Research has shown that volunteering can profoundly affect both the individual volunteers and the ‘sending community’, in this case the Conservative Party. Studies have shown that volunteering for development, for example teaching in a school, working in a health centre or women’s empowerment project, can make volunteers more supportive of development activities when they return home. Our aim was to understand whether volunteer’s experiences on Project Umubano, (an annual engagement with Rwanda) affected the ways volunteers thought about development and how they talked and acted on their experiences when they returned.
We found that volunteers emphasised the emotional impact of the experience. Many had not visited a developing country before and spoke of ‘things you can’t unsee’, after witnessing individuals living in desperate circumstances, and the challenges volunteers faced when living and working in basic conditions. They also showed admiration for the teachers, doctors and other people they met during their placements.
After volunteering, many interviewees expressed a belief that relatively small amounts of support, through aid or investment, could be transformative for individuals and communities. The shared experience of working together in challenging circumstances and seeing development in action also forged important bonds between the volunteers. As one volunteer put it, ‘when someone has a paintbrush or a spade, or whatever, everybody is equal…’ Veteran cabinet ministers and Party chairmen taught, painted and lived alongside young Party activists and staff. The hierarchies usually evident in formal Party gatherings were reduced, creating connections which have, in many cases, persisted and provided important lines of vertical communication and engagement within the Party.
The volunteering projects were a part of then-Party leader David Cameron’s efforts to modernise the Party and demonstrate compassionate conservatism. In the ten years since it began, it has developed a network of individuals committed to development. They are not uncritical, many are deeply sceptical of aid and are fierce critics of what they see as ‘wasteful spending’. They are, nevertheless, able to use their personal experience to add legitimacy when they discuss development, whether at constituency events or in parliamentary debates. Some volunteers have gone on to become members of the Commons International Development Select Committee, which scrutinises government spending. Others have become prominent advocates for the UK meeting the target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on aid.
Our research shows that volunteering can profoundly affect individuals and the organisation that sends them. When a political Party is the sending community, we see the potential for this experience to have a transformative effect on not only the volunteer’s views of development, but also on the level of engagement by the Party on development as a policy issue.
More research is needed to understand how experience affects policy position of individuals, but our study suggests that exploring this in more detail would offer an important window into how policy change is embedded within Parties in opposition and in government and could become more evidence and experience based.
Since 2007 the UK Conservative Party has supported groups of members, including MPs, councillors, staff and activists to volunteer in overseas development projects. In 2017 Dr Danielle Beswick and Dr Mattias Hjort at the University of Birmingham interviewed volunteers and organisers of these projects, to find out more about the aims of the founders and the impacts of volunteering. Danielle also participated in a Party-organised volunteering trip to Rwanda in August 2017, seeing first-hand the experiences of volunteers and talking with them about their impressions and views on development.