A couple of months ago, I suggested that the claims for the benefit of the Tory trip to Rwanda might be inflated. In the current mood of dissatisfaction with David Cameron, much of the media and many private commentators are making cynical observations about this trip.
Much of this cynicism is simply gut-reaction to an apparently shallow publicity-seeker travelling on another foreign jolly in the immediate aftermath of the exposure of the hollowness of his claims to have transformed the electoral prospects of his party by abandoning principles and moving to the centre-ground.
These are not unreasonable grounds for cynicism, but it is nevertheless possible that this trip has genuine merit, despite the troubles at home.
It would be useful to be able to judge the trip according to the tests and claims that Team Cameron have set themselves.You may remember from the earlier post that the key to this trip was that it is “a genuine two-way learning process, with each side leveraging the skills and knowledge of the other”, with “targeted professional help in support of the development of Rwanda”. The “importance of the projects’ legacy” is emphasised.
To ensure that the participants actually bring something useful to the trip, “there has been a rigorous interview process of prospective participants to ensure a correct fit between skills and assignments”.
I questioned exactly what skills, useful to African development projects, most Tory MPs would bring.
Helpfully, Adrian Yalland, the boss of the company organising the trip, responded to my challenge on Iain Dale’s site, though he was unable to name names, to enable us to test the claims. We had to wait for the trip, and rely on the Conservatives to tell us who was doing what.
Well, the trip has started, and so far the Conservatives have not given us a list of participants and the particular skills that they are bringing to the projects.
But it is possible gradually to extract the names of participants from reports on the trip. So, for instance, we know that Andrew Mitchell is leading the trip, which, as Shadow Minister for International Development, is entirely reasonable. Earlier suggestions that David Mundell and Hugo Swire would be involved have not been confirmed. But we learn instead that “Tobias Ellwood, the shadow culture spokesman and former officer in the Royal Green Jackets, shared some of his considerable carpenting expertise with Brooks Newmark, a new whip”. So that’s another military man, like Swire, of which there is not a shortage in Rwanda. But at least Ellwood has carpenting skills (to accompany his military and City experience), which the Guardian seems to be hinting that Brooks Newmark, a former venture capitalist, lacks.
But what about Adrian’s claim, in response to my suggestion that carpenting and painting weren’t the best uses of MPs’ time, that “some of the projects include work with government departments, legislators and the legal community.
Volunteers will be using their experiences of commerce, the voluntary sector and politics to enable Rwanda to develop its social capital as well as its economy”? Well, no sign so far.
The Guardian reports that “David Cameron’s volunteers were digging, plastering; sawing and repairing alongside Rwandans. Most of Project Umubano (‘friendship’ in Kinyarwanda) is more practical.
I also questioned whether the Tories would learn the really important lessons for Africa from getting so close. The first lesson that Mr Mitchell has learnt from his experience with the Rwandan ministry is “how donations can sometimes be a problem”, because the Rwandan government has to give time to representatives of every donating government.
That wouldn’t be top of most international development experts’ lists of the problems faced by under-developed economies. Stuff like property rights, the rule of law, corruption, and so on, might come a little higher on the list. Is this a classic example of getting too close - not seeing the wood for the trees?
So, before we accept that this trip and the claims for it are anything more than PR hogwash, we need more names, more explanation of the skills the participants are bringing, more explanation of how these projects and participants match the earlier claims, and more insightful analysis.
This article was first published in July 21, 2007 in the Telegraph