While I hold no formal position in the relationships between Scotland and Malawi, I have a strong affinity to its people, developed over a number of years.
I have contributed to events in Lilongwe and Edinburgh around the enhancement of good governance in organisations from the public, private and third sectors.
I write this in Myanmar where we have family currently working and I am struck by how history leaves very different footprints behind.
For generations before the Second World War, there were close links between Scotland and Burma in many fields, but particularly in the extraordinary achievements of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, based in Glasgow. This became the largest river fleet the world has ever known. Today, there appears to be little recollection of this long shared heritage. Contrast that with Malawi, where the Saltire is represented right across the country in recognition of a continuingly vibrant relationship.
Like all friendships, whether between individuals, groups or nations, productive accord will only flow from ongoing shared endeavours based on mutual respect and, in the apt language of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, “dignified partnerships”.
From David Livingstone until the present day, we have much to celebrate together across thousands of miles. But what are we doing to reinvigorate the connection, to leave our successors in both countries reflecting that we got it right in the first part of this century? What are we doing to address crucial issues that will shape the future?
The Scottish Government has undoubtedly achieved a great deal in Malawi through the many projects it has funded since 2005. Countless lives have been transformed through improved healthcare, quality education, access to clean water and sustainable economic development.
Most distinctive about this relationship is how this activity is conducted, eschewing “donor-led” approaches and championing a model driven by partnership and collaboration, through which government, parliament and society work in constructive synergy as part of one nation-to-nation and people-to-people effort.
In 2019, as we mark the 160th anniversary of the arrival of David Livingstone in Malawi, it would be fitting to launch a distinctive initiative to address an urgent contemporary need.
I would urge the Malawi Scotland Partnership and the Scotland Malawi Partnership, (the partnerships), and Scottish Government forthwith to determine a programme to enhance good governance. With a spirit of reciprocity at the heart of the bilateral friendship, this could have significant benefit in both countries.
I make no apology for being “a governance wonk”, as I was once accused of being! Good governance supports the mission and purpose of any organisation and I would challenge anyone to disagree with that.
Speaking at governance seminars in Lilongwe in 2016 and 2018, on the first occasion the travails of the Royal Bank of Scotland were in the public eye as a result of inadequate governance, and on the latter the Institute of Directors was in the midst of a governance crisis.
Whilst governance challenges facing Malawi and Scotland are not necessarily of the same character or scale, both nations can learn lessons from recent history and many of the underlying principles are the same.
I believe there is strong merit in creating meaningful channels for two-way sharing and discussion around good governance, across government, parliament, civil society and business. My plea at both conferences was to co-create a programme to enhance improved good governance of relevance to both communities. Whilst I am pleased that in each individual project supported by the Scottish Government, attention is being paid to governance, I am convinced that this needs to be set in a much wider framework of governance enhancement.
What I have learned in these recent years from contact with the partnerships, and long before in my work with VSO, is that there is a real appetite, particularly from younger folk, to enhance governance capacities in a country-specific way. If we do not respond to this we will taint much of what might be accomplished in the effective coalitions of purpose we might otherwise achieve. The clamour around the recently proposed NGO (Amendment) Bill in Malawi, which risked reducing the freedom of civil society, is a reflection of that.
Both Scotland and Malawi have benefited immeasurably from their friendship. The time is right to create a strong and distinctive programme on good governance, at all levels and in both nations.
Sir Andrew Cubie CBE FRSE is a former trustee of the British Council and chair of BESO and VSO. He also chaired the Committee of all UK Universities, (CUC), and led the work in the creation of the first Code of Governance for UK universities. He continues to advise the World Bank about university governance issues.