Interview: Commonwealth seeks new relevance with trade focus

As African states look to multilateralism to secure billion-dollar infrastructure deals, the Commonwealth is gaining a new relevance.


The Commonwealth is often accused of being a post-colonial anachronism, but its general secretary is attempting to recast it as a global champion of free trade and opportunity. She is also continuing its focus on human rights and good governance in Africa, as she explains to David Thomas

A voluntary association of 53 independent countries, most of which are former British colonies, the Commonwealth has long been seen by its 19 African member states as a useful, if occasionally anachronistic, forum for global multilateral cooperation.

From election monitoring to human rights promotion and strengthening cultural ties, the association maintained a steady presence during the continent’s turbulent post-imperial decades.

Yet in recent years the Commonwealth has arguably been overshadowed in Africa by continental and regional associations such as the African Union and ECOWAS, as well as the rise of dynamic multilateral clubs explicitly focused on wealth creation, dealmaking and rapid economic development, including the BRICS and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. 

Under the leadership of secretary general Baroness Patricia Scotland, a Dominican-British barrister, the Commonwealth is attempting to recast itself as a global champion of free trade and economic opportunity in an era where African member states look to multilateralism as a ticket to multi-billion dollar infrastructure deals.  

Speaking to African Business from Hong Kong, Baroness Scotland says she believes that a rigorous focus on wealth creation and economic development will help the Commonwealth forge new relevance among its African members – including the continent’s largest economies South Africa and Nigeria – while casting off its reputation as a relic of imperialism.  

“When I came in 2016 I wanted to look at what joined us together.

“It’s clear that the message we were getting was that wealth creation was going to be an essential part of the development piece… we were going to have to maintain and advance opportunities for wealth creation.

“We have to put the ‘wealth’ back into the Commonwealth and the ‘Common’ back into ‘wealth’.”

The impetus for this renewed focus was the organisation’s 2015 trade review, which found that members trade 20% more and generate 10% more investment with each other than with non-member states.

The report argued that bilateral trade costs within the Commonwealth are some 19% cheaper, owing to common institutions, similar legal structures, and the dominant role of the English language.

Building on the 2015 work, the 2018 trade review predicted that intra-Commonwealth trade and greenfield investment could reach $1.6 trillion by 2020 from an estimated $700bn in 2017.

Baroness Scotland says that despite rising global protectionist sentiment – notably an ongoing US-China trade war which has wiped billions from the global economy – the Commonwealth is well placed to act as a bulwark against protectionism. 

“I don’t think protectionism is on the rise in Africa specifically, indeed I was really delighted that when we did the 2018 trade review it was found that in Commonwealth countries as a whole we are far less protectionist than the global average… we’ve got to be aware of the rise in protectionism, but I’m comforted by the fact that in the Commonwealth family there isn’t an appetite. We are going in the reverse direction.”

Tackling protectionism

Nevertheless, protectionist sentiments remain evident in African Commonwealth states.

In February, Muhammadu Buhari won a second term as president of Nigeria after a first term of broadly protectionist economic policies, which have included lists of banned imports and strict currency controls.

MTN, South Africa’s largest mobile network operator, has faced repeated demands for back payments in Nigeria in what some analysts have likened to a “shakedown”.

In Tanzania and Zambia, authorities have repeatedly clashed with foreign mining firms over the terms of their investment.

Nevertheless, Commonwealth data suggests that in the club as a whole, things are broadly moving in the right direction.

Commonwealth countries tend to implement fewer harmful non-tariff measures towards each other and towards the rest of the world, having applied almost 5% fewer harmful trade-restrictive measures since the global crisis and 3.5% less harmful measures that discriminate against foreign firms, according to the 2018 review.

Baroness Scotland says that Africa’s “profound shift” towards finally implementing the Continental Free Trade Area – a years-long process she likens to Waiting for Godot – will be crucial to maintaining momentum. 

“We hope [intra-Commonwealth trade] will be around $2 trillion by 2030. Our ability to build on that is significantly enhanced firstly by WTO trade facilitation arrangements and secondly by the Continental Free Trade Area.

We can build on the interoperability that already exists and build those structures and instruments which will make trade easier.

Most pundits and analysts are looking with real interest at the dynamism that will hopefully come as the CFTA becomes a reality – at the moment we’re just at the very beginning.” 

Baroness Scotland stresses that this new focus should not lead to a growth-at-all-costs mentality, arguing that trade policy must dovetail with the organisation’s historic values by incorporating human capital measurements, anti-corruption efforts and support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“It’s not only important that trade is open but it has to be inclusive and equitable if we’re going to address the needs of all of our countries. We’ve been highlighting the equitable and open use of trade to help people better understand where the opportunities lie.”

Despite the renewed focus on trade and investment, Baroness Scotland says that the historic focus on human rights, good governance and democratic reform remain pillars of its work in Africa.

Such topics have returned to the agenda after a number of flawed and disputed elections in major African Commonwealth states.

In 2017, Kenya had to re-run its election after the Supreme Court annulled Uhuru Kenyatta’s initial win, citing irregularities.

The second round, boycotted by the opposition, offered him a clean run at the presidency. In February, Nigeria’s election witnessed sporadic violence across the country and had to be delayed by a week by the ill-prepared Independent National Electoral Commission. While an interim report from Commonwealth observers found that “for the most part, Nigerians had the opportunity to express their will and exercise their franchise” – it is clear that democratisation is a work in progress.

“I think Africa is on the right track. Of course elections are just one aspect of democracy and across Commonwealth Africa we’re seeing the increased participation by women, young people, ordinary citizens and the strengthening of independent institutions and legal frameworks including constitutional reforms.

“But not just in Africa, in many democracies today, challenges remain.

“We can’t be complacent. It has to be a work in progress, we’re seeing shrinking civic space, violations of human rights, interference with judiciaries, and this is where the Commonwealth comes in because we lend support in addressing those difficult issues and strengthening institutions which outlive regimes.”

A key test of the trade-off between core values and new economic opportunity is the vexed question of Zimbabwe’s readmission.

Following the removal of President Robert Mugabe – who pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth a year after its suspension for deviating from Commonwealth values in 2002 – there had been renewed talk of Harare re-entering the fold, enthusiastically encouraged by British ministers eyeing post-Brexit trading opportunities.

Yet the disputed 2018 election and a fierce crackdown following this year’s fuel protests have led many to question whether sufficient reform has taken place.

Baroness Scotland remains diplomatic when asked whether Zimbabwe will rejoin, stressing that the country is at the beginning of a lengthy process predicated on political and economic reform and successful engagement with visiting Commonwealth support teams.  

“Zimbabwe’s application is ongoing and we’re currently at the first stage… which is my informal assessment of the country’s commitment to Commonwealth values.

“It’s not a time-bound process as its tailored to every applicant’s context…

“After an informal assessment I will devise a report for heads of government on the key findings and they will decide whether it should be invited to make a formal application to rejoin the Commonwealth.

“But it’s very much a process and we are right at the beginning, and it’s a rigorous one.”

Secretariat reform

If the Commonwealth is to successfully tackle such challenges and rise to its ambitious new agenda, there is an acknowledgement that the Secretariat – the organisation’s main intergovernmental agency and central institution – must reform.

In the past, the Secretariat has been dogged by allegations of financial waste and ineffectiveness.

Under Baroness Scotland, the Secretariat has become leaner, shedding over 70 staff between 2016 and 2018 and abolishing two deputy secretary posts.

A four-year strategic plan until July 2021 is intended to give focus to 21 priority programmes, while a delivery plan focuses on implementation.

Baroness Scotland, who herself has been criticised in the British press for perceived excessive expenditure on her official residence, says that the organisation has worked hard on its governance arrangements.

“We’ve had rapid and significant improvement. Is there more to do? Absolutely. No organisation can sit on its laurels, and we have some very ambitious aspirations.”

Nevertheless, she believes that the Commonwealth’s unique mix of diverse countries gives it an enduring relevance.

“Is it really anything more than an old club past its sell-by date? No, what data shows is that this is a positive amazing opportunity.

“We could never create the Commonwealth today if we wanted because it’s an extraordinary alignment of six different regions of poor countries, rich, landlocked, ocean.

“A president of a country as small as Nauru can sit at the same table as the PM of India, a country of 1.2bn – and they sit at the table as equals.”

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