Scotland and UK must be a “critical friend” to Malawi, David Mundell insisted yesterday as his trip to the south-east African country drew to a close.
The Scottish secretary reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to supporting those in difficulty through aid.
But he stressed the need for reform if Malawi – currently in the grip of a food shortage crisis – is to find sustainable solutions to the challenges it faces.
The Tory Cabinet minister made the comments after a visit to Phuti primary school in Likuni, which is supported by Scotland-based charity Mary’s Meals.
It provides chronically hungry children with one meal every day through school feeding programmes, owned and run by community volunteers.
At the school, which is free and educates children aged between five and 15, Mr Mundell met pupils, staff and community elders.
Speaking at the end of his three-day visit to Malawi, he told the Press and Journal: “It has been really useful, enjoyable but also a challenging visit for me.
“I come away with the view there are huge opportunities in Malawi, but also huge challenges to be faced, as we made clear to the government.
“Here at all levels, there has got to be reform. If you don’t see reform, there will not be outside investors coming in, you won’t see sustainable long-term solutions to issues like the food crisis through drought and flooding.
“We are a great friend to Malawi, Scotland in particular.
“But we can’t be an uncritical friend and that’s why we have been pressing that message of the need for change.”
He said his trip – during which he announced a further £4.5million of aid – had reinforced the UK’s “absolute commitment” to helping those in need and to the “ongoing and future, stronger and deeper friendship between Scotland, the UK and the people of Malawi.”
As Mr Mundell arrived at the school, he was greeted by a dancing choir, made up of the women who cook the food.
There was also a welcome sign drawn by the children, who had learned his name for the occasion.
During his visit, he had a go at stirring one of the huge pots of porridge, before watching the lunchtime service.
He also joined in with the dancing and listened to one of the pupils recite a poem, in which she called him the “driver of our success”.
Mr Mundell told the students: “School is very important if you want to have a good life, a better life. It’s very important to come to school and study hard.
“But to do that you have got to have food to eat and I’m very pleased my government has been able to help Mary’s Meals provide you with some of that food.
“I’m going back to Scotland to tell people that you in this school are studying hard and are going to do really well.”
Chris MacLullich, head of the charity’s feeding programmes in eastern Africa, said the positive effects included a rise in attendance levels, improved concentration span and better exam results.
He added: “They come because they are going to get a meal every day. Attendance is usually over 90%, whereas in schools where there is no feeding, it’s much less.”
He also told the P&J that evaluations showed the children are happier and more vigorous at play.
“It’s like a real injection of energy into the school,” he said.
Later in the day, Mr Mundell visited a health centre and family planning clinic.
Earlier this week, he spent two days in Mozambique to drive forward a trading partnership between Aberdeen and the city of Pemba.
In 2011, huge reserves of natural gas were discovered in the deepwater Rovuma Basin, off its coast.
The two cities hope to sign a formal memorandum of understanding later this year, underpinned by an action plan to support Pemba develop into a gas hub based on the Aberdeen model.