The Commonwealth has 53 member countries. Although it is an intergovernmental organisation, with countries as its members, it remains very much an association of people, a ‘family’ of some two billion people spanning the globe.
Among the Commonwealth’s members are rich and poor countries, large and small, and countries on every continent. The association includes the world’s second largest countries in terms of population (India) and territory (Canada), and many of the smallest and most remote, among these Nauru and Tuvalu, two of the world’s smallest nations. It includes one of the world’s driest and most sparsely-populated countries (Namibia), and also Guyana, with some of the world’s best-conserved tropical forests.
Several of its members are small and isolated island states, others have the opposite disadvantage of being landlocked. The world’s first industrialised country (United Kingdom) is a member; so is one of the pioneer ‘Asian tigers’ (Singapore), and some of the world’s rapidly-industrialising countries (Malaysia, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago).
Also among the Commonwealth’s members are some of the world’s poorest countries in terms of per capita GNI (Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone), and some of the most disadvantaged, notably Bangladesh, Kiribati and Maldives with their vulnerability to flooding as sea level rises.
The Commonwealth includes the world’s first parliamentary democracy (United Kingdom), its largest democracy (India), the first to extend the franchise to women (New Zealand), and countries which have maintained stable and open democracies during periods of political change and upheaval in their region (Barbados, Botswana). There are countries which have returned to multiparty systems after a generation of one-party rule (Kenya, Malawi, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia) and countries where military government has voluntarily given way to the ballot box (Ghana, Nigeria). In another, South Africa, democratic government peacefully – and with global rejoicing – replaced one of the world’s most hated racist systems.
Through all this diversity, Commonwealth countries have a strong feeling of kinship. The historic link is their common use of the English language and the common culture inherited from their colonial past. This has bequeathed to them similar systems of education, government and law, shared cultural traditions and the sense of belonging to a family of nations. All Commonwealth countries accept Queen Elizabeth II as the symbol of their free association and thus Head of the Commonwealth.
The apex of the association’s activities is the two-yearly Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), where the policy and programmes of the Commonwealth are decided. Most programmes are executed by the Commonwealth Secretariat, based in London and led by a Secretary-General (see profile of the Commonwealth Secretariat in Commonwealth Organisations). The Commonwealth has no constitution or charter, but members commit themselves to the statements of belief set out by Heads of Government. The basis of these is the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, agreed at Singapore in 1971.