young people on laptops'A properly managed future could deliver a demographic dividend from the largest population of youth the world has ever known' [iStock]

Martin Mulligan looks at how Commonwealth leaders and officials can reach a younger demographic [From the Round Table Journal’s archives – June 2015]

Is the vocabulary of the Commonwealth scene now part of the organisation’s difficulty? Has the register of terms that the organisation routinely employs to frame and discuss its problems gradually become misleading and hollowed-out to the point of worthlessness, because it is so pervasively contaminated by consumerism and the marketeer’s mindset? Crucially, has the internal discourse of Commonwealth bodies gradually capitulated to marketing-speak, littered with terms that do not actually refer to anything?

These reflections are prompted in the wake of the recent lecture entitled ‘A Young Commonwealth: Youth, Innovation and Sustainable Development’ delivered by the former prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, at London’s Guildhall, that ‘magnificent medieval building 600 years old’ in London, ‘the most global city of all’.

‘Democracy, development, diversity’ was the refrain amidst an avalanche of facts—the Commonwealth comprises 2.2bn people; it occupies a quarter of the world’s land area; half of the world’s population of approximately 7bn are under 30 years old, etc etc – and affectionate reminiscences of four Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings by a former Pacific politician. None of this was new or surprising. So far, so staid.

In support of hope, it was pointed out that extreme income disparity halved (largely thanks to China’s demographic dividend) between 1990 and 2010. (Never mind that this effect is now petering out.) Great progress had been made worldwide in school enrolment rates for girls and boys alike.

Most alluringly, a properly managed future could deliver a demographic dividend from the largest population of youth the world has ever known (we had segued by now into world statistics).

But then alarm bells began to ring in the minds of attentive listeners. ‘How could the current global offer [to youth] be improved?’ the speaker wanted to know. Here before us, evidently, was ‘an opportunity to reset the compass’ by forming ‘an all-of-society agenda’, harnessing new digital technologies and social media that permit ‘tremendous outreach to the global public’ and ‘global citizenry’.

After an attempt to offer a definitive assessment of each problem that confronts the Commonwealth, the lecture started to resemble a secular encyclical, full of sloganeering, but empty of constructive content, studded throughout with marketing key words and the language of consumerism.

It was, to say the least, a missed opportunity.

Good things are happening in Commonwealth countries, with exciting implications for youth. Africa’s universities are an example. Kenya saw a 160% increase in internet bandwidth between 2010 and 2011 as a result of new undersea cable connections. In Zimbabwe and Rwanda, also, digital advances have put students on something much more like an equal footing, technologically speaking, with their peers in the so-called developed world. These examples could be multiplied.

In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell drew attention to a trait which his fictional totalitarian state encouraged in its citizens, a habit that passed for communication but which was actually something else. He called it duckspeak: speech in which the mind was bypassed and sentences proceeded directly from the larynx. This habit was of course fatal to clear thinking.

Without an approach to thinking and speaking which values clarity and which publishes more widely concrete particulars as distinct from vacuous global ‘factoids’ for the consumption of a non-existent global public, the outlook for Commonwealth organisations and the countries they represent is bleak.

Martin Mulligan is a writer and journalism consultant and a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.