Sometimes it takes a newcomer to a club to remind other members what they have.
Imagine a group of 56 nations stretching from the Global North to the Global South who are united by a common pledge to uphold and ever-improve standards of democracy and good governance. An organization whose members’ trade is, on average, 21 percent cheaper thanks to common standards in law and language. Would that not be a club you would strive for your country to join?
For 18 intensive months, that is precisely what Gabon did by seeking membership of the Commonwealth of Nations, the intergovernmental body Britain helped establish and whose 56 members from India (population 1.3 billion) to the Oceanic Island of Nauru (population 11,000) have a combined GDP of $13 trillion. Set to swell by close to 50 percent to $20 trillion by 2027, they represent the fastest growing multi-country grouping on Earth.
When it is so fast-expanding economically, and with a queue of countries hoping to join, it is extraordinary to hear some international commentators question what purpose this organization has today.
They state that the club was spearheaded by post-war Britain to maintain close fraternal relations with the independent nations of their former empire as reason it has little relevance today. But that past is gone—and this organization has changed immeasurably over the last 70 years. Had it not, there would be little justification for a French-speaking West African nation such as Gabon with few historic links to Britain to join.
In 2022, today’s Commonwealth is a window into the English-speaking world—the most dynamic collection of nations on Earth. It offers the people of Gabon new horizons in friendship, trade, investment, and education.
The fact it is not a regional supranational bloc, or a customs union, or a single market, or a military alliance is not a weakness—but a benefit. It does not exist, as other multi-country organizations do, to erect trade barriers around their members for their own protection—or to defend them against an external enemy, real or imagined. Rather, it is a group of nations united in the joy that free association brings, and the opportunity that presents to change themselves—and each other—for the better.
Take one example: climate change. All intergovernmental organizations pledge to address global warming—but few have done much but talk. The Commonwealth has through its Climate Finance Access program actively assisted, particularly its smallest members, by deploying and embedding experts in their relevant government departments to help them access and apply for billions in international funding that many would not have the technical capacity to secure alone.
Take another: human rights. In 2020, all the then 54 member states signed a united statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva—the first time the Commonwealth has addressed the Council as a group. They agreed that “full social, economic and political participation of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status, is essential for democracy,” and not because they were legally obliged by some international treaty or pact, but simply because they support this fundamental principle.
There is clearly much more the Commonwealth can do together than it does today. Some members see the opportunity for closer economic relations, and the lowering of intra-Commonwealth barriers to trade. Others see the possibility of working ever more tightly together as a group in votes and initiatives at other intergovernmental bodies to wield geopolitical power on behalf of members’ interests—as was started with the U.N. Human Rights Council statement. Every one of these proposals is possible. We in Gabon support them all.
Still, for us, the principle of joining was simple. As a small, French-speaking West African country with big ambitions, membership of this organization of friends allows us to broaden our horizons as a people and a nation. It opens us to the economic, language and cultural benefits of the Anglosphere. With English now taught compulsorily in our schools for the first time our young people will, soon enough, be able to take advantage of opportunities unthinkable by their forebears.
That’s the benefit of the Commonwealth. It is why other countries want to join. And it’s why the organization has such a great future.
Ali Bongo Ondimba is the president of Gabon.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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