Like many international organisations, the Commonwealth Secretariat (ComSec) is undergoing a mid-life identity crisis. The world has changed radically since its formation some 60 years ago, and it is way past time for ComSec to look inwards and reflect on how it must evolve to face the coming challenges and also to assess how, or if, it can continue to provide value to its member states.
While the Commonwealth may still be doing good work (meagre budget and low staff numbers notwithstanding), there is little trace of this positive activity outside Marlborough House. And without this record or recognition, it is likely that funds will dwindle even more, and it will become harder to attract talented, dedicated people to run its programmes.
In my opinion, ComSec suffers from six intertwined issues: an image issue, a vision issue, a message issue, an information sharing / dissemination issue, a partnership / networking issue and a feedback/learning issue.
I use the word ‘Commonwealth’ to encompass all the Commonwealth international organisations, as well as its associated NGOs, professional bodies and networks, the great majority of which also suffer from a lack of rejuvenation over the past several decades.
Despite 60 per cent of Commonwealth citizens being under 35 years old and brown (a fact that has been true for well over 2 decades), the organisation itself looks old and (mostly) white. Some people argue this is because its image derives from the centre, ie London, but even London doesn’t look like that anymore. For the Commonwealth to be embraced by its 2.5 billion citizens, it needs to look more like them, to be more like them, to understand what matters to them.
At a recent Roundtable / ICS discussion, one panellist referred to the fact that the age group for most Commonwealth NGOs is thinning out, but no discussion took place on how to reposition the Commonwealth image, and staffing, to fit its audience. We need to fix this.
How does the Commonwealth and in particular ComSec see itself in 5, 10 or even 20 years? It is a cop-out to say that this is up to member states to decide. An organisation with no vision is not an organisation. And if we leave it to member states, then the result will not be suitable. Their input and support will be invaluable, but it is for the organisation itself to lead on this.
Now that ComSec’s founding rationale has changed, what is its purpose? What are its goals and values? How will it go about pursuing its vision? By consensus, by moral suasion, by example?
In the past, the Commonwealth was known for its thought leadership and proactive stand on many topics, including such vital ones as the fight against apartheid, gender equality, youth development, small states’ specific challenges and heavily indebted poor countries. What is its current ‘sweet spot’? Does it stand for anything at all?
It is not difficult (for me, at least) to think of a burning topic that could provide the organisation with a compelling theme which could underpin its work. This could be expressed as easily as “By 2030, the Commonwealth Secretariat seeks to provide xxx support in the areas of yyy to zz members”, or “The Commonwealth Secretariat will unite its members to commit to an xx% increase of educated girls / clean water / internet connectivity within 5/10 years”, for example. The time and effort should be made to have these discussions so that there is a clear, simple vision presented to member countries that they and their populations can understand and get behind.
What does the Commonwealth stand for? If someone were to ask, how would you respond? What do we think is the simple message ComSec wants to share to the wider world, on behalf of its members?
The message is inextricably linked to the vision; one cannot stand without the other. But once the vision has been articulated, the message should be easy to develop, promote and understand. It could be a clear distillation of the Commonwealth Charter, down to one simple sentence “Breaking down all barriers to peace, security and development for a more equitable future”, or “Creating the conditions for a just, secure and sustainable world for future generations of Commonwealth citizens” – and then even further to a simple strap line (The Commonwealth: Stronger Together, or Our Common Wealth, Our Common Future), I would suggest testing the message across the Commonwealth through focus groups, partner organisations and associations until we are sure that our vision and message are aligned and accessible.
Information is power, especially when it is shared. ComSec is not doing this well enough, not only for its own work, but also on behalf of good work being done elsewhere that could be replicated across the Commonwealth.
How are we collecting information on what action is being taken across the Commonwealth, and what further action is needed? How is the Commonwealth using this to become more responsive, more proactive and more effective?
The Secretariat used to be seen by many policymakers, students and other researchers as a repository for critical information on successful technical assistance, socio-political and economic initiatives over the years. I do not even know how this vast amount of useful intra-Commonwealth knowledge – including on governance and democracy practices, youth and gender policy, trade and good financial practice, among countless others – can be accessed now.
This is a wasted resource and a lost opportunity for the organisation to maintain relevance and practical leadership in a range of important areas. I hope that ComSec can find a way to make this valuable data accessible to all Commonwealth citizens.
More and more, the Commonwealth finds itself working in partnership and through networks. This does not mean that the ‘commonwealth-ness’ of projects and activities will be diluted. Whether majority partner or minority partner, either in terms of financing or input, the Commonwealth must make itself known as an active, vocal and essential partner or participant.
There is much value in partnership working. It allows us to amplify our impact. It broadens our horizons. It opens us up to new ways of working. It introduces us to new people and keeps our views fresh and relevant. Rather than shy away, or underplay its partnership activities, the Commonwealth should actively embrace partnership working.
The most recent Mid Term Review of ComSec’s activity found that monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) as a necessary evolutionary loop is not embedded in the organisation at either the programme or the operational level. The report singled out the need for ComSec to provide more evidence to support the delivery and impact of its projects and programmes, and alongside that, the need for evidence-based MEL.
How can ComSec prove its ‘value-add’ achievements to its stakeholders without providing evidence? That is surely a priority area to resolve.
For us to move forward, we must listen and learn. There appear to be few functioning feedback mechanisms at any level within the Commonwealth system. How can we grow and adapt if we do not actively seek out and act on feedback from the community we are serving?
For many of these issues to be addressed, the Commonwealth will need a significant mind shift and a boost from new and lateral thinkers help refresh its image and prepare itself to face an uncertain future. The Commonwealth cannot continue on its current path to obsolescence and insignificance. I think that the calm, consensus-building voice of the Commonwealth on the international stage can still have a meaningful impact, but only if it truly represents its constituency and only when it has created a clear, collective path to move itself and its members forward with purpose and passion.
Mischa Manderson Mills is an experienced communications consultant from Jamaica who is currently supporting a portfolio of programmes at Syngenta, aimed at improving and digitising its supply chain and logistics processes. She worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat serving as ex Secretary General Sir Don McKinnon's media advisor until becoming an independent consultant.
 Evaluation Series 114 Mid-Term Review of the Commonwealth Secretariat Strategic Plan 2017/18 – 2020/21