Fiona Hyslop: Scotland's aid spending is vital despite austerity at home

Overseas aid helps some of world's poorest people and wins Scotland new friends, writes Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop.

A health worker speaks to a mother in Kasungu, Malawi (Picture: AFP/Getty)

There has never been a time when it has been more important for us to look outward. Globalisation and the age of the internet has made the world a smaller place, with information, goods, services and ideas exchanged at the push of the button. However, global trade does not rely simply on technological advances – it relies on reputation and the strength of international links. Scotland has a strong track record in international collaboration, and this is something the Scottish Government is prioritising in the face of on-going global challenges. We embrace our responsibilities as a good global citizen, helping in the fight against global poverty, inequality and injustice in our partner countries through our international development and climate justice work. While Scotland may not able to pursue the large-scale international programmes of more populous nations, our targeted approach ensures that what we do is focussed and effective.

A good example came from our Malawi Development Fund. Malawi has the worst ratio of psychiatric doctors to population in the whole of southern Africa, but with an investment of £300,000, Scottish academics and psychiatric professionals from across NHS Scotland were able to share their expertise to train three of the first psychiatrists ever to qualify in the country.

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This is a good example of how a relatively modest investment can have an enormous impact on some of the most vulnerable in society, in this case people experiencing problems with mental health.

It is exactly the kind of targeted and effective work that we can and should be engaged in.

I reject the argument of those who say we need to scale back our commitment to international development, that these times of challenging public finances mean we can no longer justify these partnerships.

This investment in our international development partner countries – Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Pakistan – helps to lift some of the world’s most vulnerable communities out of poverty, and to make a better lives for themselves and their families.

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But, crucially, it also helps them to participate more fully in the thriving global economy, something that will benefit all nations in the long-run by providing sustainable development. Clearly we are extremely active with other European nations. For obvious reasons, that is more important now than ever, as we seek to protect Scotland’s place in Europe.

Beyond this continent, our priority countries for international engagement are the United States of America, Canada, China and India. We will also continue to increase our engagement with Japan.

We have recently refreshed our international framework, which sets out how our engagement overseas can help economic growth at home. These relationships can improve our reputation, enhance our global outlook and boost trade and investment.

An example of the value of international relations to Scotland came with the signing of an agreement between the Nippon Foundation and Scottish Enterprise last year.

Each party agreed to up to $10 million of investment over five years for a research-and-development programme targeting the development of subsea technologies – a crucial industry for Scotland.

During my visit to Japan last February, I was able to meet with the Nippon Foundation to discuss these plans. That face-to-face contact undoubtedly helped to progress the relationship and hasten the signing of the agreement.

There have been six Scottish ministerial visits to Japan since 2009, and these have helped to usher in a successful period of collaboration between the two countries, particularly in terms of increased trade, investment and cultural links.

Closer to home we maintain close ties with the Nordic and Baltic nations, with Edinburgh recently hosting Scotland’s first ever Arctic Circle forum – a crucial partnership which explores shared interests such as climate change and energy innovation. Relations with our northern neighbours have contributed to some important initiatives at home, including our adoption of the Baby Box model from Finland, an agreement with Iceland on tourism, and engagement with Norway in the fields of science and fisheries.

The reputation of Scotland around the world is tremendously positive. Scotland is the second most attractive destination for foreign investors in the UK, after London, and we have consistently been voted “the World’s Most Beautiful Country” by international visitors.

But the value of a strong reputation is so important that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.

The Scottish Government and our key partners in international activities, VisitScotland, Scottish Development International and Universities Scotland, have therefore been working together over the last few months to develop a proposal for a single approach to promote Scotland overseas. 

Later this year, we will launch a new campaign that, for the first time, will bring together the international marketing work of these partners. The campaign will aim to grow Scotland’s reputation as a great place to live, work, study, visit and invest. I look forward to announcing more detail of this in the coming months.

However, in the face of this positive engagement and activity stands a great risk: Brexit. There is nothing more potentially damaging to Scotland’s place in the world, and our ability to play a full and active role in international affairs, than Brexit. A paper published by the Scottish Government last week, called Scotland’s Place in Europe: People, Jobs and Investment, found that leaving the EU’s Single Market – and losing the benefit of freedom of movement – could result in a loss of 8.5% of GDP by 2030 – equivalent to a loss of £2,300 per person in Scotland.

This is utterly unacceptable. So, even if we leave the EU, to protect Scotland’s future prosperity we must continue to press for Scotland, and the UK as a whole, to remain a part of the European Single Market and Customs Union.

This week I will be in Brussels, meeting members of the European Parliament and EU Ambassadors to make this case. But, however important our relationship with Europe is, and however damaging Brexit threatens to be, we cannot, and will not, lose sight of the world beyond.

Scotland will carry on building relationships, making friendships and seeking opportunities to work with our international partners. It is in everyone’s interests that we continue to do so.