Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Limp on, dear Commonwealth!

I’m a bit of a fan of the Commonwealth. Maybe that’s unusual, and especially unusual for anti-monarchist republicans (like moi) who blame most of the world’s ills on the dark legacy of colonialism (actually also like moi).

But there are a couple of reasons to like its work and its potential for greater things. Firstly, on a compassionate level, I feed bad for it. Mainstream media and lesserstream media alike seem to take great joy in attacking the Commonwealth with the predictable clichéd adjectives like “relic,” “imperial,” “redundant.” I suppose I automatically rally to the defence of anything that seems casually dismissed at best and gleefully mocked at worst.

Mainly, though, what I like about it is in contrast to the United Nations. The UN is, necessarily, a universal organisation. If it is generally agreed that you are a state, then you are eligible for UN membership. It doesn’t matter if you’re a sham state like Somalia, an atrocious state like North Korea… the political recognition of statehood gets you in the General Assembly, pointe finale.

The Commonwealth, though, is meritorious. It’s not enough, or even necessary, to be an “ex-colony.” Mozambique and Rwanda joined without any formal links to Britain in their histories. What you need is to demonstrate a verifiable and sustained commitment to human rights, to transparency, to electoral democracy, to education, to combatting racism. That’s the basis of the Harare Declaration, and it gives the institution a raison d’être that the UN can never have.

If you violate the terms of good behaviour, you get suspended, as Pakistan, Fiji, and Zimbabwe have been in recent years. Brits and Canadians might not notice that much, which is a shame, because the role the Commonwealth plays in affirming democratic and liberal credentials (like an ISO certification, but for countries!) matters much more in the developing world. Countries like Rwanda clamoured for years to join the CW, in a manner not unlike Turkey’s reforms aimed at easing entry into the EU. So, it has influence.

I also like the scholarships, and I like the Games. The Commonwealth Games are, of course, the most high-profile feature of the Commonwealth itself, and despite the fact Australia wins bloody everything, it’s nice to have an athletic forum that is predominately Global Southern, and doesn’t feature much competition from Europe, and hey, no U.S.

But the Commonwealth has a crisis in communicating its vision of legitimacy and relevance, and the kerfuffle over the Dirty Delhi Games only exacerbates this. People will say: “FIFA awarded the World Cup to South Africa, and they went fine. Why couldn’t the Commonwealth do a better job of ensuring the Delhi Games were up to scratch?” And it’s a good point. I suppose people need to remember that, as an institution borne out of empire, it is now a devotedly decentralised and non-interfering organisation. To avoid accusations of patronising neo-colonialism, the principle of non-interference might have played a role in hands-offness with the organisationness. But it doesn’t look good.

In typical bumbling fashion, London Mayor Boris Johnson has waded in with a ham-fisted attempt to rally around the beleaguered Delhi Games, and he did so by exposing his total ignorance as to how his own country competes in it.

“I’m absolutely convinced that Team GB should go to the Games and playing their part in what has every prospect of being a fantastic Games,” he told the Standard. “I hope that some of our great competitors won’t be put of by media gloomstering from doing the Commonwealth proud.”

Team GB is the unified British team that competes at the Olympics. But for the Commonwealth Games, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each compete separately. The Mayor of the 2012 Olympic Games City doesn’t know how the Commonwealth Games (or his own country’s athletics federation) work.

So the Commonwealth suffers from bad optics, and it’s generally criticised (and praised) by people with only a cursory understanding of how it works, what it does, why it exists. I was hoping the Delhi Games would show a future-oriented, Southern-driven, bright, young, up-and-coming face of the Commonwealth as embodied in the state of India itself. If all people see are dirty floors and collapsed bridges, though, it’s just going to be another opportunity to beat up on the whole institution. And to that I say boo.

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One Response

  1. “People will say: “FIFA awarded the World Cup to South Africa, and they went fine. Why couldn’t the Commonwealth do a better job of ensuring the Delhi Games were up to scratch?” And it’s a good point. I suppose people need to remember that, as an institution borne out of empire, it is now a devotedly decentralised and non-interfering organisation.”

    Perhaps, but also perhaps the South African FIFA World Cup was heavy managed by the state, whilst I get the impression that the Indian Government until very recently have operated a “western hands-off laissez-faire” approach to the Games (with the connivance of the countries that criticise the “result”). Leaving things to market capitalism is not necessarily the best approach.

    It may only be an extended “Sports Day” for a select group of friendly countries, but it would be a pity to see the Games die. Perhaps in accordance with the “Sports Day” ethos, attempts should be made to ensure that the games are not bid for as a means to (expensively) promote a country. “Games Lite” anybody?

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