The Commonwealth, with its 56 member states and 2.5 billion citizens, plays host to some of the world’s most dynamic emerging economies and is the source of a large chunk of the world’s foreign direct investment.
Commonwealth member states enjoy 21% lower bilateral trading costs with one another – a quantitative benefit termed ‘the Commonwealth Advantage’-, and already trade disproportionately more with one another. Despite all of this, the bloc is all-too-often overlooked by those too busy fixating on more traditional partnerships.
And this isn’t just theory. The Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC), the organisation that I lead as Chairman, is putting these ideas into practice. CWEIC operates across the Commonwealth to strengthen trade and investment links between its fifty-six member states. We work alongside 150 Strategic Partners in business and government to build connections and unlock investment opportunities.
The recent Commonwealth Trade and Investment Forum (CTIF), held this September in Dhaka, showcased just how powerful the pull of the Commonwealth can be. Organised by CWEIC in partnership with the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the ZI Foundation, CTIF brought together more than 300 delegates from 30 Commonwealth countries for two days of meetings, panels, and networking. I also want to pay particular thanks to Mr Zillur Hussain MBE, whose support in putting CTIF together was invaluable.
The proceedings were formally opened by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who highlighted her commitment to the Commonwealth, emphasising the need for greater investment to accelerate the country’s economic progress.
Bangladesh is a fantastic example of the Commonwealth’s potential – with an average growth rate of 6.4% over the past five years, it is projected to be one of the world’s largest exporters in the decades to come and is on track to become a $1 trillion economy by 2040.
Through its membership of the Commonwealth, Bangladesh can open up new markets for its garments in fast-growing Africa, while seeking investment from trusted partners like Britain, Singapore, and India.
I was also particularly delighted to receive such strong support from Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, who hosted a roundtable meeting with a delegation of African business leaders and ministers. This was not just a fantastic opportunity to highlight the potential for closer ties between Bangladesh and Africa; it was also an example of how the Commonwealth can draw together broad, diverse groups of states with more in common than they might at first assume.
However, it wasn’t just about forging new connections and showcasing the progress of one of the Commonwealth’s most impressive economies; the Commonwealth business community is also key to facing up to the challenge of climate change, which is at the top of the agenda for many of the Commonwealth’s vulnerable member states.
During the opening ceremony, we saw the presentation of the ‘Commonwealth-Bangladesh Bangabandhu Green Investment Award’, which rewards sustainable and environmentally friendly investments. The winner, Eco Brixs, based in Uganda, is just one example of how private sector innovation can help us to meet the challenge of transitioning towards a more sustainable economy.
The Forum also coincided with the launch of our new Hub Office in Dhaka, which we inaugurated with Salman F Rahman, the Prime Minister’s Advisor for Private Industry and Investment. The launch of our Bangladesh Hub follows on from the launch of two new Hubs early this year, in Singapore and Cameroon, marking an expansion in our network of in-country Hubs which allow us to communicate so effectively with partners on the ground.
The work doesn’t stop there. In November, CWEIC will host the Commonwealth Trade and Investment Summit in London, bringing together Heads of Government, senior Ministers and international business leaders from across our network for a two-day conference. The 2023 Summit programme will focus on the key economic challenges and opportunities facing the Commonwealth this year and identify areas in which the Commonwealth can help finance emerging markets, engage in sustainable business practices, and strengthen collaboration between the public and private sector.
Next year, we will host the biannual Commonwealth Business Forum in Samoa, which will run alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Following on from the success of CBF 2022 in Kigali, the Forum is the high-point our calendar, and will serve as the ultimate rallying-point for the Commonwealth business community. With climate change no doubt high on the agenda, particularly given that this year’s CHOGM will take place in a small island state, we’ll no doubt be focusing on the role that the private sector can play in a changing global landscape.
These two landmark events, alongside a busy calendar of missions, visits, and forums, are living proof of global interest in the Commonwealth’s potential.
The lesson here is twofold. First, countries – including Britain – should look to the Commonwealth as a platform for trade and investment, which will only grow in importance in the years to come. Partners like Bangladesh, long overlooked, are due for reconsideration.
Second, those looking to define the Commonwealth’s modern purpose need look no further. Much ink has been spilled about what now unites the Commonwealth, but CWEIC’s example – already working in practice – shows that the tradition of free enterprise is a powerful binding agent for this expansive bloc.
As the emerging economies of Africa and Asia continue to grow in importance, membership of the Commonwealth will only become more valuable. Already, countries are queuing up to join, with two new members admitted as recently as 2022 – they see membership of the Commonwealth as a way to access the Anglophone world of commerce and investment, opening up new markets in all manner of places. They also recognize that in a world of rising protectionism, the Commonwealth is one of the only blocs which still recognizes the value of grassroots economic development through trade, commerce, and investment.
Seizing on these opportunities now, laying the groundwork for a diverse and growing range of partners, could be a boon for cash-strapped Britain. It can also provide an additional boost to the rapid development of emerging economies, opening up new markets and enabling them to forge new partnerships.
The question is not whether the Commonwealth will grow in importance in the years to come, but whether politicians and officials can keep up with the work that the private sector is already doing to supercharge this great global network.
Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council (CWEIC)