Few intergovernmental organizations which exist solely to further the values of democracy, liberal equality, good governance, and minority rights can boast a membership of 53 countries from every single continent, covering a third of the world’s population in almost entirely developing regions. Seven additional states in the Middle East, Africa and South America that are often attacked by Western human rights observers, including Yemen, South Sudan and Algeria, have expressed interest in joining and committing themselves to these values. And yet, the Commonwealth of Nations is viewed by many as an anachronism, and as utterly irrelevant in the 21st century.

It is hard to dismiss the claim of anachronism. Headed by Queen Elizabeth II, the Commonwealth formed in 1949 as a relic of the crumbling British Empire. A number of nations, most recently The Gambia in October 2013, terminated membership citing the fact that the organization was merely a remnant of these nations’ colonial past—an unhealthy reminder of a past that most (but not all) of the Commonwealth nations share. On a historical level, this is factually unavoidable: the fact that South Africa, India, and Jamaica are member states of an organization led by the Queen of England seems hardly justifiable in a postcolonial world.

Not only is the Commonwealth a relic of the past, but according to a realist analysis of international relations, it should also be a powerless, meaningless entity. Member nations have no legal obligations to each other beyond a shared commitment to liberal democratic values, in writing at least. The most powerful weapon of enforcement in the Commonwealth arsenal is to suspend a nation’s membership.

However, few other organizations are prepared to throw a member state out of its community for poor governance: the UN and the EU have never fully suspended a member state, while the African Union and the Arab League both have both suspended nations during constitutional upheaval or coups d’état but never explicitly for a lack of compliance with their values.

This sanction has been imposed by the Commonwealth against Nigeria in 1995, Pakistan in 1999 and 2007, Fiji in 2000 and 2006, and Zimbabwe in 2002. Whilst Zimbabwe later voluntarily withdrew its membership and Fiji is still suspended, Nigeria and Pakistan remain active members of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth not only lacks any legal power of enforcement to ensure members maintain the values that supposedly unite this geographically, economically, and socially disparate group, but it is also too often criticized for not doing even the little that it can. In November 2013, the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It was chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaska, who the UN High Commissioner recommended to be investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and human rights violations during the country’s long civil war with Tamil separatists. All but three heads of government, from Canada, India, and Mauritius, denied calls to boycott or relocate the summit.

And yet, though both anachronistic and evidently lacking power to enforce its values, the Commonwealth remains. The organization does have genuine influence across the globe by providing unique economic and political assistance to nascent democracies, many of which are often left out of the mainstream discourse of international affairs (25 of the 54 Commonwealth countries are classified by the UN as Small Island Developing States). Commonwealth representatives led international pressure to end apartheid in South Africa, established an independent electoral commission in Cameroon, drafted the new constitution in Swaziland, and helped to set up peaceful elections in Guyana.

Economics is one area in which the organization has tangible power. Around 20 percent of global development aid funds flow between Commonwealth member states, and an agreement by donor member states to discriminate funds based upon homosexual rights was an initiative to come out of the most recent CHOGM that will help to promote the organization’s founding principles.

The Commonwealth is increasingly becoming an organization of economic and trading significance. With a combined GDP of US$13 trillion—if it were a single country, it would be the second richest in the world—there are obvious advantages to cooperation between countries which, for historical reasons, are now united by a common business language, shared legal systems, and similar accounting practices.

Intra-Commonwealth trade stands at US$413 billion, and is rising faster than global trade trends as a whole, with research by the Royal Commonwealth Society suggesting that trade is on average up to 50 percent higher with another Commonwealth country than it would be with a non-member. Although no official proposals have been made, there have been calls for a Commonwealth Free Trade Zone to be established, which could have wide-spread benefits for global economic development and poverty alleviation.

The Commonwealth is not a perfect organization. With no power of sanction, often being criticized for the long shadow of its past, and never really the primary foreign policy concern of any of its member states, it struggles to maintain relevance in the 21st century.

However, whilst lacking a stick, it can offer its members the carrot of positive engagement and dialogue on issues of good governance, human rights, democracy and economic development. Somewhat curiously given its history, the Commonwealth remains a genuinely benign influence on the lives of individuals across the globe.