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World first for Scotland

May 17, 2012

My piece in today’s Scotsman:
Domestic rubbish reinforces the sea wall on Funafuti Atoll (Getty)

Domestic rubbish reinforces the sea wall on Funafuti Atoll (Getty)

SCOTLAND’S climate justice fund, which aims to alleviate the impact of global warming on developing nations, leads the way, writes Daniel Gay

As you descend in the plane through the clouds, Funafuti looms as a half-crescent in an ocean of improbable blue. Capital of the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu, houses are scattered the length of the atoll. Waves wash steadily against the coast, a broken line of coconut palms.

On the ground an all-clear siren sounds, and kids converge for a kick-about on the only place wide enough for a game – the airstrip. In places the island is no wider than the road, which is strewn with shells. The smell of manure floats on the breeze: pigs housed in small shacks by the roadside are a vital source of protein for villagers. The nearest trading partner is Fiji, 700 miles due south.

Tuvalu is at the frontline of the battle against climate change. Rising to a maximum height of 15 feet above sea level, the Maldives is the only country which is lower. Some estimates suggest that the Pacific nation will be swamped within decades as sea levels rise. When I last visited a year ago, the Prime Minister told me that a drought lasting over a month meant that 100 families in the capital had been placed on special water rations. He later declared a state of emergency.

Tuvalu may be the ideal kind of candidate to benefit from Scotland’s climate justice fund, the details of which are to be unveiled in coming weeks, but which aims to alleviate the impact of global warming on developing nations.

The fund – a world first – is part of a growing Scottish commitment to development aid in recent years, starting with the Malawi Development Programme inaugurated by Jack McConnell in 2005 and continued by the SNP Scottish Government. Now totalling £9 million, development funds are being spent on civil society, health, education, trade and sustainable development. Over a third goes to Malawi with the rest divided between Africa and South Asia, as well as being spent on emergency relief work.

At a time of cuts, why is Scotland throwing cash at far-flung places?

Compassion may be a woolly word these days, but there’s an undoubted cross-party commitment to bettering the lot of the worst-off. Scotland’s heritage in this area is second to none. Free-marketeers like to forget that Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, partly concerned the impact of the “invisible hand” on the less fortunate.

Civil society, that much-abused term, was forged by Adam Ferguson in the furnace of the Scottish enlightenment, a time when many of the core tenets of modern democratic society were born. Humanitarianism has long been central to the Scottish tradition. Treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself, runs the old refrain.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Scots ran many parts of the British Empire (although not as much of it as is often claimed) and that many now feel a responsibility toward the former colonies from which the nation profited and abused – hence the special links with Livingstone’s former African haunts. In a more modern vein, industrialised countries caused global warming, so they should at least be prepared to cushion its impact on the most vulnerable.

As Devo Max or independence begin to look more likely, Scotland must again make its voice heard in the world. Disbarred from foreign relations and thankfully with no imperial ambitions, aid is a more humane way of getting noticed. A strong international reputation helps Scottish businesses abroad and attracts investment and workers.

What’s unusual about the Scottish effort is that rather than following the somewhat loud-mouthed, one-size-fits-all rituals of Washington, Scots bureaucrats actually appear to be listening to what developing countries want.

Instead of hurling cash at Malawi – the European Union last year did its normal job of asking external consultants what it should spend its €50 million on – the Scottish partnership works on established personal links. The partnership pre-dates government funding, with members including schools, church and academia.

One of the government’s first investments was in Mary’s Meals, a school food charity active in Malawi since 2002. A host of charities have piggy-backed on Holyrood’s efforts, with a recent study by Edinburgh University showing that total voluntary contributions amounted to the equivalent of £30m in a single year.

Responding to the request for environmental know-how, Scots experts have made well-received recommendations on sustainable energy and water. The small-scale, relationship-driven nature of the partnership means that money is better spent.

Smallness has its problems, and some Malawians initially questioned Scotland’s experience, with one local expert doubting whether the initial programme had been properly thought out. A BBC investigation claimed that the money was difficult to trace, and there’s no doubt that the necessarily high fixed administrative costs inevitably formed a high proportion of such a small sum.

Attempts to establish an office on the ground led to difficulties as Malawians queried its neutrality. Civil society work may even be counter-productive, with the perception of European involvement undermining human rights work.

All aid is political, and Alex Salmond is never one to pass up an opportunity to play politics. He will no doubt be pleased that a recent Chatham House study argues that: “The Malawi Development Programme shows that Scotland is capable of handling its international engagement, and may not need the UK to be the final arbiter on matters of development overseas.”

After the 2010 change in Westminster government the British Department for International Development has kept a stony silence on the Malawi programme, failing even to mention the Scotland–Malawi partnership on its website.

This might be because the UK’s £82m donation to Malawi in 2008/09 dwarfed the £4.2m spent by Holyrood during the same period, but some Scottish civil servants are reported to have said that their UK colleagues dismissed their work as amateurish. The unionism of the Conservative-led government probably plays a part.

But Salmond’s politics may yet prove expensive. The UK and Scandinavian governments are among the few countries to commit to an international agreement to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on development. The problem is, 0.7 per cent of Scottish GDP is about £900m, a hundred times the current budget and patently unaffordable. Either Holyrood continues to play a proportional part in the wider British development programme, diluting its independence, or Salmond modifies his Scandinavian ambitions.

The likes of Tuvalu or Malawi may be a long way from home, but Scotland’s stature is heightened by its development initiatives. Perhaps the last word should be with Adam Smith: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortunes of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

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