It is a happy coincidence that the day the Commonwealth turns 70 is also the day I turn 28. This did not go unnoticed by my colleagues, who cheekily presented me with a cake this morning with the number 70 spelled out in smarties, thankfully it was not covered in 70 candles!
If you can squeeze in a moment between the celebratory cake or glass of wine, birthdays are also a time of reflection – of the year that’s passed and what the year ahead might hold. While I ponder what the age of 28 may hold for me, it’s also time for us at the RCS to think about the Commonwealth at 70. Over coffee and birthday cake this morning, conversation turned to what the agenda for the Commonwealth should be for the next 70 years. The question I want to ask is, when I’m 98 - and I fully intend to get there! - what will the Commonwealth look like?
It’s an often-repeated statistic that 60% of the Commonwealth’s population are under the age of 30, and that percentage is only increasing. In 70 years, it may be 70% or even higher. Africa, the fastest growing continent, is predicted to add 1.3 billion people by 2050, long before the Commonwealth turns 140. I may live in a country where the population skews towards the elderly, but for the vast majority of people in the Commonwealth, a youthful population is a fact of life.
Appealing to young people is crucial to this, and the Commonwealth Charter already holds youth as a fundamental principle of the organisation. Article 13, the ‘Importance of Young People in the Commonwealth’, reads:
“We recognise the positive and active role and contributions of young people… The future success of the Commonwealth rests with the continued commitment and contributions of young people in promoting and sustaining the Commonwealth and its values and principles, and we commit to investing in and promoting their development…”
But the Commonwealth still struggles to go beyond recognition, and its members must do more than pay lip service to the importance of youth. As one youth activist recently told us:
“It’s not hard to get in the door, but [it’s because] they want to look good. It’s an illusion of inclusion. Photo ops, but nothing gets done.”
But an illusion of inclusion isn’t going to cut it for the next 70 years. In 2089, will young people care about the Commonwealth? How the Commonwealth and its members respond to their growing youth populations will instruct how that question is answered.
I was born on the Commonwealth’s 42nd anniversary, long after the organisation was founded and imbued with a sense of purpose at the end of the British Empire. A seventy-year-old organisation must constantly reinvent itself to stay relevant in a changing world. At The Royal Commonwealth Society, we know this all too well, having celebrated our 150th birthday this last year. I’ve come to understand that an organisation’s foundational principles can and must evolve with time, to be responsive to both a changing world and the changing needs and desires of its members.
The Commonwealth has much to be proud of over its 70-year life. It’s seen a flourishing of democracy among its member states, even as the global trend heads in the other direction, and its role in contributing to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa is particularly notable. Its wealth of small island members mean the Commonwealth has always led, not followed, on bringing global attention to the impact of climate change – unquestionably the most critical global challenge of my lifetime.
At seventy years old, the Commonwealth is well-placed to address the greatest challenges of our time: the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, growing attacks on the values of diversity, inclusion, and multilateralism, and the climate emergency. None of these problems are new, and the solutions will lie in technology, greater public participation, a focus on making the cities where more and more of us live responsive to our need and sustainable for our planet. How we cooperate and collaborate across borders – surely the most fundamental strength and principle of the Commonwealth – will make sure that we all get to share in these achievements, and more importantly, in how they are achieved.
When I’m 98, the success of the Commonwealth will depend very much on how its members have risen to the challenge of overcoming these global problems. I hope that over the next 70 years I will be part of that solution. I have every faith that if 53 members and 2.4 billion people work together, those challenges can be overcome.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.