A Royal Commonwealth Society report recommends that the Commonwealth show demonstrable action; develop a clear identity; reorganise its priorities; and “become less insular.”

Leaders will gather in Perth from October 28 to 30 for their biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) against the backdrop of a deepening global financial crisis, on the one hand, and a crisis of governance in several member-nations — Pakistan, Fiji, which is currently suspended from the Commonwealth, and Zimbabwe — on the other.

The Commonwealth's propensity for thinking big (“Think big, start small and upscale fast,” is how a senior Commonwealth official described its motto) is reflected in the CHOGM's ambitious agenda that includes issues ranging from the “challenges” of food security, sustainable development and natural resource development to financial turmoil and climate change. These will be discussed under the overarching theme: “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience.”

While Marlborough House — the Commonwealth's grand secretariat in London, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace — is buzzing with hype, critics say the Perth agenda is symptomatic of the Commonwealth's “exaggerated sense of itself.” They believe that in a bid to raise its international profile, it is spreading itself too thin by jumping on every passing bandwagon and, in the process, losing its focus. Thus, even after 60 years, the Commonwealth is seen, at best, to be muddling through; and its failure to develop a distinct identity means many ordinary people don't even know what it is about except that it has something to do with former British colonies.

Here, it may be pertinent to draw attention to the findings of a global survey conducted by the London-based Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) on the 60th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth two years ago. It was claimed to be the “largest-ever public consultation on the future of the Commonwealth” with “tens of thousands of people” across the world asked to give their views on its various facets. And their verdict made embarrassingly grim reading even after allowing for the fact that some of the criticism appeared prompted by ignorance.

The general perception was that the Commonwealth was an “anachronistic and fusty” organisation with no clear aims or direction. It lacked drive and innovation and had failed “to live up to its values and principles.” Respondents said although shortage of funds was clearly a problem, additional funding alone would not help. What the Commonwealth really needed was “stronger leadership” to give it a “meaningful voice in world affairs.” In its current state, it had “neither the clout nor the resources” to fulfil its stated aims.

An RCS report based on these findings made a series of recommendations whose bottom line was that the Commonwealth must “walk the talk”: show demonstrable action; develop a clear identity; reorganise its priorities by playing to its strength; and “become less insular” by reaching out to the world “beyond narrow Commonwealth circles.” In a paragraph that would resonate with anyone who has dealt with the Commonwealth, the report criticised the Commonwealth bureaucracy for thriving on “lengthy… communiqués and statements [that] appear unfocused and unattainable.”

RCS Director Danny Sriskandarajah, the man behind the “consultation,” called for “a bold 21st century makeover” of the Commonwealth and said he hoped the results would spur the leadership into action. Many of the issues raised in the report such as those relating to the gap between precept and practice — the Commonwealth's failure to “walk the talk” — lie at the heart of the organisation's weakness.

“The disconnect between the Commonwealth's high level goals and ideals agreed at the intergovernmental level and the lack of follow through at the national level severely hamper effective action and the ability of the Commonwealth to be a meaningful vehicle for change,'' says a statement submitted to CHOGM organisers by the Commonwealth Civil Society, a collection of not-for-profit organisations including charities, faith groups, trade unions and professional bodies.

The statement, which developed out of a Commonwealth-wide process involving more than 250 civil society representatives, called for the Commonwealth to “confront its weaknesses.” One of its most profound failures, according to critics, has been not involving people in decision-making processes. Despite the high-falutin' rhetoric, the Commonwealth operates mostly in an insular environment with people's voices not getting a hearing.

Dr. Sriskandarajah, speaking on behalf of the Commonwealth Foundation of which he is the interim director, has echoed the fears of grass-roots activists that their voices will once again be ignored. The Commonwealth, he argues, will be turning its back on its own history if it continues to operate in a bubble. It is important for the “revitalisation” of the organisation that it strengthens its interaction with civil society.

“The presentation of long, formal statements during rushed ministerial meetings no longer cuts the mustard,” he said. “ The Commonwealth is as much, if not more, an association of 2 billion people as it is a group of 54 governments. Yet, as we head into another CHOGM, there is a fear that the voice of the people will not be heard by their leaders. As the Commonwealth enters a period of revitalisation, now is the right time to strengthen the interaction between civil society and governments within Commonwealth processes.''

Civil society groups have been encouraged after a meeting with Britain's Foreign Office Minister Lord David Howell, who promised a greater role for them in the organisation's deliberations in future. He said they would be allowed to raise issues directly with leaders and make recommendations for intergovernmental discussions. Sceptics, however, dismiss it as the “usual pre-CHOGM rhetoric” to calm tempers, and have vowed to continue to put pressure on the leadership.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to pull out of the CHOGM (he will be represented by Vice-President Hamid Ansari) reportedly because it would have clashed with a conference of Governors called by the President has caused both disappointment and surprise. According to western media reports, the organisers were “stunned” by the decision, especially as his would have been the first visit to Australia by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years.

One South Asian diplomat who did not want to be named said it was like “the Best Man at a wedding'' pulling out of the event. There is speculation whether it is a sign of India starting to lose interest in Commonwealth with its sights set on bigger things as it emerges as a global power. The view fits in with the wider concern that there is often a lack of strong political commitment from bigger member-states. Ensuring “unwavering commitment” by larger members is seen as one of the “challenges” facing the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma dismisses such suggestions in relation to India and insists that it remains “fully engaged.” If anything, India's engagement with the Commonwealth has deepened under the Manmohan Singh government with New Delhi playing an increasingly active role in its activities. Dr. Singh's personal absence in Perth will, in no way, diminish India's “visibility” as a major player, he says.

According to Mr. Sharma, some of the Commonwealth's most cherished projects would not have been possible without inputs from India. One of the big-ticket initiatives in which India is heavily involved is the creation of a network of election management bodies which will establish a “gold standard” for elections that all democratic member-states will be expected to follow. India, with its long experience of running a credible election system, is actively helping in setting up the network. The India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management, launched by the Election Commission of India in New Delhi recently, will train election commissioners from other Commonwealth countries. “It [the network] is the biggest initiative of its kind yet and we believe that India's long experience of election management will benefit us all,” says Mr. Sharma.

India is also helping with several youth development projects. Other initiatives include an offer by the Indian Institute of Mass Communication to train journalists from Commonwealth countries, and a move to reserve 250 seats for Commonwealth students in IT institutes. According to Mr. Sharma, the Prime Minister is taking a personal interest in many of these initiatives — a proof of his unwavering commitment to the Commonwealth.

This is the third CHOGM to be held in Australia (after Melbourne in 1981 and Coolum in 2002) and is billed as the largest Commonwealth gathering. As of now, no major announcements are expected. But there is a lot of anticipation around the launch of the report of the Eminent Persons' Group, set up at the 2009 CHOGM in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, to suggest ways to reform various Commonwealth institutions; or in Commonwealth-ese, “to undertake an examination of options for reform in order to bring the Commonwealth's many institutions into a stronger and more effective framework of cooperation and partnership.”

Over to Perth.

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