Alexander Deane is the Director of Big Brother Watch.
The Conservative Party’s Project Umubano is now in its fourth year. Its work commenced in Rwanda and last year expanded to include Sierra Leone. It’s worth stressing that Umubano volunteers of course receive nothing from the state – one pays for the trip or raises the money oneself.
I was very proud to take part in this year’s Umubano work for the first time this year, in Sierra Leone. This beautiful and tragic country is still best known for the civil war which visited widespread, sporadic, senseless, horrific violence upon thousands of individuals and upon entire communities all over the state from 1991 to 2002. A full eight years on, Sierra Leoneans are keen to put that time behind them. There is little doubt in my mind that we should provide assistance to them in doing so. The country anchors the UN's quality of life index, its place at the very bottom of the table merited by deep-rooted problems in almost every aspect of Sierra Leonean society.
It is easy and perhaps sometimes tempting for travellers to exaggerate the dangers of the country they visited. Certainly, traffic can be chaotic, health facilities outside of the capital (Freetown) scant and the electricity supply sporadic and unreliable everywhere, but in both Freetown and in the country more generally one can travel and spend time as a visitor without tremendous problems (bearing in mind the relevant FCO advice of course). Sierra Leone's problems aren't really threats to those there temporarily - they're crippling for those who live there. The greatest dangers facing the country are no longer violent in nature – instead, corruption and the absence of many elements of what we would consider to a basic state apparatus and infrastructure are the chief problems for Sierra Leone today. Indeed, one can often see where the infrastructure once was.
This year, Umubano’s work in Sierra Leone fell into the following team areas:
Justice My old colleague James Meller, who brilliantly co-ordinated the trip, asked me to be a member of this team. As a former British colony, Sierra Leone continues to use British law as the basic structure of their common law legal system – albeit with post-1961 UK legal developments being merely persuasive rather than authoritative.
This is one of the areas in which the country struggles most. Prisoners often languish in appalling conditions for years on remand before trial. Cases are often adjourned many times - sometimes 30 or even 40 times - before being finally heard (or dismissed). The country has a population of something over 6 million, and a total of 17 magistrates. Judges and the police sometimes go unpaid for extended periods of time. There are widespread rumours and accusations of corruption.
Along with Michael Poynton, until recently a Conservative Party Agent and a former police trainer, I took part in training sessions for the country's police and prosecutors. Ranging from scene of crime protection methods to interview techniques, from how to keep a pocket notebook to making and undergoing cross-examination, we had several productive days of lessons, roleplays and lively workshops filled with Q&A. Flatteringly, many participants had travelled very long distances to attend. We also led a session with those responsible for the country's transnational crime policing.
Meanwhile, three Conservative lawyers - Ben Hodgson, Suella Fernandes and Phillippa Martin-Moran - gave extensive workshops on civil and criminal law and procedure for the country's lawyers. Delivering classes on advocacy skills, interviewing clients, mediation, negotiation, contract Law, case Management and human rights, they worked hand in hand with a remarkable organisation called Timap for Justice, which trains and organises an network of paralegals who have transformed the justice situation in Sierra Leone. They also worked with lawyers from AdvocAid, visited Pandemba Road prison and had a briefing from the Master of the High Court on the state of play with the Judicial Training Institute to establish what assistance the Project can give in the future. Ben gave a speech on Alternative Dispute Resolution to the country's judiciary - given the scant resources available, non-court disposal of some of the heavy caseload is devoutly to be wished.
I also gave an address to assembled judges from the country's judiciary and advocates from their Bar, from the Chief Justice and a member of their Supreme Court to many magistrates. I spoke about the UK's modern approaches to case management and sentencing guidelines - both of which they now intend to follow.
All of this work built on the excellent ongoing work of Peter Viner's British Council Justice Sector Development Programme, of which we should be proud. We were also assisted by Paul Chiy, a lawyer who took part in Umubano's work last year and found working in Sierra Leone so rewarding that he moved there!
Women’s rights It is fashionable in some western political circles to mock those who wish to discuss gender politics, and in the United Kingdom I think that political correctness has gone too far. But in a country in which over 90% of girls have their genitals mutilated and gender-based violence is so prevalent that the Government erects street signs which remind people that domestic violence and rapes are crimes, the debate is an entirely different one and this issue is one of vital importance. Fiona Hodgson and Shazia Ovaisi had a series of meetings with both organisations and female parliamentarians, promoting women's rights and forging links with champions of those rights within Sierra Leone to ensure that they get help in their work from concerned campaigners internationally.
Health Umubano took three medical practitioners to Sierra Leone this year. This area is perhaps the worst of all aspects of life in Sierra Leone. Infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all the worst in the world. Many facilities that would be regarded as basic in western countries are lacking. Two tremendously experienced nurses, Uma Fernandes, Sibo Sesay and Doctor Josef Babicki did remarkable work in several hospitals in treating patients and teaching medical practitioners best practice, from basic hygiene to diagnosis techniques and tuition in keeping medical records. They visited slums and treated people in their homes. Together, they treated hundreds of patients in days of exhausting work - and gave advice that should affect the treatment of thousands more. Again, this team did a great deal of work with organisations whose work is ongoing, some of it in collaboration with the Hanci Children's Centre in Makeni.
The work of these teams was led and reinforced by a Parliamentary team of Stephen O'Brien, Andrew Mitchell and David Mundell. They not only backed up the teams - they also had high-powered meetings with officials from across Sierra Leone up to and including the President.
The whole team also attended a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce with key players in the business sector to discuss (blockages to) wealth creation in the country and how Umubano can help to build meaningful and useful partnerships in the future. I had little to contribute to this area beyond thinking of the names of some friends with relevant experience, whose arms are shortly to be twisted.
That's what we did this year; there are certainly further aspects of civil society into which Umubano might expand in future years. In Rwanda, for example, there is a serious education component to Umubano's work. That, in a country in which literacy has plummeted in recent times, is another obvious area for Umubano in Sierra Leone.
If you think that you might like to volunteer in future years on Umubano, Stephen Crabb MP and his team would be most interested to hear from you. I can vouch that it’s a profoundly affecting experience. I can't think of anything I've ever done of which I'm more proud. The above all sounds very earnest, I know, but we also had a great deal of fun. Apologies for the stress on the justice area in this piece - due naturally to the fact that it's the one I know best - more information about any aspect of Project Umubano can be obtained from Stephen's team.
I commend the work of Umubano to ConservativeHome.