Last Friday, Mercy Corps took a group of three high school pupils to meet Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development at the Scottish Parliament.
After being escorted up seemingly endless flights of stairs and assembling in the main meeting room, each group were introduced. There were several Scottish Youth Parliament members, a group who travelled from London to represent the British Youth Council and the Scottish National Union of Students. And then there was us.
In a room of very politically clued-up young people I felt a bit out of place, but we introduced ourselves and were immediately engaged into several deep and engaging conversations with the other attendees.
In fact the host, Chief Officer Hamira Khan, was so impressed with our explanation of who we are and what we stand for that we were asked to introduce ourselves to Margaret Mitchell, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for central Scotland. At this point, Mr. Mitchell was already rather late so Margaret Mitchell took some questions from the floor in the interim. Questions were largely focused on the Scottish links with Malawi and the recent troubles over the expulsion of the High Commissioner, as well as issues over income tax, which went largely over my head!
After an engaging discussion with Ms. Mitchell, we were left once again to talk amongst ourselves as Mr. Mitchell was still otherwise engaged. Finally, the under-secretary to Mr Mitchell arrived, who was then followed by the man himself a few minutes later.
Mr. Mitchell gave profuse apologies in a jovial manner that to me seemed at odds with the serious discussions that had preceded his arrival. He introduced his department and himself, focusing mainly on the global vaccination crisis. While this was interesting and his delivery pitch-perfect, the talk seemed over-rehearsed and over-used — we were not the first to hear this particular spiel and no doubt not the last.
He proceeded to take a series of questions from the floor, which ranged from the morality of giving money, if it is right to give aid to countries who harbour terrorists, the profile of the Department for International Development (DFID) amongst the public, the Malawi question and how politics influences its humanitarian actions. The questions were answered satisfactorily by Mr. Mitchell, but not comprehensively. He looked mainly at the issues surrounding Malawi and skimmed over the other questions before hurriedly leaving for another meeting.
Our 20 minutes with the Cabinet minister were over in a flash that left me unsure of what I thought of his answers. At first glance they seemed vague, but they did contain interesting insights to the mindset of his department.
We were left in the capable hands of Ruth Davidson, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow. Despite being only four weeks into her job, she was infinitely more engaging than Mr. Mitchell, openly admitting that she didn’t have all the answers. Hers were the most honest and interesting answers of the afternoon. She looked at Scotland’s role in international development, comparing our meagre £9 million budget to Westminster’s budget of billions.
In fact, Scotland makes a small but positive difference, especially in Malawi. This led to an interesting discussion about whether Scottish people should demand a bigger budget for aid. Ruth’s wit and charm largely won over the room and she ended with some helpful tips for campaigning and lobbying — having only three demands and getting the media on your side were her main tips.
Although the time spent with Mr. Mitchell was cut disappointingly short by his other obligations, the afternoon was very interesting. Human rights were not particularly looked at, and there was little chance to look at the issues closest to Mercy Corps’ heart. At times there was a focus on domestic issues that, to me at least, seemed irrelevant amongst issues such as global poverty, but all in all it was a valuable experience.
Editor's note: this blog entry was posted on behalf of Bethany Sikes, a Global Citizen Corps youth leader in Edinburgh.