Scotland’s Malawi ties are not one-way charity

Mingi Secondary School in Malawi is twinned with Orkney's Sanday community school, with each school sending pupils to visit the other to learn from their different experiences. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Mingi Secondary School in Malawi is twinned with Orkney's Sanday community school, with each school sending pupils to visit the other to learn from their different experiences. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Livingstone’s legacy lives on in Scotland’s relationship with one African nation, with both countries benefiting, writes David Hope-Jones

Some 150 years ago, Dr David Livingstone left Scotland for the last time, embarking on his third and final expedition to Africa. His travels had already captured the imagination of millions, arguably becoming the first true celebrity of the Victorian age.

What Livingstone couldn’t know as he set sail was that he had unintentionally started an enduring nation-to-nation, community-to-community and people-to-people friendship between Scotland and Malawi which continues today.

Indeed, this bilateral friendship is perhaps stronger today than ever before. According to the University of Edinburgh, more than 94,000 Scots are actively involved in links with Malawi each year. Separate research suggests an estimated 46 per cent of Scots now personally know someone with a connection to Malawi, from a parent with a church link, a daughter involved in a school partnership, or a friend active within linked communities.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Scotland’s contemporary friendship with Malawi is that it is not limited to a traditional understanding of one-way “charity”. It seems to be much more than this, and this maybe explains its continued growth and relevance.

The release of a new version of Band Aid’s song Do They Know It’s Christmas? last year, 30 years on from the original, was a telling moment, offering an insight into shifting public perceptions and our understanding of poverty. As public criticism mounted on social media against the patronising tone of the lyrics, the overly simplified messaging and the lack of African representation, there was a sense that well-meaning charity alone wasn’t really enough anymore.

In this context, Scotland’s links with Malawi stand out as noteworthy. While many of the organisations involved are charities, few choose to purely define their work as “charity”, with its donors on one side and passive, grateful recipients on the other. Rather, the prevailing sense is that the links between our two nations are defined by a sense of partnership, genuinely dignified two-way partnership.

Each year, more than two million Malawians directly benefit from the civic links with Scotland – but more than 300,000 Scots also benefit, not least through the 160 school-to-school links which are now an integral part of the education experience for young Scots. Like all real partnerships, both sides contribute and both sides benefit.

Another interesting feature of the links between our two nations is the impressive mobilisation of civil society. Ordinary people and local communities are mobilised to offer their time, energy, resources, experience and expertise to Scotland and Malawi’s shared effort. This doesn’t usurp the role of international development professionals but rather places their work in the context of strong popular ownership and involvement. It represents a vote of confidence in the people and in their capacity to work together for the common good.

The Scotland Malawi Partnership exists to co-ordinate, support and represent the huge number of civic links Scotland has with Malawi. It’s a small independent charity but one with an incredible reach. It has more than 700 member organisations across Scotland, including half of Scotland’s local authorities, every Scottish university and most of the colleges, 160 primary and secondary schools, hundreds of churches and faith-based groups, hospitals, businesses, charities and NGOs, and a wide range of grassroots community-based organisations. These civic groups across Scotland contribute more than £40 million a year to their links with Malawi, making this one of the world’s most active bilateral people-to-people links.

Successive Scottish Governments have committed to a Malawi Development Programme which has chosen to work in constructive synergy with these historic civic links. For each pound invested by the Scottish Government in supporting Malawi, more than £10 comes from the people of Scotland through countless communities, churches, schools, universities, and all manner of civic endeavour.

Sadly, Dr Livingstone never returned from his third expedition to Africa. Across his three great expeditions he actually accomplished very little of what he set out to achieve but, along the way, he fought vociferously against the slave trade and established life-long friendships with many in Africa, and he was led by a spirit of co-operation, partnership and internationalism. Such values are alive and well today in the countless personal friendships between Scotland and Malawi: Livingstone’s living legacy.

David Hope-Jones is principal officer at the Scotland Malawi Partnership