Helen Martin: Charity has to begin at home these days

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I was brought up in the “starving children of Europe” days. If a child didn’t finish every morsel on their plate, they were told to think about those in war-ravaged poverty.

Not that by modern standards we had that much ourselves. Rationing had just finished, vegetables were things like onions, carrots and potatoes . . .none of your foreign fancies like courgettes and avocados in those days. Sunday lunch was a chicken, but it could have been a boiler . . . an old, scrawny, grey bird to be simmered for hours rather than a golden roast. School dinners were made with powdered eggs blah, blah, blah.

Now most of the kids in Europe are warding off obesity, but as the old saying goes, “There’s aye someone worse off than yersel’.” Scottish awareness of that has made us very generous for a small nation, whether it’s supporting local charities or giving a helping hand to less developed countries.

Music hall jokes about us being mean are just that – a joke. Despite the shameless greed of some parts of our society, Scotland and the UK still believe in foreign aid.

In fact, arguing against it is seen as un-Christian and immoral. It’s like watching Live Aid or Children in Need and refusing to pledge a quid. But it should be permissible to argue that we at least be selective about who we support.

In November 2005, the then First Minister Jack McConnell, now Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale, signed a Co-operation Agreement with Malawi.

In 2009 the Malawi government spent £3 million buying Mercedes cars for its officials and in the same year £800,000 of aid simply vanished. The following year the President spent £9m on a private jet. President Joyce Banda took over and promised to sell the jet, which she did – to an African arms firm which still lets her use it.

Hardly surprising, then, that the £2.1m of Scottish public money being spent now on creating wind farms in Malawi – where there is hardly any wind – is viewed with suspicion, bearing in mind that it comes on top of the £117m the UK gives to Malawi every year.

Of course, how and why corrupt, arrogant or incompetent governments cream off aid for their own ends is nothing to do with the people of Malawi for whom it was intended. It’s not their responsibility. It’s ours.

If I give a stoney-broke friend £20 to feed her children and discover she’s spent it all on booze and bingo or a new handbag, I’m not helping her kids by giving her another £20. And if I get to the stage when I can’t feed my own kids, I’m sorry, but the giving has to stop altogether.

We have people in this country and this city queueing up at food banks and part of the financial pressure on them is the extra costs on the fuel bills for renewable energy investment.

We are poised on the brink of possible independence, allegedly promising a government that will put Scotland first. So do it. When things improve and we no longer need food banks I’ve no doubt we’ll all put our hands in our pockets for Malawi. Right now, charity, and responsible government, begins at home.

Car spaces are good in theory

WHILE the ERI car parking charges impose a financial penalty on visiting the sick, the Western has always been a civilised sort of place with free parking, especially for those with an appointment.

The new upper storey car park would have been a great addition but for one major snag. Seeing the sign saying “spaces” a friend drove up to the top only to find a closed barrier saying “full”.

He couldn’t reverse back down, obviously, so pressed the buzzer to ask if the barrier could be raised so he could turn, leave by the down ramp and park somewhere else. “No,” said the disembodied voice. “You’ll just have to wait there.”

My friend explained his passenger had an appointment with a consultant. “You’ll have to wait.”

Maybe a modest charge to pay to get the signage and electronics in synch would be worth it.

Rules squeeze out home-grown talent

TALKING of independence and national pride, it’s worth noting the chances of fielding a truly Scottish rugby team in future are dwindling. Pro teams such as Edinburgh were created to bring on Scottish players to national level.

Apparently now there is something called a “project signing” for Edinburgh. The idea is that players from overseas can join the team and if they stay for three years without playing for their own country in that time, they get to play for Scotland.

So far at the last count we have six South Africans, three New Zealanders, two Argentinians, one Georgian, one Australian plus two South African coaches. Completely unknown are the number of Scottish lads who have been squeezed out of a place. “Ye’ll have had yer biltong” as they say in Murrayfield.

Cons on call

INMATES at HMP Grampian in Peterhead are to work in a specially designed telesales call centre wing on prison grounds. If most people respond to cold calls the way I do, the poor lags will wish they’d stayed banged up in the cells.