Dr Linda Yueh, Chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS), in conversation with Renu Sabherwal
Just a few weeks into the new decade and on a cold winter’s afternoon, I met with Dr Linda Yueh at the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) office, where her team is hunkered down, as they are at this time every year, organising the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey. The premier annual Commonwealth event, it is held on the second Monday each March, which is Commonwealth Day. Taking place in the presence of some 2,000 guests including the RCS’s Patron, Her Majesty The Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, senior members of the Royal Family, Commonwealth and UK dignitaries and diplomatic representatives and members of the public, it is broadcast live by the BBC providing a global reach.
Against this backdrop, Dr Yueh explains the increasing importance of the charity’s role in a world that has seen the rise of division, nationalism and a breakdown in consensus.
Reliant on public and corporate support, the RCS delivers a values-based agenda through activities in four areas: Equality and Inclusion, Literacy, the Environment and Connected Communities, which are aligned with a number of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Dr Linda Yueh:
The Commonwealth Youth and Gender Equality Network (CYGEN), of which we are the Secretariat, has continued to position itself as the leading youth voice on gender equality in the Commonwealth, resulting in #Reform53 (+1*). This six-month campaign, which is unfolding in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda, in June, champions the reform of laws that discriminate against gender and sexual orientation, many of which have origins in colonial rule. #Reform53 not only calls on Commonwealth leaders to reform these laws but to recognise and engage with young people as agents of change, collaborating at all levels of society.
Only last month, we convened the Commonwealth Equality and Justice Forum in Seychelles, with President Danny Faure, whose government has been a regional leader in the decriminalisation of same sex relationships. We all say we’d like to have more equality and less discrimination, and it is this focus on delivering shared values that drives our longstanding convening role in the Commonwealth on this matter.
The annual Commonwealth Service is a terrific celebration of shared values. This year’s theme, ‘Delivering A Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming,’ recognises the importance of respecting different faiths and celebrating what draws people together. This year, as the UK ends its period as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth and this role moving to Rwanda in June, Africa features prominently among the performers.
Bands and artists that celebrate the UK’s rich Commonwealth diaspora will perform, with Alexandra Burke and Craig David adding their own rich heritage to the programme, alongside the wonderful sounds of the Westminster Abbey Choir. The principal reflection will be given by the champion heavyweight boxer and Olympian, Anthony Joshua.
My favourite part of the service, and which I always look forward to, is welcoming the 800 young people from across the UK. To celebrate the Commonwealth with these youngsters – hopefully, the experience of being in the Abbey will stay with them all their lives – reinforces that sense of family and community which is so pervasive in the Commonwealth, and where it hasn’t lately been in other multilateral organisations.
Founded in 1883 by the RCS to promote literacy, expression and creativity among young people, The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition (QCEC) is the world’s oldest international schools’ writing competition. The theme this year is Climate Action and the Commonwealth, and we want young people across the globe to write about a pressing issue that’s so important to them.
Later this year, we will be launching a pilot programme at CHOGM, that will see youth leaders work at the community level in select Commonwealth African countries to convene literacy and English language writing workshops in rural, disadvantaged and hard-to-reach communities. Through these workshops, that will draw on national literary heritage and on indigenous folklore, we hope that young people become excited about creative writing and then enter the QCEC – with a wonderful opportunity to attend the prize-giving at Buckingham Palace should they be a winner or runner-up.
More than that, because literature is a fundamental building block of any economy, this pilot also means that Commonwealth governments will find it helps them on the path to realising specific SDGs, on equality of education and climate action.
We are excited too, that the QCEC has a new principal sponsor in the internationally-renowned Moomin Characters, which share our values of tolerance, respect and equality.
Through our partnership in The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, we celebrate and conserve the Commonwealth’s forests, and are leading on how we make this truly pan-Commonwealth by encouraging all 54 member countries to be a part of it. We will extend it deep into the community, so that young people and civil society organisations can protect these most critical of natural assets and help their communities to manage and change the relationship their people have with the environment.
It is a privilege to be Chair of the RCS, because every day I have the opportunity to think about how we promote these shared values. In my own area of expertise, economics, topics such as trade are not just about gains but also about fairness, it’s about distribution and thinking about priorities like protecting the environment in that context. The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, by getting Commonwealth governments to conserve their forests, is an important part of preserving the earth for future generations and will make a difference. We can use the initiative around the environment to demonstrate important, shared values by asking, what is the value of what you are doing? And, how can you do it in a way that will bring other people along? I think the RCS, in particular, has a long history of being very good as a ‘trusted convenor’, and this is why I am proud to be part of it.
While writing my book The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today, on 250 years of economic history, I was trying to take those ideas and apply them to today’s problems. Looking back through the lens of history, I realised that economic systems come under challenge and consensus breaks down from time to time. What was common to many of those thinkers is that they spoke about shared values. When the welfare state was introduced in the early twentieth century, that was because it was no longer deemed acceptable to have a rich society where so people were poor and left behind. That perspective is realised in the RCS, which is focused on promoting shared values around democracy and justice and equality and the rule of law.
Change doesn’t happen just because you have a discourse about it, change happens when people are persuaded of the cause and that requires civil society, youth, communities, businesses, parliamentarians and diplomats, all coming together to discuss what values are important and how we uphold them.
My work as an economist reflects on and reinforces the importance of why we need to have this kind of convening charity at this point in history. It is something that I find myself putting emphasis on, more than anything else. It’s a perspective and outlook that fits well with everything we at the RCS are trying to do. I started writing about great economists and answers to technical questions and increasingly I found myself writing about values, and that positively reinforced my role here at the RCS.
* The campaign launched in January 2020, before the readmission of the Maldives to the Commonwealth on February 1, 2020.
PHOTO CREDIT: Westminster Abbey/Picture Partnership