Mary's Meals

– in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 25th June 2009.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 12:00 pm, 25th June 2009

The next item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-3762, in the name of Margaret Curran, on St Bridget's chapel Mary's Meals backpack project. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament endorses the work of the Mary's Meals international movement and in particular the group working from St Bridget's Chapel in Baillieston; commends the initiative, which is helping to feed over 350,000 children in poor areas of the globe on a daily basis, encouraging hungry children to attend school to be fed and, through education, gain a better future for themselves and their communities; expresses great pride in the fact that Mary's Meals is based in Glasgow and administers volunteers and feeding programmes in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, and recognises the hard work of the volunteers at St Bridget's who participate in the Backpack Project, providing deprived children across five continents with school bags and school essentials donated by local community members.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 12:32 pm, 25th June 2009

I am very pleased that my motion on Mary's Meals has been chosen for this last members' business debate of the term. I thank the members who signed the motion and those who are staying for the debate.

The motion should be seen in partnership with my other motion. Together, they pay tribute to the young people of Our Lady of Peace and Sandaig primary schools; members of the St Jude and St John Ogilvie justice and peace committee; and the combined work of St Bridget's parish church, St John's Episcopalian church and the Church of Scotland congregations of Mure Memorial and St Andrew's in my constituency.

All those people, young and old, work with commitment and dedication, inspired by the simple vision of Mary's Meals, which is

"that all those who have more than they need, share with those who lack even the most basic things, and that every child receives one daily meal in their place of education."

Representatives from the churches are with us in the public gallery today, as are the children of Sandaig and Our Lady of Peace primary schools who recently sent more than 350 backpacks to Malawi. It is appropriate that this Parliament celebrates through the debate those significant acts of compassion and solidarity. The work, which is often unsung, takes place throughout Scotland, but I am sure that all members will agree that the contribution of those from the east end of Glasgow is particularly effective.

Mary's Meals was named after the mother of Jesus and undoubtedly encompasses many motivated by religious faith, but its humanitarian focus broadens to people of many faiths and of none. The initiative, which was created by two brothers, Magnus and Fergus McFarlane-Barrow, emerged from Scottish International Relief. The brothers were initially driven to act by the human cost of conflict in Bosnia. What was a place of pilgrimage in Medjugorje had become a place of enormous suffering, which led the brothers to initiate practical relief work.

Mary's Meals emerged when a young boy in Malawi, who saw his mother lie dying on the floor surrounded by her six young children, told Magnus McFarlane-Barrow that he had one remaining hope in life:

"to have enough to eat and to go to school one day."

Thus an energetic programme of school feeding began.

We know that the promise of a meal draws children into education, and Mary's Meals provides food, books and practical provisions for learning. The pencils, stationery and books that were collected and organised by the children of Barlanark a few weeks ago will right now be assisting young children in Malawi to learn.

Education is one of the most fundamental opportunities of life, and supporting education is one of the most empowering elements of international development. As Mary's Meals teaches us, it is overwhelmingly likely that, without education, poor children will remain poor for the rest of their lives. School feeding is therefore one of the most effective tools to draw poor children into school and to keep them there.

The Mary's Meals programme is simple and straightforward. It is necessary, and it has a lasting impact. Mary's Meals has provided daily meals for 350,000 children, and it is active throughout the world, from India to the Philippines, from Uganda to Haiti, from Albania to Bolivia. Recently, the programme has developed pioneering work with the Roma community who, tragically, are too often targeted in many countries.

The work could not happen without the voluntary effort of people such as those in the east end of Glasgow, to whom we pay tribute today. Mary's Meals is driven by a bond with fellow citizens from across the world, and its work resonates with the words of Nelson Mandela:

"overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice."

Mary's Meals is a strong and robust organisation, and 93 per cent of every pound raised goes straight on project expenditure. All the people involved in Mary's Meals know that it has saved lives and changed lives. The programme has mobilised that essence of humanity—people who want to act in the face of human suffering.

Some people have been inspired by St Augustine, who told us that love

"has the hands to help others ... It has eyes to see misery and want."

Others have been motivated by campaigns such as make poverty history. Mary's Meals provides a forum for them all, whatever their driving force or motivation, to act simply to deliver practical support to those in need. Mary's Meals has demonstrated that very small acts and efforts can make an enormous difference to people's lives.

It is fitting that we understand that point in our work in the Scottish Parliament and that, as we approach the end of term, we recognise the noble efforts that are made throughout our communities. We must mobilise our work to support them.

Again, I thank my colleagues who have supported me in this work, and I invite them to a short reception after the debate. It is a reception with a difference, because members will only get served water—Mary's Meals would not spend any resource in helping MSPs, I can assure everyone—but members will get to meet young people and others from the communities that have done so much to help others across the world under the banner of Mary's Meals.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Scottish National Party 12:38 pm, 25th June 2009

If I were to ask my 12-year-old nephew Daniel what he would like out of life, I am pretty sure that not having to go to school and for his mum to stop making him eat vegetables would feature highly on his list. I am sure that there are other things that he would like, and I hope that more lofty ambitions will come one day soon. I remember being his age, and a day off school felt like the best present that anyone could ever give.

It is not Daniel's fault that another boy of a similar age, living in Malawi, answered the question rather differently. His greatest desires were very simple:

"to have enough to eat and to go to school one day", as Margaret Curran has already mentioned. That is the polar opposite of what Daniel would wish for. The question was posed by Magnus McFarlane-Barrow, who, along with his brother Fergus, responded by starting up Mary's Meals, which has grown since that day in 2002. It now provides healthy nutritious meals for 350,000 children across the world.

It is not Daniel's fault, but it is ours—partly, but not individually. Individually, many thousands of people care and go further than simply caring by actually doing something. Margaret Curran has talked about the dedication of those who run Mary's Meals, in particular those from St Bridget's church, a church that I know well as Baillieston SNP has held many a fundraising event at the venue—and I can never, ever find my way to it.

Knowing that I have a big interest in international development, Mrs Curran's Westminster counterpart, the local MP John Mason, has spoken to me about the dedication of St Bridget's, as well as that of many organisations across the Baillieston area, in tackling international poverty.

Individually, there are thousands of people across the developed world who care deeply, but collectively we are not getting it right. Collectively, we are ignoring opportunities to make real changes and have even contributed to creating a world in which some children are desperate for a day off school and some are equally desperate to have the strength to get to school.

Let us look at what we are doing or not doing collectively to tackle poverty and inequality in the world. As we all agreed yesterday, the United Kingdom budget pledge to cut carbon emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 will fail to prevent dangerous global warming from devastating the lives of people in developing countries, who are more likely to suffer because of their location and lack of resources. That is especially cruel, as they are least likely to be responsible for climate change. I am proud that the Parliament worked collectively, on a cross-party basis, to set a target of 42 per cent and, I hope, to lead the way and influence other countries.

Climate change is just one part of the overall problem. As we all know, the developing world now spends $13 on debt repayment for every $1 that it receives in grants. Another issue is the arms trade. Developing nations continue to be the primary focus of foreign arms sales activity by weapons suppliers, yet it is estimated that in the past decade more than 2 million children have died as a result of armed conflict.

Trade gives us cause for concern. Earlier this week, the World Bank indicated that this year worldwide trade will plummet by nearly 10 per cent and output will fall by 2.9 per cent. Developing countries will be hit hard by falls in private investment, with nearly $1 trillion less in foreign investment this year than two years ago. That could leave developing countries hundreds of millions of dollars short of the money that they need simply to finance their foreign obligations, including the debt repayment to which I have just referred.

The final issue is the global food crisis. According to Oxfam, 967 million people are going hungry in the world today. One child dies of hunger-related causes every five seconds. The food crisis has plunged an extra 100 million people into poverty, with food prices continuing to rise. Thank goodness for projects such as Mary's Meals. Although I think that it is the wrong that the situation exists that makes Mary's Meals necessary, I applaud the work that it does and the army of volunteers who, no doubt, make many personal sacrifices to do it.

I love the simplicity of the project's mission. To get children into school and education—the only opportunity that they will have to get out of the grinding poverty into which they were born—it provides one healthy, nutritious meal a day at the school. I am also impressed by the way in which Mary's Meals involves local people in its work and demonstrates that everyone has a contribution to make. For example, in Malawi it has an army of local volunteers. On its website, members can read about Emily Chamba, a volunteer cook and the mother of a benefiting child. Imagine being unable to feed your child—Mary's Meals enables mothers to meet the basic instinct to feed their children.

Recruiting people such as Emily Chamba is hugely important because, although we must be compassionate towards people in developing nations, we must also be respectful. Too often we think of them only as victims who need our pity. By working with local volunteers, Mary's Meals recognises that people born into poverty in developing countries are victims but can also be skilled, intelligent, committed colleagues who are ready, willing and able to make a contribution to the development of their country.

Let us also consider the volunteers in Glasgow, where the charity is based. Having worked as a charity fundraiser for nearly a decade, I know how valuable volunteers are and how tough it can be to raise the money. I also know the power of work that goes into running the shops. There is a Mary's Meals shop next to where I live, in Dennistoun; I will visit it shortly and, I hope, make some purchases. I know how much organisation goes into putting together the backpacks—another simple but fantastic idea. Not only do children in developing countries benefit, but our children benefit by learning.

The Presiding Officer is telling me to wind up. I thought that I had six minutes—I now see that I have been speaking for that long.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Actually, you had four minutes—you are doing quite well.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

A Mary's Meals worker described a trip to Haiti's slums as being as she had expected, except for one thing—the fact that

"There was no TV button with which to turn it off."

How many people in our rich, developed world, if they were unable to use the off button, would turn away from people in developing countries, and how many would follow the lead of projects such as Mary's Meals and do something about the situation?

I applaud and congratulate Mary's Meals and all of its volunteers across the globe. I appeal to the world collectively to ensure that one day there is no need for their work because everyone in the world has enough to eat and has an education.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour 12:45 pm, 25th June 2009

I join Margaret Curran in congratulating the schools and churches in her constituency and in the east end of Glasgow that have made such a significant contribution, not just to the work of Mary's Meals and Scottish International Relief but, most important, to the children and families in Malawi and elsewhere who benefit from their activities.

In the past four years, I have had the absolute pleasure of visiting Malawi and seeing for myself the difference that those activities make, not only for the youngsters who are fed but their communities—healthier youngsters attending a school have more chance of success in life.

Throughout Scotland, dozens of schools, primary and secondary, have supported either the backpack project or the basic concept of Mary's Meals. Raising just £5 per child—I think that it has gone up this year, as a result of inflation, to £5.30—can feed a child for a whole year in Malawi and other parts of the developing and post-conflict world.

Whether youngsters in this country are collecting a small number of the goods that tend to be discarded in almost every home in our country to put in a backpack to send to a child elsewhere who has nothing, or collecting the £5 that allows that child to be fed for a year, to attend school, to be alert and attentive and to get something from that school experience, the simplicity of the project allows them not only to feel that they are making a real contribution and to understand that contribution, but, perhaps most important, to learn from that contribution. They are not only making a contribution but gaining from it, because they gain a better understanding of the rest of the world, a sense of friendship and a motivation that will stay with them for a long time.

I want not only to support Margaret Curran and congratulate her local schools and churches but to congratulate all of the schools, churches and community groups in Scotland that are helping Scottish International Relief and Mary's Meals to make that contribution. I congratulate all of the volunteers for Mary's Meals in the east end of Glasgow and in Argyll, which is where the charity is based.

Scottish International Relief ensures that its work happens with the minimum of administrative costs. There are many people who, for all the best of reasons, run charities around the world and get an incredible amount of publicity and credit for it, almost always deserved. We sometimes get the impression that the people who run the charities get as much credit and publicity as the purpose of the charity. That has never been the case with Scottish International Relief and Mary's Meals. Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is an inspirational—if quiet—individual, who has made a very special small Scottish charity into something huge internationally. He has done that with the support of many people, and he would be the first to thank and congratulate them, but today let us pay tribute to him and the inspiration that he has given to Scottish International Relief, to Mary's Meals and to hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Scottish school children, in Overton primary school in my constituency, in schools in Margaret Curran's constituency and in schools elsewhere. I hope that the charity continues to do its work for many years to come.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 12:49 pm, 25th June 2009

I congratulate Margaret Curran on securing the debate, which enables the Parliament, as we reach the end of a fairly long and arduous year, to finish on a reasonably optimistic note. It has been an optimistic debate that has told an inspiring story.

First, on a more local basis, congratulations are undoubtedly due to the congregations of St Bridget's and the other churches in the east end of Glasgow that have co-operated so well and so constructively with regard to this project. It has been said many times before that the people of Glasgow have very big hearts. Few members would disagree with that. The project is yet another illustration of how big their hearts are and of how they can work constructively and positively not only for people in their own locale or greater Glasgow but internationally.

I am reminded of the massive contribution that the voluntary sector in general makes to Scottish society and Glasgow society in particular. Members may have heard me talking about that before. We should be grateful and proud of that sector.

It is amazing that 350,000 children benefit daily from the charity's activities. Margaret Curran spoke about the various countries in which the charity operates. Those countries are widespread, disparate and very needy. Jack McConnell, who has a particular interest in and commitment to Malawi, underlined the good that it does there. The fact that it achieves its aims in a cost-effective manner has come out of the debate. It is cost effective in that it ensures that the maximum amount of input and the maximum contributions go out for the maximum benefit of beneficiaries. Perhaps other charities could learn that lesson—indeed, dare I say to the minister, perhaps Government departments should learn it. It is clear that where benefits can be maximised, more people will benefit.

Basically, the charity meets the most essential of all children's needs. It gives them meals and opportunities for education. It has been said before that charities giving money to communities that are in need is a good thing, but it is much better to enable and empower communities in the days and years ahead to benefit from the tangible things that have been offered. Food and education are offered in this case. With education comes the opportunity for people to make a living and to apply possibly basic education skills in a certain direction to enable them to be more employable and able to support their families in a much more sustained manner. It is tragic that doing such things is impossible in many parts of the world, even nowadays.

I say to the members of the churches in the gallery, and to the children in particular, that they should carry on their good work. Their own community, the wider Scottish community and the Parliament are proud of what they do and are grateful for the way in which they do it.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 12:53 pm, 25th June 2009

I, too, congratulate Margaret Curran on securing this important debate. I also welcome and congratulate everybody in the gallery who has been involved in such an important project and has contributed to the success of Mary's Meals.

Margaret Curran gave us the history of Mary's Meals; she spoke about how it started and how it has developed. The debate brings into sharp focus the fact that we are all global citizens and that the actions that we take in Scotland have a positive or negative impact on people throughout the world. In the west, our overuse of scarce resources has contributed greatly to climate change and global warming. As a result, those who live in the developing world are suffering. Increased flooding and higher temperatures are wiping out the crops of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I am proud of the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill, which we passed yesterday, but we must now live up to the challenges that it places on us as a society and progress matters with our colleagues throughout the western world. I am also proud of the UK Government which, unlike many of its western counterparts, will meet the international aid commitments that it made at Gleneagles. It is no doubt inspired by all of those, including my family and me, who took part in the make poverty history marches throughout Scotland and the world.

The people in the Parliament today are without doubt real global citizens, not just because they have collected items for backpacks or raised funds but because, in doing such things, they have learned more about people in other parts of the world and the challenges that they face.

Members know that I, like Jack McConnell, have an interest in Malawi. My first visit, in 2005, was an incredibly humbling experience, as it brought into sharp focus the daily challenges that most Malawians face. Most of them live on less than 60p a day. The bottle of water that I am holding up costs more to buy in the Scottish Parliament than most Malawians have to live on; as I look around the chamber, I see many half-empty bottles of water.

One thing that struck me when I was in Malawi was that Malawians do not want our pity. They want our help and support to grow their country and their economy, to feed their population, to educate their children, and to enable them to live in a world in which preventable diseases such as malaria do not kill children every second. That is a huge challenge, but they are trying to face up to it.

I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to get up in the morning and know that I could not feed my three children; that they could not go to school because they would have to walk 5 miles there and simply did not have the energy to do so; that their chances of living beyond 15 or 16 were probably very slim; and that my chances as a mother of seeing them grow up and have children were incredibly unlikely. That is the reality of life for many people in Malawi.

As I am a socialist, my underlying principle is that I want the world to become a better place. I want every child to grow up in a better world than the one in which I grew up, and to have the right to a school, an education, a meal and a job, and the right to grow up in an environment in which they are given proper health care.

That is, in a small way, what the Mary's Meals movement is about, because it is—as I have seen for myself—doing that for children in Malawi. I have seen the difference that it has made to those children. They come to school knowing that they will get fed and, as a result, they learn better. They know that they will have equipment in their school, such as the pens and paper that we take for granted, and that their teacher will be able to teach them.

People here in Scotland are making a contribution and are supporting and helping Malawian children to become global citizens too. I look forward to the day when my children are able to visit countries such as Malawi and not see the challenges of poverty that I saw when I was there.

I thank the members who have contributed to the debate. All members have schools in their constituencies that are involved in the movement, such as Blackwood primary in my constituency. I thank those who are here in the public gallery today. They are an inspiration to us and they make us feel incredibly humble. We thank them for all that they do, and we ask them to continue to do it. For our part, we will do what we can from a Government and a Parliament perspective to support and help them and our colleagues throughout the world.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 12:58 pm, 25th June 2009

I congratulate Margaret Curran on securing the debate so that, as Bill Aitken said, we can end the parliamentary session on a high note. The motion offers us the chance to commend and publicise in the chamber the work that is done by Mary's Meals. The movement's contribution is considerable. However, the motion also gives us the chance to endorse the immense contribution of those Scottish schools, churches, groups and individuals who, through their efforts and commitment, ensure that Mary's Meals has the resources to feed hungry children throughout the world.

As my colleagues have said, what we are celebrating is not just that those children receive a meal every day but that that is linked to their receiving an education. As Karen Gillon rightly said, education is a right for every child in the world. It is undeniable, here and in the developing world, that education is the main route out of the poverty, hunger and grinding want that affect so many children throughout the world.

For more than 400 million children, hunger and malnourishment are a daily reality. Instead of going to school, either they are needed at home or they must go out to work to help their families in their daily fight for survival. Included in that number are the many orphans with no one but themselves to rely on for food and a roof over their heads. That was brought home to me last Saturday at the holy fair in Ayr, when I had a chance meeting with a young man who had come over from Malawi and was trying to get some ideas to take back home to help with the huge problem that Malawi faces as a result of the impact of HIV and AIDS, which has left many children without a parent to look after them. Many of those orphan children also act as parents and carers for their younger siblings—those are the child-headed households that that young man was talking to me about.

For those children, education is a dream, unattainable because of their unremitting struggle for food. Because they are deprived of the education that should be theirs by right, they will never get the chance to realise their potential or gain the skills that are necessary to help them to escape poverty.

The Mary's Meals project offers a simple solution to that vicious cycle—a daily meal delivered to every child who attends school. Knowing that they will receive a meal every day, the children come back every day. With food in their stomachs, they can concentrate and learn. With an education, they have a route whereby they can work themselves out of poverty. It is a simple but effective idea that has steadily gathered momentum and which now provides daily meals for more than 350,000 of the poorest children in the world.

I am very pleased that Scotland is committed to playing its part in the global fight against poverty, and the Scottish Government has demonstrated its commitment by continuing financial support from the international development fund to support the Mary's Meals project in Malawi. We are currently providing the project with £400,000 for the three financial years to 2010-11.

The Government of Malawi has also adopted the policy of universal primary school feeding, and is committed to allowing it to spread across the country. It has also named Mary's Meals as one of the main in-country providers. That is testament to the great work that the project is doing and the high regard in which it is held by the people of Malawi. By the middle of last year, around 300,000 children were included in the Malawi programme. Since the start of the newest phase of the project, funded by the Scottish Government's international development fund in November 2008, Mary's Meals and Scottish International Relief have introduced the feeding programme into nine new schools in Malawi, reaching 11,081 new children.

In addition to feeding children through Mary's Meals, Scottish International Relief is to be commended for considering more closely the issues that prevent children in developing countries from continuing to attend school. It has shown great imagination in looking at the problems that those children face from the child's point of view.

Once a child goes to school, they need pencils and paper and the other equipment that is necessary for them to take full advantage of the school environment. They also need to feel that they do not stand out from other children and that they fit in. That is where the backpack appeal comes to the fore, and where schools and churches such as St Bridget's chapel in Baillieston make a huge contribution. As Margaret Curran has described, the volunteers at St Bridget's encourage their community to donate a school bag filled with such basic items as pens and notebooks. Those bags are then driven by Scottish International Relief to those receiving meals. The bags send a signal to families and communities in developing countries that gaining an education is important, and they also send a signal that families and communities in Scotland, who contributed the backpacks, care about them and support them through their hardship.

More and more people are taking part in the project. It has sent more than 120,000 backpacks to some of the poorest children in the world in places such as Haiti, Malawi, Uganda, Liberia, Romania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project's success in Scotland has been seen and celebrated throughout the world. Many countries in the European Union and North America have begun to follow Scotland's example, and are collecting and filling backpacks to send to developing countries.

The debate has focused our minds on the wonderful work that is carried out by Mary's Meals through Scottish International Relief, in strong and close partnership with the people of Scotland. I am pleased to have had an opportunity to congratulate the community of St Bridget's chapel in Baillieston on their sterling work in supporting the backpack appeal.

I thank members for taking the time to speak in support of the motion.

Meeting suspended until 14:15.

On resuming—