What is the point of these gatherings?

`Somehow, we like to think that the Commonwealth symbolises Britain's maturity and civility'
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LET'S FACE it. However hard our post-imperial, Europeanised and suitably modern souls try to suppress it, mention of the Commonwealth still summons a tiny glow of pride. It's not the "British Commonwealth" any longer - heaven forfend. But somehow, we like to think, the body symbolises Britain's maturity and civility, our ability to preside over the seamless transformation of an empire into a loose, mostly friendly association of 54 states to which almost all our former colonies - and not a few others - wish to belong. It is in short, a Good Thing.

Such at least is the image, and the latest Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which the Queen opens today in Durban, will do little to dispel it. This CHOGM ("Chogam", in verbal diplomatic shorthand) has a good deal to celebrate since the previous summit in Edinburgh two years ago. The very fact that it is being held in South Africa is testament to the multiracial democracy now firmly embedded in Africa's richest country. Since 1997, elected government has returned to the continent's most populous country, Nigeria, while peace, however imperfect, has replaced savage civil war in Sierra Leone.

There is, of course, the shadow of the coup in Islamabad, and the casual dismissal by Pakistan's new military leadership of the suspension of membership of the Commonwealth that quickly followed. As if to underscore its contempt, General Pervaiz Musharraf chose the eve of the Durban gathering to announce that the ousted Prime Minister would be going on trial for his life. So much for the Commonwealth as a force for moral suasion and a guardian of due process.

In Durban, however, Pakistan will not exclude all else. Tony Blair will submit a paper on the Aids epidemic ravaging parts of Africa, and the assembled presidents and prime ministers must choose by secret vote a new secretary general to replace Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria (the strong favourite is Don McKinnon, New Zealand's Foreign Minister, although his lone opponent, the Bangladeshi diplomat Farooq Sohban, may yet pull off an upset). But the most interesting part ought to be at the traditional informal weekend retreat of the leaders. For whatever that soft spot in our hearts, our heads, and theirs, must ask: what is the Commonwealth for?

After all, we already have the United Nations. Within it, the Group of 77 represents developing countries. There are subsidiary global and regional organisations to cater for every taste. Until recently the Commonwealth could be defined as a cross-section of the globe, linking countries rich and poor sharing cultural, legal and political traditions inherited from Britain. But with the entry of Portugal's former colony Mozambique, and requests for membership by Yemen, Eritrea and the Palestinians, that rule of thumb no longer holds. The upsurge of interest may be flattering, but it hardly makes for clarity.

Look harder, though, and the Commonwealth does have valuable defining characteristics. It may have been powerless over Pakistan, and of marginal influence at best in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, but the organisation is specifically identified with democracy and human rights. To Margaret Thatcher's irritation, it never wavered in its hostility to apartheid in South Africa and white minority rule in Rhodesia. However ineffectual, its Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), set up in 1995, has a mandate to ensure that members observe these basic norms. And if at least two CMAG members, Zimbabwe and Malaysia, look less and less democratic, their very sensitivity to criticism is a tacit admission that peer pressure works.

But ask any Commonwealth official what its most practical value is, and he will reply: the networks. These are the 70 "non-governmental organisations", covering the law, trade unions, forestry and the free press - a tapestry of personal and professional contacts across five continents. If "globalisation" has human sinews, these are among them. In short, the Commonwealth has potential. But it also has two crying needs. One is a sharper structure. The other is money.

The Commonwealth is ludicrously underfunded. Its bureaucracy, the 320- person secretariat, has an annual budget of pounds 10m, barely the cost of a Premiership striker. That sum rises to pounds 28m if you throw in the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation - whose resources have declined since 1990 by 40 per cent to pounds 18m, equal to 1p a year for each Commonwealth citizen. The surprise is not that the Commonwealth is ignored, but that it attracts as much attention as it does.

More money will mean a higher profile. It will allow the secretariat to beef up its staff, especially in the crucial areas of monitoring democracy, and of human rights. Why not a special Commonwealth High Commissioner reporting to CMAG, as Richard Bourne, director of Commonwealth Studies at London University, has proposed? Clearly, too, the Secretariat has to be decentralised. Air connections, communications and the sheer number of High Commissioners on the ground mean its headquarters should stay in London. But regional offices must be set up - at least one per continent, and ideally in every Commonwealth capital - if only to make more people aware that the Commonwealth exists.

Next, Mr Bourne advocates a new rotating post of chairman, to help give the Commonwealth a more cohesive presence in world affairs. Logically, he or she should be head of government in the summit's host country, whose term would run for two years. The Queen might (or might not) remain head of the Commonwealth. But the chairman would be its political spokesman in the UN and elsewhere.

"We must use it or lose it," John Major once said of the Commonwealth. Carry out these reforms, promote the non-governmental bodies, foster the networks and rid our minds of the last dusty trappings of empire - and the Commonwealth can be a precious asset, a moral force for better government on every continent, a force for economic and social justice in the era of "globalisation". Or, of course, it can amble on, decorative, dignified, still provoking that small glow of pride (at least until total forgetfulness overtakes us) but of ever diminishing relevance to the real and turbulent world in which it exists.