The Commonwealth of Nations has gone through many changes since its nebulous origins in the late 19th century. For many decades it was predominantly a political body, with issues such as apartheid, and its troubled course toward the democratisation of all its member states causing ferocious debate and bad feeling among delegates at their meetings.
Increasingly, however, the focus of the Commonwealth has shifted towards economic matters. This is hardly surprising. Many of the countries which make up its 53-strong membership (plus one suspended member) had Third World status and, therefore, little or no influence within the organisation. But a lot of those countries have shaken off their reputations for poverty and instability and have become 'emerging markets'. Not least of all among them are India, Malaysia and, in Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya. This means that at a time when global economic growth is mostly stagnating, a lot of the economies within Commonwealth will grow rapidly over the coming years.
Nineteen of the Commonwealth's member states are African. Not all of them can claim to be economic powerhouses. But the purpose of the organisation, which has representatives on all six populated continents, is to benefit all.
The numbers associated with the Commonwealth are staggering. More than two billion of the world's seven billion people live within it. But with less than a third of the world's population, trade within the Commonwealth stands at only about 20% of the global total. With many of its member states still developing or still yet to develop appreciably, the potential for the future is obvious. But even as matters stand, trade within the Commonwealth zone totals $4 trillion and is expected to reach $6 trillion in the next few years.
The Commonwealth as a business model was recognised officially in 1997 when the Commonwealth Business Council was established. Now, in a global recession, the world is being scoured for areas of potential growth. And hungry eyes are turning, once more, to Africa. Of course, for many centuries, that the rest of the world valued Africa for its natural and human resources was very much to the detriment of the continent and its people. So talk of its rich mineral wealth, still largely untapped, and of its burgeoning youth is bound to make some uneasy.
However, the environment required for business to flourish is not what it once was. And the Commonwealth's...