currently stands at about £687bn across the 52 member countries. By 2020, we are looking at over a trillion pounds’ worth of trade.   

The forthcoming Summit provides a great opportunity for the Heads of Government meeting there to actually not just renew that but to see how we can strengthen areas of trade. I think that will be a key aspect of our focus.

How much of this figure of £687bn would you say is Africa’s contribution?

I think we’re looking at around £40bn. I know for example that our trade with Ghana currently, to make it specific to my recent visit there, has a value of just over £1bn in terms of bilateral trade. And there’s a lot of bilateral trade, UK–Africa, Africa–Asia and the other way around.

When we look at sectors such as banking and technology for example, India comes to mind for obvious reasons, in terms of how the world is becoming more global. 

In view of Brexit, how important is the Commonwealth going to be to the UK, particularly UK trade?

Well first of all, to dispel any myths that are out there; there are some who perhaps think that the fact that we are talking more strongly, positively, on the nature of the Commonwealth is because Brexit has happened. 

Had the vote gone the other way, I can assure you that we would still have been hosting the Summit here in London. (The summit was originally to be hosted by Vanuatu in the South Pacific at the end of 2017, but was moved to the UK as Vanuatu was no longer able to host the event due to the damage done by Cyclone Pam. The meeting was postponed to the spring of 2018 due to other international commitments.)

So, whilst Brexit is happening, we will continue to be part of Europe, we will continue to have a strong and prosperous relationship with the other members of the EU. 

At the same time, I’ve quoted you the £687bn worth of intra-Commonwealth trade; that has been created with a renewed focus on our relative strengths in terms of the partnership. 

Different people bring different things to the table. The question is: How can we actually strengthen what’s already out there?

When I was in Ghana, one of the things I saw was how effectively they’re dealing with the challenges of countering violent extremism. They don’t have an issue with youth radicalisation at the moment, and long may that continue.

That’s a model that can perhaps be taken further afield, to parts of Africa where there are greater challenges when it comes to countering violent extremism. 

One of the criticisms of the Commonwealth Summit is that it’s just a club where people have a great photo opportunity with the Queen – and after that, it just seems to disappear. How you can make the Commonwealth more relevant?

I agree, we want to move away from that image. Yes, of course, the heads of government meeting is very important but I don’t want the Commonwealth Summit to be a kind of talking shop.

The words “renewal” and “relevance” are extremely important as we build towards the summit and what lies beyond. 

The Commonwealth provides us with a very useful way to collaborate on ideas. What we need to do is see how we can bring together deliverables which are already in place and actually scale them up through the 52 members. 

There are four themes to the Commonwealth agenda as we move forward. Prosperity, we’ve touched on that, on trade; issues of fairness, of greater gender equality, investing more in education for girls; hurdles to employment and how countries have overcome them; and also, the sustainability agenda. 

For example, the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth and one of her initiatives is about countries protecting their own forests for future generations to come. I think that’s a great initiative, when you talk about climate change.

Another initiative is the Queen’s Young Leaders Award, which celebrates exceptional people aged 18-29 from across the Commonwealth.

A short while ago, we hosted 52 young leaders, who are using their ideas and their skills to transform lives in their own communities.  They were received very warmly by the Queen and presented with awards which included a one-week residential programme in the UK.

This young generation of future leaders are all headed into positions of great influence. It is worthwhile examining how a project that’s working in, say, Delhi will be relevant to a project in Accra.

I often say the strongest advocate of what the Commonwealth has achieved, can achieve and will achieve is Her Majesty herself because what she’s seeking to achieve is a return from it. 

Any examples of the type of projects?

A young African who ran a restaurant noticed a man who was fending for his family with the scraps that were being left over from the meals. He saw an opportunity to serve his country and his community. He started a social action project to provide food and catering to the more deprived and in socially challenged parts of the country. And it’s working, it’s successful. He was recognised for it.

As a global body with 52 members, the Commonwealth could well become a major economic power. Can this happen?

We should look at how the supply chains can be more effective. Are we doing enough in terms of the abilities and capabilities of the Commonwealth? The short answer’s no. That means there’s a huge opportunity ahead in bringing together these different networks. 

It doesn’t mean you have to throw loads of money at it – far from it. Already we’ve got successful networks which are working in business and trade, in different sectors. It’s how you bring those together and actually leverage them more widely; that’s certainly where a lot of our focus should be. 

I am coming back to a point I made earlier about SMEs being the life blood of different economies. It works for us in the UK and we need to make sure that that kind of experience and technical assistance can be provided elsewhere in the Commonwealth.  That’s where we will see a real difference. So when we talk about 2020 and one trillion pounds of trade, we can actually go way beyond that if we get the focus right.

To give you an example of the alignment of objectives. In Ghana I met a young lady who has a company called Royal Cedars, making products from melon seeds. She showed me that there were different types and uses of melon seeds – such as, for sprinkling on salads, and so on. She was educated in Ghana and here in the UK.

On her return to Ghana, she saw there was a UK Department for International Development (DfID) programme, which provided not just funding but also technical assistance. She was able to construct a business model, profit and loss projections and put together a proposal which enabled her to get trade financing. She purchased a machine to grind the seeds into powder and pack them in sachets that any supermarket would be proud of. She has already won two contracts, one in the US, one in Canada and the business has been going less than 12 months.

Now that to me is the kind of success story which I believe exists very positively across different areas of the Commonwealth and these are the kinds of stepping stone to bigger things.

But trade is just one pillar. Look at the common challenge we share, about gender equality. It isn’t about the UK saying, “We do things better.” Indeed, when you look at gender representation, actually other countries in the Commonwealth do better than we do. So it’s about common learning.

Education is the first and most crucial step in this direction, but true empowerment comes when you turn that education into economic progress, i.e., employment. 

Similarly, countering violent extremism isn’t a challenge just for the UK, nor is it just a challenge for parts of Africa, or Asia; it’s a common challenge we’re facing. 

When you talk of some of the radicalising influences, whether through the internet or via extremism from elsewhere, the only way to really resolve the problem is through collective action. 

But in terms of the relevance of the Commonwealth, I find it resonates a lot more strongly in other parts of the world, most notably in parts of Africa, because they’ve seen real benefits, more than here in the UK. We need to replicate that enthusiasm, that eagerness to do more through the vehicle that is the Commonwealth on our own shores. 

The diaspora mix of the Commonwealth itself provides many opportunities. I have an Indian heritage myself, and I’m not unique, there are many like me with Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, or Ghanaian, or Nigerian heritages.

Are we really leveraging these opportunities?

No, but it involves feeling passionate and positive about your country, the UK. At the same time, this mix helps in developing a real knowledge about the diaspora and using the diaspora to strengthen culture and create wealth. 

Sometimes I think that when we look at what more can be done, we tend to seek rather complex solutions, which are not necessary in many cases. We have got some incredible avenues which already exist. 

The point is scaling them up and giving them greater strength, and focusing on trade, governance, democracy; or confronting some of the serious challenges, like security and violent extremism. I think the Commonwealth has a really bright future and huge opportunities lie ahead. NA 

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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