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Rwanda, Conservatives and image

Andrew Harding | 18:13 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010

Around 50 members of Britain's Conservative party have been in Rwanda for the past few weeks - and no, it seems they weren't there to pick up tips about how to win elections with 93% of the vote.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame celebrates his recent election victory

This is the fourth year running that Tory MPs, activists and party members have flown to Rwanda to take part in something that has had "a profound effect on the Conservative Party," according to this year's organiser, Stephen Crabb MP.

It's called Project Umubano and at one level it is simply an opportunity for British lawyers, doctors, teachers, spin doctors, entrepreneurs, cricket fans
and politicians to share their skills with Rwandans - the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has been doing some teacher training this year - and now, on a smaller scale, with people in Sierra Leone.

But the Conservatives also insist that the learning process is very much a two-way thing. I ran into some of the volunteers in Kigali last week. Party press officer Alan Sendorek - just back from running a workshop on communications for a group of villagers
- said the project "had helped create a political mass of people in the party who know about development."

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell in Rwanda

When Umubano started, the Conservatives were still in opposition,
and looking to shake off the "nasty party" image.

Here's how Stephen Crabb MP described the results in an email to me this week: "The aim of Project Umubano was to make a small but significant contribution to development in Rwanda but since it began four years ago it has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the Conservative Party as well. It would be inaccurate to say that the Conservative Party was not interested in development pre-2007; many of our MPs and activists have been committed to alleviating poverty overseas as a moral imperative for decades. But I remember debates on Global Poverty during that last Parliament that were sparsely populated on our side of the House to say the least. As a member of the International Development Select Committee at the time I always found this disappointing. Since the election this year though, there are around 30 of our MPs who been on Project Umubano, have experienced development on the ground and are enthusiastic to talk knowledgeably about the subject in the House of Commons. This is a significant chunk of our parliamentary party, not to mention the hundreds of staff, candidates and activists who have also taken part in Project Umubano. This has helped to create a critical mass of people who are not only interested in development but have seen the lasting difference it can make first hand. There is no question that Umubano has helped to generate a new level of positive interest and experience of development within the Conservative Party."

It's no surprise that the Tories chose Rwanda. Britain is the biggest international donor to President Paul Kagame's government - pumping in some £46m ($71.6m) a year. Britain still sees Rwanda as "fantastic development partner; the money is used wisely and transparently", according to one insider.

But for how long will Britain remain comfortable supporting Rwanda's increasingly authoritarian government?

I met the Conservatives just before the election and no-one was keen to discuss the issue on the record, but there is growing international frustration with President Kagame's low threshold for criticism and increasingly paranoid rhetoric. His achievements in government are remarkable and Rwanda is justifiably cut plenty of slack because of its recent history. But Western governments, Britain's included, are starting to mutter that their support is "not unconditional".


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