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The Working Life of Linda Fabiani MSP
12th March 2006


Well, left Strathaven at midday on Saturday and 24 hours later arrived in Malawi – Lilongwe in the rain; 24 hour rain, torrential! Still, the rains having arrived on time to save the maize crop, unlike last year, is a blessing. Strange how in Scotland we moan about the wet weather, whilst in other parts of the world they pray for it. The first impression that Pete Wishart and I shared in our car-ride from the airport to the hotel was just how unexpectedly verdant the landscape was, and how in fact ‘Scottish looking’ with rolling hills, low lying clouds, rivers and streams. Of course, Scotland never dries up completely – It was hard to imagine the area around Lilongwe during the dry season with barren fields, dusty tracks and dried up river-beds.

The reason Pete and I visited Malawi was with a view to assessing whether the Scottish National Party, funded through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s ‘smaller parties’ initiative’, could assist in the promotion of multi-party democracy. This Foundation’s funding allows bi-lateral co-operation between political parties in the UK and priority overseas regions/countries. Currently the agreed priorities are Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. Scotland’s firm historic links with Malawi, along with our Parliament’s agreed Scotland/Malawi partnership makes this a country that the SNP would obviously want to work with. Some may think it strange to consider funding political parties but the reality is that if the ordinary folk in such countries are really going to have choice and a say in their own futures, then one of the bedrocks of democratic practice is the ability of political parties to operate and to attract popular support in safety and security, both at local and national level.

Following three decades of one-party rule, in 1994 Malawi had its first open election, but there have really only been two parties operating at any meaningful level – well, up until fairly recently when the President fell out with his Party and has now started another! But that’s another big long story, the upshot of which details quite clearly that politics in Malawi is very much personality-led, from the top down rather than involving those who are affected most. And, then when you consider that the parliament hasn’t met since November, that it meets in the President’s house but he maybe won’t let them in when they turn up again this April, that the President’s old Party has twice tried to impeach him, that the courts are considering corruption charges against high-level politicians, then you realise that there’s a lot to be done here!

So, three days of meetings to follow – political party meetings, parliamentarian meetings, government agencies, charities etc. All extremely interesting, some thought provoking. The facts of Malawi are stark: the tenth poorest country in the world; the lowest per-capita income in Africa; drought and starvation last year; 65% illiteracy in some rural areas; life expectancy around 35 years of age; 1 million orphans (population is 12 million people) – 46+% of the population is under 14 years of age!

The problem of children who have no parents is huge in Malawi – one of the main reasons for this is as all over sub-Saharan Africa, the problem of HIV/Aids and although it seems that there is an improvement generally in regard to appropriate drugs and treatment being made available, Oxfam explained that there is an issue about how to impress upon people who cannot read and write, who do not understand the concept of modern medicine, that the medication must be taken continually. So, it is generally those who are more informed/educated who receive the treatment. As always in such issues it’s never as straightforward as it seems. Education for orphaned children is another area in which Oxfam works. They explained that so often with the Government the policy was set, but the practices did not always match the policy. An example of this is in primary education: Government policy is that primary school for all children is free, however in practice in some areas this is not in fact the reality, with schools charging families – teachers seem to be unaware that the Government has made this commitment. What Oxfam operatives are trying to do is to impress this on those who run the schools and force the Government to meet their commitments. However, even if primary schooling is completely free, some orphans cannot attend – they are often looking after younger siblings, trying to eke out a living somehow,  and therefore unable to attend school. 

Oxfam also spoke about the proposed land reform legislation with the hope that the Land Bill re Security of Tenure would have its first reading in April when it was hoped the Parliament would meet. Land reform first came on the agenda 10 years ago, but no progress so far. General points made were that some land holdings are too small to be sustainable – generally tenant farmers and squatters, in the south the big tea estates – multinationals – own land (90% of the land used for tea growing is not Malawi owned), in village life the Chief uses land as power.

A particular treat for me was on Wednesday when we set off at the crack of dawn for an internal flight south to Blantyre. Of course Blantyre in South Lanarkshire is within the area I represent in parliament, and is actually just down the road from where I live. Also, of course when I was growing up in Glasgow, every schoolchild knew the story of David Livingstone, and visited the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre on school trips! When we got to Blantyre it was dry and stayed so all day – a real change and such a pleasure, sunshine in Blantyre. 

From Blantyre to Blantyre

It was in Blantyre that we met with members of the smaller political parties who have MPs in the Parliament – the People’s Progressive Movement has five and the People’s Transformation Party one. They were both part of a coalition of smaller parties prior to the 2004 election. Political parties here don’t appear to have any real structure – membership, policy development, collective philosophy etc., and apart from the two big parties, both of whom have held power, they seem to form just prior to elections rather than build up from community level, or grow from a particular movement. Certainly that was recognised by those we spoke with who were trying hard to sustain their organisations in the face of very limited resources and understandable public apathy about politics. They were both positive about the work being carried out by the Malawi Centre for Multi-Party Democracy, run by a Netherlands organisation which is similar to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – all political parties in the Netherlands have pooled their resources to fund all elected parties in Malawi and help in capacity building and facilitating dialogue amongst them, and interested to know whether we could compliment this work in some way.

I would like to have spent more time in Blantyre where the links between Scotland and Malawi are particularly strong – generally Pete and I were astounded by the recognition amongst Malawians of Scotland, both historically and current, and from all sorts of people. I did have a concern though that because of the much-trumpeted Scotland-Malawi partnership there was a level of expectation being raised which could not be met. The partnership has been going for almost a year now and the Minister with responsibility for the dispersal of funds will be coming to my Committee soon to report progress. I’m still very disappointed that South Lanarkshire Council has not even attempted to tap into this funding to link the two Blantyres – seems really short-sighted to m. Still waiting for an answer from their Chief Executive though, so maybe they do have plans in the pipeline.

So, following last minute meetings in Lilongwe on Thursday morning, another 24 hour trip, this time home. A short visit, and I hope to repeat it some day. Once Pete and I get our heads together and perhaps put a proposal to the Party and the Foundation, then we’ll see. We should never underestimate the amount of work needed to make Malawi a viable, self-sufficient nation with a level of democracy, or the time it will take – it’s so much more than just pumping in money; it’s reinforcing the concept of the ‘common-good’ which was lost by the divide-and-rule tactics of the dictatorship; it’s slow but sure building of communities through education and health initiatives; it’s giving people food security. One of the Malawians we met described his own philosophy, in his own language, for what was needed in his country - UMUNTO – there’s no direct translation, but he described it as being about how Malawians need to see themselves so that the country can progress, that is as people who have self-worth. Not a bad philosophy for any of us I thought.

Back to normal work on Saturday, but on a related theme – the Hamilton Fair Trade Group’s stall in the Shopping Centre. Loads of interest from the public – the movement is really taking off, and well done to the Hamilton activists.

Linda Fabiani

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