Belfast Telegraph

The old empire is in decline but we can still learn from each other

By Henrietta Moore

You probably didn't realise it, but yesterday was Commonwealth Day. In fact, it's likely that the vast majority of the 2.2 billion people around the world who call one of the 53 Commonwealth nations home didn't know that, either.

Fifty years ago - and earlier, as Empire Day - it would have been a day of celebration for people in Britain, India, Nigeria and many other places besides. But, with every passing year, it seems the "ties that bind" Britain and its former colonies together are slowly, but surely, loosening.

It's hard not to regard the Commonwealth as something of an anachronism. Its constituent countries, as diverse as South Africa and Pakistan, share little apart from use of the English language - increasingly a global lingua franca, rather than just the preserve of ex-British possessions.

Of course, the Commonwealth has been keen to present itself as a modern and dynamic organisation, far removed from its colonial past. The most tangible example of this is the Commonwealth Games, but even this worthy event increasingly feels like a rather random jumble of countries competing on pretty unequal terms with each other.

There's little doubt that the shared sense of having belonged to the empire of old - often combined with an at least nominal allegiance to the British crown - is fading from view.

So does that mean that the Commonwealth should be consigned to the history books - just like the British Empire of old?

In my view, the Commonwealth represents an extraordinarily diverse cross-section of the world's nations, with an unparalleled mix of developed and developing countries.

In many ways, it is perfectly placed to become a giant laboratory for the new economic and social models we need to adopt if we're going to tackle some of the biggest problems faced by humanity.

Commonwealth countries are grappling with many of the major threats faced by countries globally - from rapid increases in population and unplanned urbanisation, to entrenched severe poverty, dependency on foreign aid, exclusion from global markets and vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

University College London's Institute for Global Prosperity is attempting to rethink the established political, economic and social models that have failed to produce answers to these pressing questions.

Their research is rooted in the real world. It is looking in detail at the factors which affect the individual and collective prosperity of two utterly different communities - Newham in east London and Elgeyo Marakwet county in northern Kenya - so that it can make recommendations on how to improve people's lives that don't just follow the same old script.

It's no coincidence that these communities are both in Commonwealth countries. In spite of the weakening of the bonds between us, I think many people in Commonwealth nations do have a lingering affection for the organisation and this can help when you're building multi-national, multi-disciplinary teams to look at problems.

In the 21st century, we have the possibility to give the Commonwealth a new lease of life as an organisation based not just on equality - fundamental though that is - but also on a shared striving for a new kind of prosperity that isn't just interested in bald GDP growth, but in creating genuinely flourishing communities, on their own terms, in every corner of our world.

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