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Professional exchange in the 'modern' Commonwealth

In 1965 the Royal Commonwealth Society launched its Commonwealth Interchange Study Group Operation (CISGO) which was to last over twenty years and involve hundreds of young professionals from both Britain and elsewhere to undertake fact-finding visits to other Commonwealth countries, producing reports on their return. CISGO was a travel culture underpinned by an intellectual and professional engagement with the places visited and on ideas about modernity, technology, expertise, knowledge and exchange. It was produced against a backdrop in Britain of the supposed white heat of Britain’s technological revolution. CISGO was a scheme which aimed to promote the Commonwealth as an agent for economic and social development and multiracial partnership.

CISGO members

CISGO members boarding a plane for Canada at Heathrow, 15th September 1965. (BOAC image, reproduced with permission of British Airways Archive collection,
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Once they arrived in their destination regions CISGO participants fulfilled a vigorous programme of seminars and lectures, visits to academic, economic and social institutions, and tours of industry and agriculture. The tight schedule was punctuated by social activities, usually focussing on receptions held by various institutions, with welcoming speeches, food and drink and the possibility of more informal activities. Wary of being accused of slacking from their intellectual tasks, participants were keen to point out that although ‘some of these activities may sound frivolous... they all contributed to the impression of the country which we were building up as we travelled. We were trying to get a balanced picture, and our programme was carefully designed to give us just that’ (Tate, 1967 p125).

CISGO provided an important stage on which both Britain and other Commonwealth countries could perform to each other. Photo opportunities could highlight new independent relationships and the acceptance of new regimes, technological progress, and friendship within the Commonwealth family. 

CISGO East Africa member and host with Milton  Obote shirts in Kampala

CISGO East Africa member and host with Milton Obote shirts in Kampala, 1969
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The image on the right was shot in Uganda at a reception on the roof of a hotel in Kampala on CISGO East Africa in 1969. The occasion, and the image it provided, worked for both host and guest. Wearing traditional Ugandan shirts emblazoned with the face of the President Milton Obote, the CISGO participants provided evidence of the acceptance of the Ugandan leadership by the British. For the guests, such photographs, reproduced in the Commonwealth Journal, worked to show the friendship and acceptance with which they were greeted in Uganda, the kitenge shirts worn were a gift from their hosts. For both, the display of closeness and contact between races is useful. They were an opportunity to produce certain images of the countries concerned, of the Commonwealth as a whole, and of the people who took part.


CISGO East Africa members meet Milton Obote in 1969. This image appeared in the Society’s journal with the caption: ‘The President of Uganda, Dr. Milton Obote, in light-hearted mood with the group during an informal meeting in his office in the Parliament Building in Kampala’
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Other photo opportunities such as those on the occasion of the meeting between CISGO East Africa and the President of Uganda, Milton Obote provided further evidence of British support for the still relatively new independent democracies and of the informal familiarity that the Commonwealth could occasion.  The value placed on these images is illustrated in the Zambian reaction to the proposed CISGO East Africa visit. After press coverage which made ‘reference to the respect for the President [Kenneth Kaunda] among younger leaders in Britain’ the British High Commissioner to Zambia was pleased to report that this had produced from the Zambian Government ‘a very favourable reaction indeed’ (Owen, ‘Planning Report on CISGO 1969 Zambia’ p1).

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