Orcadian Column 11/11/2016

As one of the most acrimonious political contests in living memory draws to an unedifying conclusion in the US, the world holds its breath.

By the time you read this, we will either have been put out of our misery by Hilary, or sunk more profoundly and irretrievably into it by The Donald. Sadly, the Orcadian’s publication deadline leaves me in suspended anticipation as I put metaphorical pen to paper on Tuesday evening, sitting in my hotel room in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe.

I find myself back in the Warm Heart of Africa as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation, running a series of workshops for young Malawian parliamentarians and potential ‘future leaders’.

Over the years, I have taken part in various visits aimed at helping Malawi’s MPs improve their scrutiny of legislation and budgets, as well as ways they can engage more effectively with constituents. Unfortunately progress to date has been frustratingly slow and patchy.

Parliament’s budget remains controlled by government, which has little interest in granting Committees the funds they need to meet regularly or recruit expert advisers. The result is that Ministers and government policy escape proper scrutiny. All this against a backdrop of endemic corruption and a media and civic society struggling to offer any sort of challenge through a combination of government intimidation and patronage.

Change is desperately needed and the focus of this week’s workshops was therefore on young members of the National Assembly and community leaders. Partly an investment in the future, this is also a recognition of Malawi’s demographics.

Two thirds of the population is under 25, while the average age is 19 (compared to 40 in the UK). The voting age is 18, meaning that over half of Malawians are disenfranchised. With the average age of the country’s politicians up around 65, little wonder young people in Malawi feel disengaged from politics.

One young MP told me that when one-party rule came to an end in Malawi in 1994, young people were encouraged to participate but only as “cheerleaders for their venerable masters”. Even now, too often those who do choose to get involved are restricted to marginal roles or deployed in gangs to intimidate political opponents.

Yet the need for reform and a new approach to politics, spearheaded by the younger generation, is desperately needed. Malawi is one of the ten poorest countries in the world and currently over 40% of its population are thought to be at risk of malnutrition or starvation. Worse still, that figure of 6.5 million is expected to rise to 8 million in the months ahead, as the country enters its ‘lean season’ ahead of next year’s harvest.

Astonishingly, there appeared little evidence during our visit that this crisis features as prominently as it should in the current political debate. After thirteen successive years, however, it was alarming to see that around half of the UK development aid budget is now being used for humanitarian relief. Essential as that support indisputably is, it is increasingly coming at the expense of efforts to support changes, for example, in farming practices and climate change mitigation that offer a more long term solution to the problems facing Malawi.

On a more positive note, I will end my trip this time with a return visit to Minga Academy on the outskirts of Lilongwe. Minga has been twinned with Sanday Community School since 2005, a relationship that has benefited both communities enormously.

Funds raised within Sanday have helped pay for a hostel at Minga that will enable more girls to stay on at school for longer, thereby enhancing their life chances. Meantime, there have also been regular exchanges of staff and pupils over the years, and I look forward to delivering a suitcase of teaching materials, thanks to the generosity of Nicky Thompson, Yvonne Gray and Irene Brown, who recently spent ten days at Minga teaching classes and mentoring staff.

Malawi will always enjoy a special place in the affections of Scots. It is a country of wonderful people, full of potential. However, to fulfil that potential Malawi desperately needs its next generation of politicians and leaders to show courage and break with the past.

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