The Scotland Malawi Partnership: A New Development Discourse?

By Ben Wilson

Since 2005 Scotland and Malawi have been linked in a “special relationship”, formally beginning with the signing of a ‘cooperation agreement’ that year. This relationship is said to have, in fact, begun 150 years prior to this, when David Livingstone first embarked on his Zambezi expedition with his aim to bring three C’s to southern Africa – Christianity, Commerce and Civilization. Now, it is a relationship characterised by a new formulation of principles; those of equal dignified two-way partnership and mutual respect. In the summer of 2015 I spent 8 weeks researching this relationship in Malawi, as part of my PhD research exploring the forming of how we perceive ‘developing’ countries.

Hegel wrote that

Africa has remained cut off from all contacts with the rest of the world; it is the land of gold, forever pressing in upon itself, and the land of childhood, removed from the light of self-conscious history and wrapped in the dark mantle of night (Hegel 1975 [1830]: 174)

Such remarks and their modern incarnations in print and visual media do no more, says Bayart, than reproduce the “idea that this part of the globe in an ‘enclave’, existing in ‘isolation’ on account of its deserts, its forests and its alleged primitiveness” (Bayart 2000: 217).

The Scotland Malawi Partnership seeks to challenge such a view and build ‘true’ partnerships between a developed and developing country – partnerships built on respect, dignity and mutual benefit. In practice this means joint decision making, it means Malawians coming to Scotland just as many Scots go to Malawi. It means ensuring the structures of aid and development activities are truly two-way and that there is autonomy on both sides. In practice this could mean bilateral volunteer projects or school partnerships, which both send and bring young people between the two countries. It is also evidenced in the creation of the Malawi Scotland Partnership (MaSP), an independent organisation based in Lilongwe, funded by Scottish Government to ensure parity in the links between both countries.  Through changes in the structures of aid and development activity, the idea is that how we perceive developing countries should also be transformed.

Yet, how much of this mutual respect requires an admission that both the structures and the discourse of aid and development need profound and deep transformation in order to foster this new perspective? Down to their very core these structures and discourses are premised on viewing Africa (and the rest of the developing world) as the other. The poor other, who will wait for manna to fall from the sky at times of crisis, or who is dysfunctional, chaotic and orderless until the agents of aid arrive to teach how to be a rational democratic citizen.

Soon before I began my research in Malawi, I realized the conclusions I may reach leave me with a dilemma. In May of 2015 the Sunday Express published an exposé on the Scottish aid programme with Malawi, saying it was in “tatters” and “beset by theft, corruption and flawed accounting” (Borland 2015). I knew that were I also to return from Malawi and wish to critique its relationship with Scotland, I would be playing into such a narrative that foreign aid is ineffectual or wrong – and siding with the Express’ view on this leaves me very uncomfortable.

“they are lying to you”

“they take money from me”

“you cant trust these people”

Such expressions have been common place in my research, from Scots and Malawians. There is an assumption that ‘corruption’ will occur. I’ve seen the half finished schools blocks, the empty NGO buildings, the countless white 4x4s travelling up and down the country emblazoned with good western intentions: each of these evidence of something not right, yet all too common in aid programmes the world over.

The flow of aid money, in truth, is just part of life for swathes of the Global South. It is an income stream like any other – if you can sell your product better than your peers, then you will get the contract. When you get access to this supply chain you can make the connections you need to maximize your income, and see your NGO’s turnover flourish.

In the civil society links between Scotland and Malawi, we can see how these ‘corruptions’ intersect with how we perceive the Global South: how the discourse of development is created and recreated through our partnerships.

When you go to Malawi from Scotland on a school partnership or student expedition, or as a nurse, teacher or council worker (as many do each year), you invariably have to fundraise for the pleasure. When you do so, you play upon the “dark heart” imagery to achieve your target as quickly as possible. When you travel to that far away place you want to see that you haven’t exploited the good will of your closest friends and family who helped you fundraise. So invariably you see what you want to see there. If it’s accepted that that individual is perceived by the partner as a potential new source of income, then you can also see how they project the image that you want to see. This might not be material corruption at all, it’s a symptom of discourse; some sort of a conceptual corruption.

This was expressed to me best through an old Malawian saying:

we have a saying that when a wife marries a husband and they have a child, sometimes they will divorce but the husband keeps the child, and he re-marries. Then when he goes to take a bath, the new wife takes a bit of porridge and puts it around the lips of the child. When the husband comes from his bath the wife says ‘look, the baby has had its breakfast’, but the baby is too small to be able to say that it is not in fact full.

As long as there is porridge on the lips the Express will stay quiet, the fundraisers will keep fundraising, the good intentions keep flowing and the game will go on.

Bayart, J-F. (2002) Africa in the World, African Affairs, 99, 217-267

Borland, B. (2015) REVEALED: The theft and corruption gnawing at Scotland’s £37million aid to Malawi, Sunday Express, May 17th, accessible at

Hegel, G.W.F. (1975 [1830]) Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, tran. H.B. Nisbet & Duncan Forbes, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge


Ben Wilson is a PhD Student in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. His research is exploring development discourse and the Scotland Malawi relationship. His interests are in development studies, particularly theories of post-development and post-colonialism.