Commonwealth Day 2006

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:19 pm on 16 March 2006.

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Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 5:19, 16 March 2006

I congratulate Sylvia Jackson on securing tonight's debate and on the excellent way in which she led last month's delegation to Malawi, of which I was a member. I also put on record the delegation's gratitude to Roy Devon and Margaret Neal for their first-class support both in our preparations beforehand and while we were in Malawi. I apologise to the Deputy Presiding Officer for my having to leave for a constituency engagement after my speech, although I do not make a habit of leaving debates in which I am a participant.

I am probably one of the fiercest critics of Executive policy, but I stand four-square behind the First Minister in his policy of trying to re-establish the special relationship between Scotland and Malawi. The resounding message that we received every day of the week of our visit was about the warm feeling that exists towards Scotland because of everything that our predecessors have done to help the people of Malawi and the surrounding countries in that part of Africa. Indeed, the first lady whom I met at a reception on the Friday evening when we arrived had a good old Scottish name—Molly. From then on, it was almost like being in Scotland.

I say to the Executive that we have to look to the medium and long terms in this relationship. Consideration should be given to the establishment of a permanent representative in Lilongwe to facilitate that relationship and to help to co-ordinate and support the on-going and developing special relationship between Malawi and Scotland.

Until I went to Malawi, at the encouragement of my good friend Michael Matheson, I had absolutely no idea how bad poverty and deprivation were there. In schools, the kids sit on bare floors: there are no desks in any of the schools that we visited; there are no pencils, no rubbers and no paper; there is only the teacher and, sometimes, a blackboard and something to write on it with. That is how poverty stricken the education system is in Malawi, but the classes are full. Sometimes they contain 120 pupils—very enthusiastic young people who are desperate to learn and to be educated. One of the great tragedies is that the number of teachers who are dying of HIV/AIDS each year exceeds the number of teachers who are coming through the teacher-training colleges. Not only is Malawi unable to catch up, it is unable to stand still.

On the economic front, if we can get the governance issues sorted out—there is a great deal to be optimistic about on that front—there is much that we can do to help the Malawian economy. I have already been in touch with one of the members of parliament there, whom Murdo Fraser and I met, about the establishment of a canning factory to develop and add value to the fruit and agriculture sector.

There is a great deal to be said about Malawi. It is a fantastic country and the people are lovely. We should continue to develop our relationship with Malawi and try to help those good people to sort out their problems.