He was damned because he did, but he would have been equally damned if he hadn’t. David Cameron’s decision to come to Rwanda this week — which honours commitments he had made both to the country and members of his own party who are out here working on a two-week volunteering scheme called Project Umubano — appeared controversial because it was taken in the wake of terrible flooding in Britain and two thumping by-election defeats.
He was damned because he did, but he would have been equally damned if he hadn’t. David Cameron’s decision to come to Rwanda this week — which honours commitments he had made both to the country and members of his own party who are out here working on a two-week volunteering scheme called Project Umubano — appeared controversial because it was taken in the wake of terrible flooding in Britain and two thumping by-election defeats. But had it happened in a week of no domestic news at all, there would still, apparently, have been members of his party and constituency who felt aggrieved that their leader should be focusing his attention on a tiny landlocked republic in central Africa when there were serious matters of concern back home. Our politicians should sort out our own problems, goes this theory — not worry about those facing poor black people.
I have been associated with Project Umubano from the start, and this mindset smacks to me of parochialism and arrogance; and Cameron’s determination to get on that plane and come here looks like the right decision. As he himself announced to the national parliament during his visit, ‘in the 21st century, there is no “domestic” and “foreign” any more. What happens in one place affects many others’. The rich, he pointed out, can no longer escape the consequences of poverty and instability; our global futures are linked as never before.
Admittedly, there was much in Cameron’s speech that harked back to Tony Blair’s 1999 clarion call in Chicago that ‘we are all internationalists now’, but there was also a great deal that suggested the Tories have turned a positive corner in their view of the significance, from both a moral and self-interested perspective, of fighting poverty. Launching the hefty Globalisation and Global Poverty Group report, one of six policy reviews, to a rapt Kigali parliament, the Tory leader praised DfID for their work but outlined no less than 86 recommendations, mentioning along the way the economic development theories of Hernando de Soto and Amartya Sen. Although Cameron’s closing vision for a ‘healthy, stable, prosperous’ Africa — which will in a ‘few years hence take its rightful place alongside its wealthier neighbours’ — was perhaps bordering on the naive, or at least premature, in the main his policy group’s work has been rigorous; and their suggestions, which include major trade, aid and UN reform, inspiring.
At the heart of development policy, Cameron also locates one of his own ‘deepest political convictions’. You can’t just rely on governments to make a difference, he says: on a more modest and bottom-up scale there must also be active social responsibility. Hence his very public support of Project Umubano, which was devised by the shadow international development secretary Andrew Mitchell to promote friendship and understanding between individuals in Britain and Rwanda, as well as to share practical skills and experiences. Over the past fortnight, the group of 43 Conservative volunteers (who include in their number two other shadow secretaries of state, a minister, a whip, three MPs and five parliamentary candidates) have launched 20 projects around the country, across such areas as health, education, law, construction, business, women’s issues, culture, media, tourism, microfinance, politics and the economy.
At the moment in April 1994 when hundreds of thousands of Hutus turned sadistically on the Tutsi, Britain was under a Conservative government. This is one of the reasons why Mitchell, a minister in Major’s cabinet who says he is ‘haunted by guilt’, chose Rwanda for his ambitious idea. Like the rest of the international community (excepting the French, who opted to support the genocidaires), we, a signatory of the 1946 Genocide Convention, did nothing to prevent the massacre, so there is an enormous moral debt to repay. At £46 million a year, Britain is also Rwanda’s biggest donor, pledging half a billion pounds in aid over the next decade, so there is some sense in coming here to see how that cash is working and ensuring, as Cameron puts it, that British taxpayers are getting value for money.
Moreover, Rwanda post-genocide is a great African success story, and with its ‘Vision 2020’ of economic independence and non-ethnic multiparty democracy, a good model for the rest of the continent. When the genocide ended, the country, then the world’s poorest, was completely laid to waste — with not a franc in the treasury, nor a coffee bean to harvest. Thirteen years on and Rwanda is still poor, of course, still reliant on massive foreign aid payments, but corruption levels are impressively low, discipline is high; it is on the right track. There are roads, hospitals, schools and even a tourist industry; Kigali is a beautiful, bustling, clean, safe capital city — surely one of Africa’s finest. With minimal assistance, Rwanda’s RPF government has addressed the seemingly impossible problem of how to create a new national narrative in which its traumatised people can both confront the genocide and move beyond it, and has implemented the institutions necessary to create ‘One Rwanda’, where all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity, live side-by-side in equality and peace.
As well as offering a wealth of skills and experience, the Tories, according to Mitchell, are also here because they want to learn. He himself has been shadowing the Rwandan finance minister James Musoni for a week in order to better grasp the political and bureaucratic challenges facing developing governments as they receive, handle and distribute aid money — which typically comes through hundreds of disparate donors. David Cameron joked that Britain could learn a thing or two from Rwanda’s parliamentary make-up, which contains the highest number of female members of any parliament in the world. Brooks Newmark, an opposition whip who has been helping to construct a new orphanage at Girubuntu, says he has no doubt the experience will make him a better man, and a better politician. ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ he says, ‘this sort of thing should be mandatory, like national service.’
Thirteen years since one group of people tried systematically to extinguish another in Rwanda, it is theoretically possible to have a conversation here that does not revolve around the genocide.
But every exchange, whether with the President or the most impoverished banana farmer, takes it implicitly as the context against which everything must be understood. How could it not? This is a society which was quite literally decimated. More than a tenth of its population was wiped out; nobody in Rwanda escaped direct physical or psychological damage; everybody knew the murdered, and what few innocent survivors there are must now live alongside the murderers. When Cameron laid a wreath on a mass grave at a memorial where 250,000 bodies lie, he was visibly shaken and said he had ‘no words’ to describe what he had seen. He also vowed ‘never, never to forget’ — and added those freighted words ‘never again’.
There is another genocide taking place right now, in Darfur, so if we are to say ‘never again’, we have to start proving that we mean it. Should the latest criticisms to be levelled at David Cameron in his summer horribilis actually damage his prospects as a
leader, the Conservative party will be the morally poorer for it. With the greatest respect to those who have suffered in the floods this week, if Britain is to maintain any authority in the world we should be encouraging our leaders to care about crises a little further afield and a little more extreme than our own, not lambasting them for it.
Clemency Burton-Hill is a contributing editor of The Spectator.