14 July 2017

Project Umubano is the best of Conservative endeavour

By Andrew Mitchell

This year marks the 10th birthday of Project Umubano, the Conservative Party’s social action project in Rwanda. And this August, as we have done have done every August for the past nine years, 80 Conservative volunteers, from all levels in the Party, will travel there to work with our Rwandan friends and counterparts on international development projects.

Back in 2007, when I launched the project, with the strong support of the then party leader, David Cameron, it was dismissed by many as a stunt to detoxify the Conservative Party and rid it of its “nasty” image. Yet here we are, a decade on, with several hundred party members having taken part and many of the initiative’s alumni now elected to the House of Commons (and sitting in the House of Lords).

In fact, we had three strong reasons to set up Project Umubano. The first was my hope that it would do a little bit of good in a country that had been to hell and back. In 1994, genocide had engulfed the country. Over a 90-day period, more than 800,000 people, almost all Tutsis, were murdered. Fergal Keene, one of the first British journalists to enter the country during the final weeks of the fighting, spoke of the pervading smell of death which had engulfed this unbelievably beautiful land. I felt we had to do what we could to help to improve the prospects of the people and the place.

The second was the opportunity it would provide to all those Conservatives who took part in Project Umubano: to have a remarkable and, in many cases, life-changing experience. Many of the volunteers, several of them parliamentary candidates, wrote movingly, in their local papers and further afield, about what the visit to Rwanda had meant to them.

Our third reason – and the most important one – was because these visits would mean that within the Party there would be a group of activists and supporters who really understood what works and does not work in international development. They would be able to stand up and speak with first-hand knowledge and passion, able to support and back up those policy changes which we introduced while in opposition and implemented when we came into Government in 2010.

Indeed, the main focus of the project is on sustainability and training, to ensure there is a lasting benefit to the work we do in tackling poverty. So one of the things our volunteers do is teach English to Rwandan teachers of English. I remember one morning, before I took a class of nearly 70 Rwandan teachers, urgently swotting on the bonnet of a Land Rover with Frances, now Lord Maude – and later comparing notes in the staff room on how our efforts were proceeding.

I ended those two weeks of teaching English exhausted and with an even greater respect for the teaching profession than before. Over the past 10 years, our volunteers have taught up to 1,500 Rwandan teachers of English. But while this is a significant strand of the project it is by no means the only one.

Our volunteers also include Conservative doctors, nurses and health practitioners who partner with their Rwandan equivalents to treat the sick and pass on specialist knowledge – almost always in remote hospitals or health centres run by the wonderful Missionaries of Mary, an Irish Catholic Charity.

The private sector project is one of the largest elements of the programme – as it is the key driver of Rwanda’s future security. Businessmen and women from the Party have teamed up to mentor and encourage Rwandan entrepreneurs and entrench good ethical practice. Other specialised volunteers and lawyers continue to work with the Rwandan legal profession on a project originally led by the current Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell.

We have also worked on infrastructure, helping to build facilities such as a satellite health centre in the hills near Kirambi where, for the first time, family planning was available for women who desperately wanted it. The community centre near Kinyinya, which we built nine years ago, largely financed by Lord Ashcroft and opened by the President of Rwanda, is still in immaculate condition.

In the spirit of passing lasting skills on, we also coach cricket; the fastest growing national sport in Rwanda. And in memory of Christopher Shale, who died tragically at Glastonbury in 2011, Rwanda will soon have the finest cricket stadium north of the Limpopo River, a project designed and delivered by Christopher’s family.

We played our part promoting football as well with a hugely popular project run by Alistair Burt to coach Rwandan coaches with the help of the FA. Once a qualified FA coach himself, today Alistair is a Minister of State in DfID.

Our 10-year project has represented the key values of the Conservative Party – voluntarism, compassion, enterprise – at their very best. And on Friday 11 August, we will commemorate Project Umubano at a dinner with the President of Rwanda. In a symbol of partnership with the country, we will celebrate an endeavour which speaks to the values of internationalism and human solidarity with a once deeply traumatised country now emerging into the sunlight of progress and prosperity.

Andrew Mitchell is the founder of Project Umubano and MP for Sutton Coldfield