The recent visit to Scotland by Malawi president Arthur Peter Mutharika was the fifth by a sitting Malawian head of state. Since the country became independent in 1964, every president has visited Scotland. Each has recognised that there is an axis connecting the two nations that represents something special.
President Mutharika made the point that most African cities have dropped the names given during the colonial period in favour of reverting to an indigenous place name.
Malawians, however, insist on calling their main commercial city Blantyre because it was named after the birthplace of David Livingstone. The connection with Scotland that began with the great explorer is central to Malawian identity and the president hailed the people-to-people partnership that is its hallmark today.
His confidence in the vitality and dynamism of the links between the two countries was borne out by a public awareness study recently commissioned by the Scotland Malawi Partnership. This confirmed the results of an earlier study carried out in 2014, that just under half of the population of Scotland personally know someone involved with work in Malawi. Support for such involvement is massive, with more than 75 per cent in favour and less than 2 per cent against.
Today there are more than 1,100 civic links between the two countries. Some are driven by large organisations like universities or health boards while others are small charities or community groups. Some benefit from Government funding but most are funded by the communities themselves.
Another recent report, by the University of Edinburgh, estimated that Scots contribute more than £49 million of input to their Malawi links in the last year, with more than 208,000 Malawians and 109,000 Scots actively involved. An estimated 2.9 million Malawians benefited directly last year. No wonder President Mutharika felt that Scotland and Malawi offer something special.
A centrepiece of the visit was the signing of a renewed partnership agreement between the Scottish and Malawian governments, building on the historic 2005 co-operation agreement. This time it was framed as a Global Goals Partnership Agreement, referencing the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015.
The landmark UN framework recognises that without global collaboration, our hopes for development are sure to be dashed. Scotland and Malawi can justifiably claim to be ahead of the game, having forged their partnership across 150 years.
Claiming to offer a “unique model of international development” the new partnership agreement argues that “in a world where development is often criticised as too impersonal, as disconnected from real needs on the ground, or as enjoying dwindling public support, the Malawi-Scotland model can point the way towards demand-driven development that is rooted in long-term partnerships and built on a history of cooperation and friendship”.
The language of friendship is the natural one when considering what unites Scotland and Malawi. It is friendship with a purpose – drawing on the trust, solidarity and mutual respect that has been built across generations to tackle the great social challenges of our time, not least extreme poverty.
The Scottish Government’s commitment to working with Malawi enjoys strong cross-party support, driven from the grassroots by thousands of ordinary citizens who are passionate about the Malawi connection. A virtuous circle is created as government action is prompted by public support while initiatives taken by inspirational individuals and organisations can attract government funding.
The strength of the civic links between Scotland and Malawi are drawing increasing attention, with many asking whether this approach could be emulated and scaled up.
Rory Stewart MP, then Africa Minister in the UK Government, speaking in parliament last year, described the Scotland Malawi Partnership as “genuinely one of the most unique, remarkable, interesting and human interweavings of two nations anywhere in the world”.
He said: “What is so striking about the Scotland Malawi Partnership is that it has found ways of engaging a whole human population. Britain could do that in Malawi or in Tanzania, Uganda or Nigeria. It is a very exciting way of thinking about how to do development in the 21st century.”
The Scotland Malawi model is proving to be an inspiring example. Our people-to-people friendship is helping transform lives in both our nations.
Kenneth R. Ross OBE is chair of the Scotland Malawi Partnership.