Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East.
As all MPs know, the only outbreak of sweat you are likely to experience during an overseas delegation is on arrival, whilst making a dash in the sun from the plane to the car. Useful though such visits are – if you really want to build lasting relationships and make a difference then try the ‘social action’ approach.
The concept of ‘social action’ has come a long way since its inception at the Bournemouth Party conference in 2006 when delegates were invited to roll up their grey suit sleeves and help convert an old church into a much needed community centre. We as a Party now have a formidable reputation for social action projects both at home and abroad. They emphasise the very deep Conservative value of social responsibility; the belief that by working together we can deliver real change. And we certainly did that in Bangladesh.
Our team of 35 volunteers participated in four projects in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh (chosen as it has strong links to Bangladeshi communities here in the UK). Firstly teaching English in two primary schools led by Andrew Stephenson MP, secondly working with the charity BRAC to visit rural communities and witness cataract operations co-ordinated by Nicky Morgan MP and thirdly selecting a youth football team for Sylhet, led by Anne Main MP in partnership with the London Tigers.
The final and largest project was the complete renovation of the Hazi Muhammed Shafiq High School. It has 400 students (all from deprived backgrounds) but just 5 classrooms and children sit in classes of 80 with four or five to a desk. Before we arrived it was a shell of a building with no windows and a leaky roof. There was no electricity, lighting, sports or proper toilet facilities and not a window, let alone a computer, in sight. Yet they endured these grim surroundings without complaint. However, what this school lacked in infrastructure was compensated for in warmth, friendship and the desire to learn by the children. Thanks to the hard work of our team, the charity Islamic Relief and members of the local community the building is now fit to be called a school.
The Prime Minister recently said: ‘Just because you can’t do everything – does not mean you should not do something‘. In the scheme of things, the ‘something’ we did was very small. But as a direct result of Project Maja, Bangladeshi MPs are now looking at this model to improve other schools and DFID is looking at expanding its aid to targeted projects. This is social action at its best – not just an opportunity to help one community, but leading by example so others might continue the programmes once we have departed.
Baroness Warsi, who has been the driving force behind Project Maja, can be immensely proud of the entire team who volunteered, indeed paid to be taken out of our comfort zones and participate in this demanding and ambitious project (as well as endure an earthquake!) We all returned the richer for this experience and appreciative of what has been accomplished.