Lessons from Rwanda

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 (Hugo may be less keen, now he has been dropped from the Shadow Cabinet). 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 (small p) 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 [than Mitchell's discussions with the Rwandan government]".

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. So far, so unconvincing.



Confirmed from Iain Dale's site that David Mundell is on the trip. So that's 4 of the 8 MPs named (with Hugo Swire a possible fifth). David's job seems to be to learn about their judicial process, particularly with regard to the genocide. That seems appropriate to David's skills as a lawyer.

So far, he seems to be learning and experiencing more than contributing, but that's OK. It's not clear that much of what he is learning is stuff he can draw broader conclusions from, other than "developing countries are underdeveloped", and "it's tough getting over the genocide". The most important information he has obtained for understanding the country seems to have come from the British Ambassador's briefing.

The best news is that they've adopted English as an official language, and are looking at the British legal system for lessons in reconstructing their legal system. We should enthusiastically welcome and help any country that wants to enter the Anglosphere, provided that they make real efforts to implement our fundamental principles - limited government, rule of law, protection of property rights, zero tolerance of corruption, etc.

It would be churlish to criticise David's participation on the basis of what we know so far, though it would also be a stretch to argue that he couldn't have got most of the important information so far from a FO briefing. 

Vicky Ford is another volunteer on the trip, though not an MP. I have no issue with the other volunteers on the trip - it's their time and their money. I mention her only because, as a blogger, we can see what she is getting out of it, and she has provided a splendid example of either getting too close to see the big picture, or not asking the important questions. She reports:

"I believe I have learnt more about the realities of living in an emerging country in the past 3 days than I did in 14 years working on emerging market projects as a banker in the City of London.

Yesterday we ran out of paint at our pre-school project so I went with Eugene to get some. Buying a pot of paint took 1 1/2 hours.. then you have to go to another shop to buy a brush and another for white spirit or parafin. These sort of logistics challenges are faced every day - even in the capital city of a country like Rwanda where actually the economy is improving."

But why, Vicky, why? It's not as interesting or useful to know that they have these problems, so much as to know why. It is this sort of observation that leads some people to think we just need to throw more money at the problem - "these people are so poor that they can't afford a proper hardware store". But is it money that is preventing a single store from stocking related goods? Or is it institutional barriers? Or commercial ineptitude? We need to know, but you have to be visiting in a spirit of critical enquiry, not blind sympathy, to learn the important lessons. And it doesn't take 40 people not to ask those questions. It needs one or two professional observers, probably employed by the Foreign Office, to carry out the critical analysis.

David Cameron has arrived for his two-day flying visit. The criticism has been a bit harsh of his decision to honour his commitment to the trip despite the flooding in his constituency (e.g. here, here, here, here, here and here). The good news for him is that The Sun and The Mirror haven't laid in to him too much. The bad news is that they haven't paid his trip much positive attention either, they have given positive coverage to Gordon Brown's visits to the flood-affected areas, and there's not much coverage of Tories raising questions about cuts and lack of preparedness.

For what it's worth, I don't think Dave could do much good in Witney, so wouldn't criticise him for "deserting" his constituents. The decision to honour his commitment in Rwanda would be the right one, if he had left a well-oiled machine bombarding the media on his behalf on the subject of the floods. But whether people like Peter Ainsworth, Eric Pickles and Caroline Spelman are being ignored by the media or are simply not putting themselves around enough, it is the apparent docility of his team that is making his trip look bad to some. Why was there no Tory to confront Phil Woolas on Newsnight last night? This is not a team getting ready for government, it is a team getting ready either for a holiday or a putsch.

As this is supposed to be an exercise in judging the trip on its merits, I am not so interested in Cameron's physical location as in what he contributes to and takes out of the trip. On that basis, he didn't start well. Following a briefing to his team on the Tory Globalisation Commission's Report (to be published, coincidentally, while he is in Rwanda, not that this is a publicity trip or anything), his first act was to visit a textile factory that is being converted to produce mosquito nets. Iain Dale thinks this is a great idea ("probably the best healthcare investment that could be made" - another example of being too close to the trees). I wonder what gave him that idea? I predicted that Dave would be peddling Jeffrey Sachs's guff on mosquito nets two months ago, and posted today on Iain Dale's blog what I thought of this predictable but depressing mistake. Do the Tories listen to anyone but sharp-suited academic spendthrifts and self-interested corporate executives any more?

Iain might have mentioned Dave's keynote speech to the Rwandan parliament - perhaps he wasn't there, but if they briefed on the Commission's Report in the morning, why didn't they also brief on his speech? It is reported on the Conservative Party's website, though, where the following passage leads the story:

The Conservative Leader criticised the way richer states seek concessions in return for trade deals, and declared: "Forget the endless tortuous negotiations about getting something in return. Just do it. We can afford it. Africa needs it. And we will all benefit from it."

That is an admirable sentiment, but once again simplistic. We certainly should not tolerate negotiations failing because of the pursuit of self-interest by rich countries (though it may be a bit optimistic to imagine that any negotiations involving agriculture and the French can avoid being hijacked by self-interest). But it is not only our self-interest that should motivate the efforts by rich countries to persuade poor countries to lower their import-barriers and export-subsidies as we do the same to ours. Reducing barriers to the import of cheap mass-produced products into poor countries is as important to their economic development as giving them access to our markets (arguably more so). It is the classic economic error to think that economic progress depends only on assisting export of products, and not also on making available at the cheapest price those goods that can be imported more cheaply from abroad than they can be produced at home. It is no surprise that the Tories remain economically illiterate, but it does diminish one's appetite for them as a credible alternative to our current government.

And not only is he economically illiterate, but he is environmentally incoherent as well. His speech includes this gem: "Right now we're seeing climate change bring floods in Britain". NO WE AREN'T DAVE, YOU MORON. This is bullshit, and even the media (generally, with the exception of the myopic Independent) haven't had the brass-neck and depth of ignorance to make this claim. Who is briefing Dave? Forget spies in the Tory camp (see comment at 1:59AM on 23 July), if this is the tripe his team are feeding him, they've obviously got the knives out for him en masse.

Meanwhile, David Mundell continues to learn how awful the genocide was and that life in Rwanda is tough. He has had a brief encounter with the Rwandan government's Poverty Eradication Programme, but doesn't have much to say about it, other than that "so little [the gift of a cow] can make such a big difference". Is it effective, David? What would most improve the prospects of the poor?

Vicky Ford has been silent for a few days - probably unable to get access to the internet. 

Michael Portillo just said, in This Week, that 35 MPs went to Rwanda. Probably just another Portillo "mistake" - every article and programme contains some. It's strange how the "mistakes" always suit the argument he wants to make. Statistically improbable, surely?

Or was this actually correct? We still need to know which MPs went on the trip. 

Is the Rwanda trip embarrassing to the Tory party? Try finding anything about it on the Conservative Party website. Nothing linked from the homepage, and putting "Rwanda" into the Search box returns nothing about the trip. Andrew Mitchell must be delighted by the rewards for his efforts.

On the upside, that defends the trip against the accusation that it is a photo-op. Of course, who knows what the intention was before the trip "went bad"? And if part of the justification for the trip was to bring the problems of central Africa to the attention of the British public, it's another damp squib.