Ahead of the crowd?

Verity Sharp

Research by the Royal Commonwealth Society explores whether there is a Commonwealth ‘X factor’, giving member countries advantages over to their non-Commonwealth neighbours

The initial findings of the Royal Commonwealth Society’s research ‘Commonwealth Compared 2013: Setting the Scene’, were discussed at a lively launch event held at the Commonwealth Club on 23 May.

The research was born out of a widely accepted assumption about the value of the Commonwealth, implicit not only in the addition of the association’s two newest members – Mozambique and Rwanda (which do not have the traditional connection to the British Empire that the other 52 member states do) – but in the association’s growing waiting list. The report seeks to ascertain whether membership of the Commonwealth confers any measurable advantage upon its member states.

To do this, the report’s authors compared Commonwealth countries with their non-Commonwealth regional and economic counterparts across a range of indicators, including competitiveness, press freedom, inequality, gender, peace, democracy and environmental sustainability. These nine indices were specifically chosen to provide a broad view of countries’ economic, social and environmental performance, but also because they all relate to important aspects of the Commonwealth project, recently cemented in the Commonwealth Charter.

This is the first time that data from across the Commonwealth has been compared in this way. As the first ever Commonwealth index of its kind, the report seeks to bring clarity to the debate about the association’s value and potential.

The results, however, are not clear-cut. While the findings suggest that Commonwealth countries outperform their non-Commonwealth counterparts in press freedom, democracy and peace, the results for competitiveness, inequality, gender gap, human development and environmental performance are more nuanced.

For those looking for outright value, the report suggests that the Commonwealth performs very well on the Press Freedom indicator. The report uses the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters without Borders, to compare Commonwealth countries with their non-Commonwealth counterparts and the results show that member states score considerably better. The most pronounced difference is among upper middle-income countries – Commonwealth members, including Jamaica and Namibia, stand out as having particularly high standards. Conversely, the worst Commonwealth performer in this income group is Malaysia, although it still far outperforms its non-Commonwealth counterparts, such as Belarus, Iran and Turkmenistan.

Considering the interplay between press freedom and democracy, it is not, therefore, surprising that another of the Commonwealth’s strengths is demonstrated by the Democracy indicator. Principles of democratic governance have been at the very heart of the Commonwealth since its transformation from British Empire into a voluntary association, now numbering 54 independent nations, and the report shows that member states consistently outperform their non-Commonwealth counterparts on this indicator. While it is accepted that not all Commonwealth countries are paragons of democracy (only one election was ever held in Brunei – 50 years ago), there are only 25 ‘full democracies’ in the world and, of these, six are Commonwealth countries.

Sadly, not all the results are so positive. An example of this is the Gender Gap indicator, which highlights an area that definitely has room for improvement. This indicator examines the gap between men and women in four fundamental categories: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. The results demonstrate that here, the Commonwealth’s ‘added value’ is fairly negligible. This is a disappointing result, but it does give an indication of where the Commonwealth can develop a stronger role for itself in the 21st century.

Building on the train of thought that the results of ‘Commonwealth Compared’ inspire, the report can be used to indicate the association’s continued relevance. It could be suggested that in a time of global recession the Competitiveness indicator is an obvious place to start. This indicator does not, however, provide immediately impressive Commonwealth-wide results, although it does provide some interesting regional comparisons.

For example, the indicator shows that low-income Commonwealth countries are generally more competitive than their non-Commonwealth counterparts and so too are African Commonwealth countries. Indeed, five of the seven most competitive African countries are Commonwealth members – South Africa, Mauritius, Rwanda, Botswana and Namibia. Similarly, Commonwealth small island developing states (SIDS) also significantly outperform their non-Commonwealth counterparts.

The results of the Competitiveness indicator perhaps hint at the trading potential of the Commonwealth and certainly add depth to the RCS’s 2010 paper, ‘Trading Places: the “Commonwealth effect” revisited’, which found that in 2008, the total value of imports into Commonwealth countries was around US$2.3 trillion and the total value of exports from Commonwealth countries was around $2.1 trillion. The results also fit with the 2010 finding that for some small states, the Commonwealth share of total trade value reaches as high as three-quarters.

These regional variations, combined with the top-line results that indicate where Commonwealth member states are outperforming, or lagging behind their non-Commonwealth counterparts, demonstrate a need for further research into causality.

The May launch of the report was attended by a broad spectrum of Commonwealth civil society and a panel of Commonwealth experts, including Chairman and President of YouGov, Peter Kellner; former Royal Commonwealth Society President, Baroness Prashar; former Minister of State for the Commonwealth, the Rt Hon Lord Howell of Guildford; and the High Commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda, His Excellency Carl Roberts CMG. The event was an excellent forum for a passionate debate about the association’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.

As a working paper, ‘Commonwealth Compared’ does not investigate cause and effect, but it does conclude that the shared history of the Commonwealth – the familiarity forged between its leaders and its common language – have created a Commonwealth ‘X-factor’. This X-factor, or special ingredient, seems to suggest that Commonwealth countries are better organised, have enjoyed more democratic conditions and are safer, more reliable countries in which to do business. That said, there is no denying that much more still needs to be done to maximise the effectiveness of the association. The report, therefore, should not be viewed as a conclusion, but as a starting point for further debate and investigation into the Commonwealth’s potential.

To download a copy of the report, please visit www.thercs.org/society/CommonwealthCompared

About the author:

Verity Sharp is programmes officer at the Royal Commonwealth Society


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