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View from the top: The Royal Commonwealth Society

11 January 2017
Commonwealth House leaders reveal their vision for a joined-up Commonwealth

In June last year, Her Majesty the Queen opened ‘Commonwealth House’ - a collaborative effort of Commonwealth organisations to coordinate their work and present a “joined-up” approach to the outside world.  The Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) and the Commonwealth Games Federation subsequently relocated to a Secretariat office adjacent to Marlborough House, its headquarters. 

The aim of these organisations is much more ambitious than sharing office space. They want to link their programmes and show that they are working together for a common cause: realisation of the principles in the Commonwealth Charter that champion democracy, development and diversity.

Commonwealth Secretariat communications officer Natricia Duncan speaks to the heads of these organisations about their leadership and vision for Commonwealth House.

Michael Lake CBE, Director of The Royal Commonwealth Society

Tell me about yourself and the career path that led you to The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS)

I was brought up in St Ives, Cornwall. I spent most of my youth either playing sport or surfing. In 1964 I joined the army and went on to serve for nearly thirty-four years around the globe, including in Germany, Ireland, the Falklands and in the first Gulf War.

I left the army in 1995 and became director of a charity called Help the Aged, which started as a disaster relief initiative with lots of connections around the world. Later, I merged Help the Aged with the other big age-related charity in the UK - Age Concern - to create Age UK. I have quite a broad experience in the charity sector, spanning nearly two decades.

In 2012, I was asked to do a structural governance review for RCS, which led to me becoming Chairman. Later I agreed to a six-month post as director, while we effected some fairly major changes to the structure of the organisation. Here I am still, two and half years later.

What are some of the highlights of your time at RCS?

I think RCS had slightly lost its way. It had become a bit schizophrenic about whether it was a members’ club or a political think tank and programme organisation. The first challenge was to get rid of the club and to change our constitution from one that was governed by members with a huge governing board, to something that was more focused, agile and modern.

Since then, I have seen many positive developments, such as the success of The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition - of which The Queen is now a patron. This year we’ve had 13,500 essays from 49 Commonwealth countries.

Another great achievement is the creation of The Queens Commonwealth Canopy (QCC), launched in November 2015 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This initiative is helping to provide an umbrella of forest projects all around the globe. What we’ve done, essentially, is to encourage member countries to recognise that forest conservation is a really important issue for them - it’s not a nice to have, it’s a must.

In just 12 months we’ve gone from launching the initiative to 21 Commonwealth countries making dedications to conserve or plant areas of forest and natural vegetation in the name of the Commonwealth and The Queen. For example, the Government of British Columbia in Canada has dedicated the Great Bear Rainforest - one of our biggest projects. The forest, covering 6.4 million hectares, is a vast tract of temperate rainforest stretching some 250 miles along the central and north coast of British Columbia. In addition to these confirmed pledges, we have another dozen or so countries in the process of making dedications. Our intention and ambition is that by CHOGM 2018, every Commonwealth country will be part of the QCC

Why is the Commonwealth Hub an important initiative?

I think the idea behind the Hub is to create a space where people could come in and meet us, so we become more accessible to the public and visiting members of the Commonwealth. But it is also very much about non-governmental Commonwealth agencies collaborating and working more effectively with the inter-governmental organisation - the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The RCS, the Commonwealth Games Federation, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and the Secretariat have been under the same roof for more than a month, and I think this project is already beginning to bear fruit. We are already discussing how we could collaborate on important issues such as youth empowerment and countering violent extremism.

What is your vision for the future of RCS?

One of our priorities is to expand on our work on gender equality. We also want to continue to see the growth of the QCC in terms of numbers, but also in terms of the qualitative and programmatic agenda. In the next phase of the project we are planning to create scholarships and exchanges for young Commonwealth foresters. We want to educate young people about the importance of trees and the environment, and help Commonwealth countries learn from each other about conserving their natural environment.

We also want to continue to grow our branch structure. Currently, we have 62 branches around the world. We recognise that, while we can help to stimulate change, in order to be effective and improve the lives of Commonwealth citizens, we need local activists and organisations who are attuned to their cultural circumstances and who can help us focus on things that really matter.

Ultimately, the big agenda for me is to see a moment when the Commonwealth is a factor in the foreign policy of every Commonwealth country. I think we need to take every available opportunity to raise the profile of the Commonwealth and to prove it is really working for the good of its members.