For two weeks this summer, 104 Conservative volunteers travelled to Rwanda to take part in the second year of Project Umubano, our international social action project.
We kept ConservativeHome readers updated with a series of despatches on different aspects of the project. Tobias Ellwood MP described his team’s work in building a Community Center for families affected by the genocide. Fiona Hodgson described her work on women’s rights (and we read this week that there are now a record number of female MPs in Rwanda). And Rob Halfon wrote movingly about his time teaching Rwandan teachers.
We aimed to make a modest contribution to development in one of the world’s poorest countries, and in that I think we succeeded. But in addition, many of our volunteers have told me that they benefited – through new experiences, discoveries, friendships and insights – just as much as they contributed.
A month on and we have all settled back into our lives in the UK. But some of the lessons we learnt in Rwanda are still high in our minds. Above all we learnt about what happens when the politics of hate trumps the politics of reason and dialogue. Rob Halfon wrote graphically about his visit to the Murambi genocide site in one of his despatches.
Our volunteers also learnt more specific things. For example, six of our doctors worked in remote rural healthcare outposts in Kirambi, Moye and Busuro. Shazia Oviasi, a GP from Wembley who worked at the Busuro center, explained to me that many of the cases she saw were people with diarrhea and vomiting. Most of this, she said, could be prevented by improvements in access to clean water, decent sanitation and better knowledge of hygiene. Even things like regular hand-washing make a difference: the old adage that prevention is better than cure couldn’t be more relevant.
Her experience underlines the urgent need to help strengthen health systems in developing countries and to boost support for public health activities and campaigns. People are getting sick and dying for want of a few litres of clean water every day. A central question for the development industry is how to spend our aid to make it most effective; I’d suggest that tackling basic health problems like this is a good place to start.
Most of the questions which dominate political debate in the UK and on Conservative Home are directly relevant to our lives: how to make our schools and hospitals run better, how to tackle crime and environmental damage. The impact of global poverty is equally relevant – disease, immigration and global instability are incubated in failed states and deprived communities. But the people of poor countries live thousands of miles away and are remote from our daily lives.
So I hope that one of the main contributions our project made for our Party was to put British politicians face-to-face with people in the developing world, in an attempt to better understand their lives and the challenges they face. This, surely, is the most direct and authentic way to learn how to use Britain’s influence to spur growth and development and improve lives around the world.