You may not have noticed Commonwealth Day last Monday. There was no fanfare, no public holidays, and anyway, isn't the Commonwealth a colonial anachronism, a legacy of times gone by, or even a veiled attempt to maintain British influence throughout the world? The latter certainly was Beijing's view until Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku briefed mainland ministers on the 53-state body when China hosted the United Nations Women's Conference in 1995. Queen Elizabeth II may be recognised as its titular head but it long ago abandoned the title 'British Commonwealth', replaced instead by the 'Commonwealth of Nations' with its own secretariat quite independent of any government. But won't all Hong Kong's links to the Commonwealth be severed come July 1. No, they shouldn't be. The Basic Law may ban links between political groups in the territory and overseas, but it specifically stresses that 'professional' groups can continue. Links should therefore survive to such bodies as the Commonwealth Dentists Association, the Commonwealth Nurses Association, the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and even the Commonwealth Tax Gatherers Association. There is a peculiar irony in the fact that Hong Kong, the last British colonial legacy of note, cannot go on and become a member of 'the club' when places with much more tenuous links seem to like the idea of being a member. Thus Mozambique - never a British colony - has become an honorary member, and there is talk of Palestine, once a British mandate but never a colony, joining when it eventually achieves full statehood. Francophone Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, also wants to join. But why? Because for some states the organisation is not the irrelevant talking shop which many regard it to be. A friend of mine in the Commonwealth Secretariat recently returned from Botswana where he helped host a meeting of African heads of state aimed at trying to convince them (no doubt for the umpteenth time) of the benefits of democracy. Not necessarily democracy on the Westminster model - the process of decolonisation in the 1960s demonstrated that was a non-starter in many quarters. Opposition parties were invited to attend the Botswana conference and for many countries represented there it led to the first meetings in years between governing parties and opposition groups. 'They actually sat down and started to learn how to respect each other,' said my friend. 'Sure, some governments asked why they should be prepared to listen to the opposition. The pragmatic answer to that was that one day perhaps they might be in that position also.' It was British Prime Minister John Major who said a couple of years ago that people must 'use the Commonwealth or lose it'. With blocs like the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the North American Free Trade Agreement increasingly grabbing world attention, some have argued that the Commonwealth's days are numbered. And when the Commonwealth appears to take little action to help remedy the massive corruption in countries like Pakistan, it obviously attracts criticism from those member countries with cleaner government. Britain lost sight of the Commonwealth when it became preoccupied with the EU, which takes 60 per cent of its exports. But that belies the fact that its exports to Commonwealth countries grew by 65 per cent between 1992 and 1995, and that more than half of Britain's investment is with Commonwealth countries. Surely it must retain some value given that it contains nearly 1.5 billion people, including several of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It has to retain some value, given that it is one of the few organisations to cross the divide between rich north and poor south, First World and Third World, large state and tiny island, and given that it is entirely voluntary and offers endless avenues for educational, technological and financial assistance between states. In Asia alone Commonwealth members states include Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, not taking into account Australasia and the smaller island states of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Of course the Commonwealth got bad press in the 1950s and 1960s when copying the Soviet model of planned development seemed, erroneously, to offer a shortcut to prosperity for so many under-educated, under-resourced fledgling states. But with the Cold War ending and a realisation that this model did not work, there has been a growing move towards democracy - formalised in the Harare Declaration of 1991 which laid down a blueprint for good governance in member states. Since then the Commonwealth Secretary-General has been responsible for arranging 17 election-monitoring missions, the most successful being in South Africa in 1994 when the Commonwealth team was generally reckoned to have been more effective than teams from the EU or the Organisation of African Unity. Almost half of its members states have populations of less than one million, which led to the formation of the Association of Small Island States in 1992 following coups and attempted coups from Grenada to the Maldives and the Seychelles. It has become a forum within which small states can make their voices heard in a manner impossible elsewhere. Thus it was the Maldives which, out of self-interest, first raised on the world stage - through the Commonwealth - the dangers of global warming and potential rises in ocean levels. Perceptions of the Commonwealth's significance vary depending on where in the world you stand. It brought peace to Zimbabwe; ended military rule and resolved other conflicts in several African states; and made clear it would not tolerate the military government of Nigeria by suspending its membership. The Commonwealth is often quicker off the mark than other organisations. Its Fund for Technical Co-operation has often succeeded in quickly solving a local problem where the UN has failed. Current initiatives include moves to prevent money laundering and fight the drugs trade, but in an organisation with 80 officially accredited non-governmental organisations (NGOs) attached, the number of projects on the go is enormous. That does not mean NGOs are always welcome. 'NGOs in some countries can become very destructive,' the High Commissioner for Lesotho told a Commonwealth Day conference in London this week. 'They can interfere with democracy and become the opposition in their own right.' Others see the very presence of so many NGOs as assisting in the art of good governance and respect for human rights. But what of a bigger role for the Commonwealth in its workings with other world bodies. Some smaller member states would like Britain, for instance, to use its good offices to smooth the path to the International Monetary Fund or the UN Security Council. But that smacks of hanging on to colonial coat-tails, a role Britain is reluctant to play. In October, the Commonwealth heads of government meet in Edinburgh, with several Hong Kong NGOs no doubt attending. Britain's shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook, quite likely to be in power at the time, is among those who wants the gathering to hammer out a new economic declaration and create a Commonwealth Economic Forum modelled on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It would bring together Commonwealth trade and finance ministers as well as private business people. Mr Cook reminded those at this week's London conference that it could also be a very powerful block within the UN in future if it learned to co-operate better. 'The UN will be vital for the world in the 21st century,' he said. 'We will require systems of global as well as national governance. I hope that Commonwealth countries can work together to try and press for reform.'