Scotland must lead the way on international development

19,000 children under the age of five die each day from poverty-related conditions including preventable infectious diseases. 800 women die every day from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications with 36 of the 40 countries with the highest maternal death rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Behind these statistics are families broken apart, children orphaned and grieving parents.

This horrific and preventable daily loss of life is unacceptable and inexcusable. Scotland is already playing a part in trying to change this, but we can and must do more – including setting a good example for others to follow. It is not just about improving statistics, it is about improving people’s lives and giving them the opportunities to help themselves.

Independence is not - and never will be - an end in itself. It is about the people of Scotland having the powers to create jobs, encourage sustainable economic growth, secure social justice at home and abroad, tackle inequality and promote fairness.

We will be an outward-looking nation; open, fair and tolerant, contributing to peace, justice and equality. On independence, we will make clear that Scotland is a country which observes international law; respects and promotes human rights, democratic values, equality and good governance – but I believe we can and will go further.

Independence is an opportunity for Scotland to become the type of country we know it can be. It is also an opportunity for Scotland to show leadership, to help bring closer the world we want to see where millions dying from poverty is a thing of the past.

We will have a unique proposition to offer the world in the fields of climate change, climate justice and sustainable energy; and will innovate through our approach to international development and aid. From day one of independence, we would have world leading expertise to offer in education, health improvement and research. But we would also aspire to develop global recognition in advocacy, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, as well as human and natural resource security.

We will be a good global citizen, participating in international organisations for the benefit of the global community. Our values will guide us in the choices we make - the choice not to get involved in illegal wars, the choice to tackle climate change, the choice to tackle global poverty, the choice to meet our promises to the world’s poorest people.

We are already playing an important role, targeting aid to some of the poorest countries in the world including Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Tanzania. Our aid budget – which we doubled to £9 million a year, is clearly focused on the key objectives of poverty alleviation and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. In addition, our £3 million Climate Justice Fund is helping communities in developing countries deal with climate change and its impact on sustainability and food security.

An independent Scotland could and should be a global leader in the field of international development, championing best practice and innovation.

The UK has delayed – for over forty two years – achievement of the UN target that developed countries spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid . That’s in contrast to many small independent European countries who have long met the target – Sweden and the Netherlands in 1975, and Norway and Denmark in 1976 and 1978 respectively.

Aid is only one tool in terms of tackling global poverty, but it is an important one. And just as aid saves lives – after all that is why many of us donate to disaster appeals when we are moved by suffering and poverty – missing aid costs lives. Many years of missing aid targets means much work that could have been done in areas such as health, water and sanitation, education and disaster relief, simply did not happen because the funds were not there.

That is why last autumn, the SNP restated our longstanding support for the 0.7% target and set out our aspiration to move to 1% of GNI over time.

I was surprised at the negative reaction to that commitment from all of the main opposition parties in Scotland, mainly on the basis of its alleged unaffordability.

It is important to remember that by the point at which independence would occur, the UK should be meeting the 0.7% target if their promises are to be believed. Scottish taxpayers will already be contributing to that through UK Departments, DfID in particular. At independence, that funding would flow instead through a Scottish development body answerable to an independent Scottish Parliament.

It is important to remember too that Scotland is in a better financial position than the rest of the UK. The Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland 2010-2011 report, an independent statistical publication, shows that Scotland contributes 9.6% of UK revenues and receives 9.3% of UK spending, with 8.4% of the population.

It is also important that when anyone argues that meeting the UN aid targets is unaffordable just think of those families I mentioned at the start of this article. That continuing scar on the moral conscience of the world, which brings lots of consequences, is the reason Scotland must do all it can in this area.

Now is the time to step back and ask ‘what are our values, what kind of country do we want to be?’ and allow Scotland’s role in the world to flow from that vision. That seems to me to be an exciting opportunity that we must be sure to grasp.