Commonwealth Day 2006

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:06 pm on 16th March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 5:06 pm, 16th March 2006

I welcome to the public gallery a large number of people from a wide variety of organisations that are either connected directly with, or have an interest in, the Commonwealth. They include people such as Tracey Morse-Thomson, whom the Scotland branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation met while members were in Malawi last month. I look forward to meeting many others, who could not be squeezed into the Hub this evening, at the reception and presentation after this debate in the Scottish Parliament's committee room 1 when we will try to describe the CPA delegation's visit to Malawi in February.

Today's debate is one of the Scottish Parliament's contributions to celebrating Commonwealth day 2006. It goes without saying that the Commonwealth has an important role in continuing to strengthen relationships between nations throughout the world. The Commonwealth games, which opened yesterday in Melbourne, follow the tradition of being called the friendly games. Scotland and its people have an on-going role in contributing to those good relations.

As MSPs, we are all members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Approximately two years ago, the Scotland branch of the CPA decided to concentrate its work on Africa and on Malawi in particular because of the strong historical links between the two countries that go back to the early missionaries David Livingstone and Robert Laws, to mention but two. On our recent visit to Malawi, we met a lady whose grandfather had come face to face with David Livingstone. At Bandawe Makuzi church, they still keep in a plastic bag the priest's robes that David Livingstone wore.

With the Scottish Executive, the CPA Scotland branch continues to develop relationships with Malawi, and I was privileged to lead the recent CPA Scotland branch delegation there. I can only describe it as a life-changing experience and I am sure that other delegates will say similar things.

The United Nations millennium development goals, agreed in September 2000 by 189 UN member states, are so important to our debate today. There are eight goals, some of which are concerned with health, which is the focus of Commonwealth day 2006, and they link directly to the wider issue of poverty.

The millennium development goals that are pertinent to health issues are: reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. The theme of Commonwealth day 2006 is health and vitality—the Commonwealth challenge. That was certainly well chosen, as it highlights the importance and relevance of such issues, particularly in Malawi.

Malawi has a population of almost 12 million, almost half of whom are under 14 years old. Life expectancy is 37 years, compared with 41 years in Africa generally. It has the highest level of maternal mortality in the southern hemisphere, with 1,800 to 2,000 deaths for every 100,000 births—the figure in this country is 12 deaths for every 100,000 births—and, with regard to infant mortality, there are 104 deaths per 1,000 births. The number of children dying before the age of five is 25 times higher in sub-Saharan Africa than it is in the member states of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.

Moreover, it is estimated that 14.2 per cent of the population—almost 1 million people—live with HIV/AIDS. MSPs have received a briefing sheet from Oxfam that contains some very interesting facts. For example, 70,000 people die each year from AIDS-related causes, and 760,000 adults and 70,000 children are infected. It was pointed out in this morning's make poverty history debate that, since the epidemic began, an estimated 850,000 children in Malawi have been orphaned. AIDS cuts down people in the prime of their productive years, leaving a growing number of families with one or both parents unable to support themselves, and the situation in Malawi is made worse by severe food shortages. Worst affected are the people who are chronically ill with HIV/AIDS, because they are unable to work and any money that they have is spent on health care.

Other major infectious diseases include typhoid, malaria and plague, among many others, and the overall degree of risk is very high. I should point out that one major issue is the number of doctors and nurses. One very depressing fact is that, with one doctor for every 117,000 people, Malawi has the lowest number of doctors in the world.

Dr Jean Turner MSP, who was in the recent delegation to Malawi, had hoped to be here tonight to say more about some of those health issues. Unfortunately, she is ill and unable to attend the debate. Had she been here, she would no doubt have mentioned the mission hospitals at Ekwendeni and Mulanje, and in particular the work that is being carried out at Mulanje on nutrition clinics and gardens in a bid to help the situation. I am sorry that Dr Turner cannot attend the debate, but I know that other members of the delegation will talk about the clinics, the hospitals and the colleges of nursing and the links that we are developing between them and Scottish institutions such as Bell College, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Edinburgh.

It would be remiss of me not to highlight the main focus of the visit, which was to build links with the Malawi National Assembly at a number of levels and to consider areas such as governance, institutional management, participation and training opportunities. More specifically, we hoped to gain first-hand knowledge of the National Assembly's progress on their parliamentary reform programme; to acknowledge its particular problems; and to share knowledge and experience of mechanisms for ensuring accountability and parliamentary oversight.

It is hoped that some longer-term outcomes of the visit might include assisting members of the National Assembly and officials in considering good practice with regard to democratic governance and strengthening the institution of Parliament; helping with the training of committee clerks and other parliamentary staff and with transparency and accountability in the parliamentary decision-making process; and strengthening links between members in both countries. Karen Gillon will say more about her own on-going links and sharing of good practice, and I am sure that she also will talk about how we can build links in both countries via the cross-party group on Malawi.

As we are concentrating tonight on the Commonwealth and the importance of health and vitality, I want to congratulate Caitlin McClatchey and David Carry on their stunning gold medal wins on the first day of the Commonwealth games. I also congratulate Dennis Canavan and Karen Gillon, who did well in lodging motions on those successes.

Finally, I wish every success to Glasgow's bid for the 2014 Commonwealth games.