A mission to Rwanda with the true disciples of Cameron

Lucy Kinder joined the Tory volunteers on their annual mission to Africa – and found a combination of compassion and careerism

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:37

The sound of polished British accents jarred amid the bustle of Kigali airport. A group of suited men stood around the luggage carousel, looking like they had just stepped off the 7.30 to Euston. Nearby, a gaggle of scruffy 19-year-olds with similar well-to-do pitches were taking in the chaotic sub-Saharan scene.

These were not your usual clutch of businessmen, NGO workers and gap-year students for whom Rwanda has become a regular destination. Rather, they were Britain's most likely future leaders – who, complete with "Back Boris!" T-shirts, had arrived to bring compassionate conservatism to Africa.

When the House of Commons clears out for each summer recess, the party which is odds-on to be running the country after the next election sends some of its most thrusting members to Rwanda on an ambitious annual development mission.

Part social welfare programme, part political profile raiser, Project Umubano was created by the Conservative Party two years ago when David Cameron travelled to Rwanda with a group of Tory volunteers to try to spur on development in an impoverished region where the memories of genocide still loomed large.

Since then it has expanded. Last summer's volunteers included Francis Maude, shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and six other frontbench MPs. Lord Ashcroft paid to build a community centre. This year more than 100 participants – myself included – were dispersed for a fortnight throughout the country to work on a range of projects, each paying their way: £300 for country costs and £800 for flights.

Those with business expertise try to help develop the Rwandan private sector. Lawyers work at the Institute of Legal Practice, the Rwandan national university and the Ministry of Justice, while doctors train nurses and treat patients. Meanwhile I went to work with 40 volunteers on the education project.

Not a member of the Conservative Party myself, I was keen to see how a politically minded volunteer project could make a humanitarian impact.

I was posted on a teaching project in Butare, a small university town south-west of the capital. The idea that I could improve the lives of the Rwandan people sounded ambitious, considering I had no experience as an educationalist. I had only recently put my own student days behind me.

But this was not a concern for the organisers; apparently after a one-day "Teaching English as a Foreign Language" (TEFL) course, anyone can teach – even to teachers.

The Rwandan government announced last year that it was switching the language of education from French to English. I was in charge of a class of 45 teachers who were struggling to grasp even the rudiments of the language, but were already expected to teach their classes solely in English.

Undeterred, I enthusiastically handed out the glossy Project Umubano brochures, full of lengthy testimonies from previous volunteers eulogising Rwanda. My class was not impressed by the token speech I gave about the Conservative Party and its social action plan, and tried to convince me that Tony Blair was still the British Prime Minister.

The basic exercises on the "foolproof" lesson plans that I had been given fell flat. "Who is Simon?" the baffled teachers asked as I tried to play "Simon Says". "Hickory Dickory Dock" went down just as badly. However, anything religious was popular.

Progress was frustrating. The Rwandan Ministry of Education had promised all the teachers a daily allowance for food and provisions, which it then did not deliver. This only came to light on the penultimate day of the project. It explained why so many of our class had appeared unresponsive; we had been instructing teachers who were hungry, tired and disillusioned. Many had walked up to 15km just to get to school each morning.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, shadow Minister for International Development, persuaded the Minister of Education to rectify the situation. Two days later we were informed that the minister in question had been dismissed. Another senior education minister, in charge of rolling out Rwanda's new English language curriculum, was also sacked and cited in a procurement scam.

Although this might have soured my personal volunteering experience, Project Umubano has had notable successes. In the past three years, the medical team has treated over 5,000 people. The private sector has established a twinning arrangement with Harvard Business School and the Saïd Business School at Oxford. The legal team was this year supported by lawyers from Allen and Overy, a firm which recently struck its own partnership with Rwanda.

But it was not just Rwandan development that Project Umubano helps – handily, it can also benefit the political careers of the volunteers.

Our group included Andrew Mitchell, the shadow International Development Secretary, Nick Hurd, shadow Minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, and Desmond Swayne, Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron.

The volunteers seized their chance to access this Westminster bubble and capitalise on the political acumen available thousands of miles from the pressures of home.

As one floppy-haired volunteer working on the private sector project remarked: "I'm here to make contacts, to network. I'm using it as an opportunity to get closer to people who can help my company."

The number of potential and actual parliamentary candidates on the trip meant it was hardly surprising that deals were struck over dinner, and the conversation rarely strayed from politics – primarily British, rather than Rwandan. Several possible parliamentary candidates were open about their hopes that the trip would help them to boost their political profiles, both within the party and with the electorate.

One candidate had even brought a stack of autographed photographs of himself to Rwanda, perhaps forgetting that he wasn't yet campaigning.

The trip was also a revealing foray into what we can expect from a party that believes it is marching towards election victory. The dominance of several "young guns" was obvious. Heading the Umubano organisational team was Jessica Lever, a 22-year-old political researcher who in 2004 became the youngest woman to address a Tory party conference. The great niece of the economist Milton Friedman, she cited Margaret Thatcher as one of her heroines and vowed to fight for the freedom of the individual. There were many like her on the trip whose messianic zeal for the party belied their tender years.

But the real bright sparks were those who placed their loyalties squarely with the Rwandan people they had come to help. I witnessed one volunteer welling up with emotion when she realised the implications of the Ministry of Education payment error on those she was teaching. One of the trip's organisers meanwhile looked on impassively.

Such was the paradoxical nature of Project Umubano. Compassionate conservatism was displayed by many, but self-promotion was important to a few. It remains to be seen which will triumph in the wider realms of the Conservative Party.

Rwanda: State of the nation

Tiny, landlocked Rwanda specialises in first impressions. Visitors expecting echoes of the 1994 genocide find a peaceful, organised and almost obsessively tidy place, in which plastic bags are banned.

The country presents itself as a regional IT hub but agriculture is still the chief industry. The land of a thousand hills has terraced all of them and is still struggling to feed its fast-growing population.

Rwanda remains heavily dependent on foreign aid, with the UK its largest donor. Supporters point to relatively low levels of official corruption and the highest proportion of female MPs in the world. Others note its role in destabilising neighbouring Eastern Congo and the political dominance of President Paul Kagame and his Tutsi allies from the former Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Daniel Howden

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