panellists at session on 'After Kigali: The Commonwealth’s future challenges’Session four: ‘After Kigali: The Commonwealth’s future challenges’. [l-r] Helen Jones, Joel Kibazo, Mark Robinson, Jo Lomas

A Commonwealth Round Table Conference on ‘Global Challenges and the International Response: What role for the Commonwealth?’ took place on 18-19 January, 2023 at the Cumberland Residential Lodge in Windsor.

The fourth panel considered numerous possible futures for the Commonwealth. While speakers had varying levels of optimism when considering the organisation’s prospects, they were united in their emphasis on the importance of increasing the Commonwealth’s relevance to youth populations to ensure its long-term renewal and survival.

Session one: ‘Multilateralism and soft power in an age of nationalism, conflict and division’
Session two: ‘Climate change, small states, inequality and development’
Session three: ‘Upholding human rights, press freedom and democracy: Can the Commonwealth make a difference?’

Jo Lomas (UK Commonwealth Envoy, FCDO) encouraged the celebration of what the Commonwealth ‘actually [does] achieve’, citing several key programmes pursued during the UK’s time as Chair in Office. These included the She Trades Programme, Climate Finance Hub, and the Commonwealth Standards network, which Lomas argued were examples of concrete efforts to create a more prosperous, sustainable, secure, and fair Commonwealth. Acknowledging the need to be selective in the Commonwealth’s goals, especially in an expanding organisation with dwindling resources, Lomas stated that the priorities of the UK within the Commonwealth are threefold: trade and investment, climate and environment, and rights and values. She asserted that the Commonwealth needs to be unambiguous about the benefits it brings to its citizens, and that the organisation was ‘clear-eyed about the challenges and the fact that we need to be better.’

Chair Mark Robinson interviewed panellist Jo Lomas, the FCDO’s UK Commonwealth Envoy, summing up the key points:

Joel Kibazo (Founding Partner of JK Associates) reflected on his experience reading the recent Commonwealth Communiqué from the Kigali CHOGM, stating that while it was full of admirable intentions, it reflected the organisation’s stagnation as many of its statements could have been made at any time in the last 30 years. He painted a picture of the Commonwealth as a low priority organisation for its various member-states in comparison to other multilateral bodies like the UN, as well as for its wider youth populations. In the face of widespread apathy, Kibazo questioned whether the Commonwealth is still viable, and whether it would be missed if it no longer existed. He therefore suggested asking Heads of Government at the future CHOGM in Samoa what they want from the institution of the Commonwealth, and whether they are prepared to support it. If not, he asked, should we be ‘putting it out of its misery?’

Conference keynote address by the Commonwealth Secretary-General and interview
Opinion on the Round Table Conference – ‘Global Challenges and the International Response: What role for the Commonwealth?’

Helen Jones (Policy and Advocacy Adviser, Commonwealth, It’s a Penalty Campaign) assessed the future of the Commonwealth in relation to the issue of youth engagement. While Jones argued that youth participation is an area of success for the Commonwealth, she suggested that the current challenge is to ensure that young people are directly involved in policy. From the perspective of Commonwealth accredited organisations, youth engagement is particularly urgent in order for them to ‘survive and thrive’. Jones exhorted accredited organisations to ‘open the door’ to those engaged with the Commonwealth as youth representatives (aged 15-29) who then age out of these systems, as their continued engagement is needed for the renewal of Commonwealth organisations.

Panel session on ‘After Kigali: The Commonwealth’s future challenges’:

[Summaries by Harriet Aldrich, filming by David Aitken-Smith and associates, pictures/ video/ script and production co-ordination by Debbie Ransome.]

Related articles:

Conference closing remarks by Stuart Mole

The pre-CHOGM Round Table conference in 2022 – Is the Commonwealth Working?

Arif Zaman talks about the conference on his Bloomsbury Radio Business Show with guests Alex May, Brian Speers, Nick Hardman-Mountford, Rita Payne and Helen Jones