10 years of Party supported development volunteering: New CFID-University of Birmingham report released
Since 2007, the Conservative Party has organised international development volunteering opportunities for its members. Cabinet members, MPs, MEPs, Councillors and ordinary Party members have worked together with local partners in countries including Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Turkey, Bangladesh, Burundi, Bosnia and Herzegovina and, most recently in 2018, in Tanzania. They have taught English and advised on business development, trained surgeons and other medics, worked with counterpart parliamentary staff, helped to build and paint community facilities, and taught football and cricket.
In 2017, after a decade of development volunteering by the Party, Dr Danielle Beswick and Dr Mattias Hjort, based at the University of Birmingham, worked with CFID to design a research project aimed at answering one question with two parts: How does volunteering for an overseas social action project affect (i) the Party and (ii) the volunteers?
Our findings are based on interviews with the founders of Projects Umubano and Maja, the two main frameworks for Party volunteering for development, interviews with volunteers, a survey of participants on Umubano 2017 and Danielle’s observations as a volunteer English teacher with Umubano in Kigali, Rwanda, in August 2017.
The interviews suggested that one of the main aims of the volunteering projects, perhaps best articulated by Umubano founder Andrew Mitchell MP, was to ‘get some development DNA into the Party’. From our discussions with volunteers, and our review of how volunteers subsequently talk about and engage with development, this has undoubtedly been achieved. Some volunteers have developed long lasting connections with their host community, becoming trustees of partner organisations and fundraising for clinics, schools and orphanages. Others describe how they speak out at home about their experience as volunteers, and about the development challenges they have witnessed, in venues including schools, community centres and church groups. There are concrete legacies of Party volunteering in partner countries, in Rwanda these include the Umubano Primary School, Umubano Health Centre and Umubano Community Centre.
In Parliament, our research found that MPs and members of the House of Lords who had volunteered often reference their experiences when speaking in debates on UK development policy and on aid spending. We also found that Conservative members of the Commons committee that scrutinises the Department for International Development, the International Development Committee, had higher attendance rates at these meetings than non-volunteers.
Those who set up these projects and who have led them over the past decade, including Andrew Mitchell MP, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Sir Francis Maude, Stephen Crabb MP, Wendy Morton MP, Jeremy Lefroy MP, are in no doubt that Umubano and Maja have a unique and lasting impact on volunteers. For their part, the volunteers we spoke to describe the intense emotions they experienced. They told us volunteering was exhausting, challenging and out of the ‘comfort zone’, but also immensely rewarding. They also spoke of the sense of community that builds up between volunteers working alongside each other in a new environment. Many personal friendships and professional connections forged in the field, between volunteers and with those they worked with during their placement, have persisted through the years.
Overall, our research suggested that Party-organised volunteering has provided an important space in which Party members with an interest in development can work together, and a space where ideas for a distinct Conservative approach to development can be discussed. Though the placements are short term the impact on volunteers is often long-lasting. The experience of volunteering does not automatically translate into support for the current level of UK aid spending, but we found that it does provide those wishing to publicly defend UK aid with greater confidence to speak on this issue.
Based on the research, and following the conclusion of Project Umubano in 2017 and launch of a new project in Tanzania, Project Urafiki, we suggest that CFID has an important role to play in connecting volunteers. If the interest in and engagement with development is to be maintained beyond the short term placements, it will be important to encourage reflection, sharing of experience and learning across cohorts and between programmes.
Danielle will be speaking about the research at a fringe event for the Party Conference, from 1500-1600 on 1 October 2018. For more details please email firstname.lastname@example.org For copies of the Report please email email@example.com