Andrew Mitchell: Rebuilding Rwanda

Posted On: 
13th July 2017

Since 2007, scores of Conservative members have visited Rwanda every August as part of Project Umubano. Proof, says its founder, Andrew Mitchell, that social action projects can go the distance

Andrew Mitchell teaching English in Rwanda
Credit: 
Andrew Mitchell

This year sees the 10th anniversary of the founding of Project Umubano, the Conservative party’s social action project in Rwanda. Once again, around 80 Conservatives from all levels of the party will travel to Rwanda at the beginning of August.

During the 10 days that we are there, as throughout the last decade, we will work with our Rwandan friends and counterparts on international development projects.

When I set up Project Umubano in 2007, with the strong support of the then party leader, David Cameron, it was dismissed by many in the media as a one-off stunt designed to detoxify the Conservative party and rid it of its “nasty” image. But here we are, 10 years later, with many of Project Umubano’s alumni now elected to the House of Commons (and sitting in the House of Lords) and several hundred Conservative party members having taken part.

There were three reasons for Project Umubano. The first was my hope that it would do a little bit of good in a country that has been to hell and back. In 1994 a genocide engulfed the country. Over a 90-day period, more than 800,000 people, almost all Tutsis, were murdered. The genocide was ended by the Tutsi military forces under the command of Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president. Fergal Keane, one of the first British journalists to enter the country, spoke of the pervading smell of death which had enveloped this unbelievably beautiful land.

The second reason was to give those Conservatives who took part in Project Umubano a remarkable and, in many cases, life-changing experience. Many of those who came were parliamentary candidates and wrote movingly in their local papers about what the visit to Rwanda meant to them.

But above all, the third reason was to ensure that within the Conservative party there were a group of activists and supporters who really understood what works and does not work in international development and would stand up within the Conservative party with both knowledge and passion about international development – supporting the policy changes which we introduced while in opposition and implemented when we came into government in 2010.

Project Umubano volunteers teach English to Rwandan schoolteachers. I remember the morning I took on a class of nearly 70 Rwandan teachers, sitting on the bonnet of a Land Rover with Francis, now Lord, Maude and later comparing notes in the staff room on how our efforts were proceeding. I ended my two weeks teaching English, exhausted and with an even greater respect for the teaching profession than I had before we had started. Over the last 10 years, Conservative volunteers have helped to train as many as 1,500 Rwandan teachers.

In other aspects of Project Umubano, Conservative doctors, nurses and practitioners have partnered with their Rwandan equivalents, treated the sick and taught – almost always in a remote rural hospital or health centre run by the wonderful Missionaries of Mary, an Irish Catholic charity.

We have helped build a satellite health centre in the hills near Kirambi where family planning has been made available for the first time. And the community centre near Kinyinya is still in immaculate condition nine years later, largely financed by Lord Michael Ashcroft and opened by the president of Rwanda.

One of our biggest projects is the private sector initiative where Conservative business people have teamed up to mentor and encourage Rwandan entrepreneurs and entrench good ethical practice. Other volunteers have worked with the Rwandan legal profession, a project originally led by the current secretary of state for Scotland, David Mundell.

And we coach cricket; the fastest growing national sport in Rwanda. In memory of senior Conservative Christopher Shale, who died tragically at Glastonbury in 2011, Rwanda will have the finest cricket stadium north of the Limpopo River thanks to the Rwanda Cricket Foundation, a project designed and delivered by Christopher’s family.

We played our part promoting football as well, with a huge project run by Alistair Burt, today a minister of state in DfID.

On Friday 11 August there will be a dinner with the president of Rwanda to commemorate 10 years of the Conservative party’s Project Umubano. In a symbol of partnership with the country, we will celebrate a project 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. It has been a 10-year project and has shown the values of the Conservative party at its very best.