By David Hope-Jones:
Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera received an invitation to attend, in-person, the Global Education Summit co-chaired by Boris Johnson, with all arrangements to facilitate his visit led by the United Kingdom (UK) government.
There is no doubt that having a number of inspiring leaders from the developing world attend in-person would help give impetus and impact to the UK-convened summit, which aimed to attract global education pledges totalling £4 billion ($5.5 billion).
Indeed, a cynic might argue that the conference as a whole served as a welcome distraction from the fact the UK government had just broken its own promises, reneging on over £4 billion of aid commitments, including in education.
The Malawi President used the visit to not just take part in the conference but also to meet with UK parliamentarians of different stripes, speak at Chatham House, engage and listen to the Malawian diaspora community, meet the Prime Minister and other Heads of State, support business and investment links, and take tough extended interviews with the BBC and Sky News.
He also met with the hugely inspiring Malawian artist Professor Samson Kambalu, and his Scottish wife Susan, who recently won the fourth plinth commission and will create a larger-than-life statue of Malawian freedom fighter, John Chilembwe, to size-up the many monuments celebrating the UK’s imperial history around Trafalgar Square.
I was delighted to be in the President’s meeting with MPs, Scottish MPs and Peers. He spoke unscripted, inspiring our political leaders with a soaring vision for Malawi and strong commitments to good governance.
He argued for more equitable global Covid vaccine access, fairer trade terms with the developing world, and he urged parliamentarians to believe in Africa and help level the playing field so countries like Malawi have a fair chance at success.
He is a fine orator and his enthusiasm is infectious. Both those in the room and joining by Zoom were enthralled and inspired.
This is a leader and global statesman that has a crucial role in the coming months and years, as Malawi chairs both the United Nations Least Developed Countries bloc and the Southern African Development Community.
But the majority of the media coverage was hugely critical: lampooning the President (entirely unfairly and incorrectly) for attending a digital conference in-person and for travelling with two family members.
This narrative, I worry, is more comfortable for many: the questionable African leader looking out for themselves, instead of the inspiring statesman, challenging assumptions and representing the developing world with gravitas.
Malawi was found by Freedom House to be the only country that has strengthened its governance through the pandemic, where 80 have had theirs weakened.
It was named by The Economist as its Country of the Year and Malawi’s High Court Judges were awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen. But this is not the easy story to tell in the media, for it challenges lazy assumptions and all too well-worn tropes.
It is hard to imagine a scenario in which, should Boris Johnson accept an invitation from a foreign Head of State to visit the developing world, he would be criticised for travelling with his wife.
I cannot remember any comparable criticism of the leaders of the richest nations, travelling with their family, to attend the G7 in the UK.
It is hard not to conclude that there are simply different rules and different prejudices, for those travelling from the developing world.
In less than three months, we hope the Malawian President will be one of 200+ Heads of State that will travel to Glasgow for CoP26.
I hope Scotland can do better than what we have seen from this last visit. I hope we can show the sort of welcome that represents the 162 years of friendship and human solidarity our two nations have enjoyed.
I hope we are unafraid to tell a different story about Africa: a continent changing fast, challenging prejudice and demanding to be heard; a continent with some of the most inspiring leaders; and a continent that’s now refusing to be defined by poverty and pity.