Sayeeda Warsi: Conservative compassion in action

Published in Politics First Magazine, Tuesday 20th December 2011

By Marcus Papadopoulos

In the short time that Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Minister without Portfolio and Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, has been in Parliament (she was made a working peer in 2007), she has quickly earned a reputation for being a plain speaking and a “saying things as she sees them” politician–attributes respected by much of the public. However, her direct approach to politics is eclipsed by her two notable and historical achievements.

Firstly, Baroness Warsi is the first female Asian to serve in the Cabinet (indeed, she became the first ever female Asian frontbencher when David Cameron, then as leader of the Opposition, appointed her as Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion in 2007).

Secondly, the social overseas aid programmes of the Conservative Party, which have played a major part in re-branding the Party to the public, were concepts devised by Baroness Warsi, together with the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell. And their importance cannot be overstated. As Prime Minister David Cameron has said: “Social action has had a profound impact on our [Conservative] Party”.

Overseas development has become a prominent policy of Britain’s in the last few years. It has helped to enhance the country’s position on the international stage as a beacon of morality; it has helped strengthen cultural awareness in Britain of communities across the globe; it has created business and trade links between Britain and numerous countries around the world; and it has helped to defend British national security.

Within the Conservative Party at present, numerous overseas aid programmes are ongoing. The most recent is ‘Project Maja’ (in Bengali the word ‘Maja’ means “caring”). Established and fronted by Baroness Warsi, this project aims to build upon the success of its predecessors and is the focus of this exclusive interview.

Q: What is ‘Project Maja’ all about?

A: ‘Project Maja’ is a programme which was established by myself in 2009 and launched in the same year in Bosnia and Herzegovina by myself and other Conservative parliamentarians. The aim of ‘Maja’ is to carry out social action overseas and to develop a clear understanding of various parts of the world with a clear focus on learning and experience. I felt that there were certain regions around the world, whether they were linked to the Conservative Party or to communities in Britain with deep links to these regions, which we could learn more from and experience more from and understand better. And what better way to understand a community or a country than to get out there, get your hands dirty and work alongside real people-rather than having lots of formal meetings in the capitals of these respective countries?

As ‘Maja’ worked extremely well in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we thought of trying somewhere new, and so we went to Bangladesh–a country which Britain maintains deep historical, cultural and economic ties to.

Q: How was awareness created of ‘Maja’ within the Conservative Party?

A: The teams which went out to Bangladesh were led by parliamentarians who fronted up the four individual projects there. Tobias Ellwood MP, working with the British-based charity Islamic Relief, oversaw the restoration of a school, which was the biggest project of the trip; Nicky Morgan MP, along with the BRAC charity project–a Bangladeshi-based eye charity which works in countries ranging from Haiti to Uganda to Sri Lanka–led on the eye health project; Anne Main MP was the team leader on the sports project in conjunction with a charity called London Tigers, which works with youths of all backgrounds across London on cricket and football projects; and Andrew Stephenson MP was the team leader for the English teaching and English language training project. So MPs fronted up the projects and were responsible for publicising them. For example, Tobias sent out an email to MPs whom he thought would be interested in ‘Maja’–MPs who have shown an interest in Bangladesh or who have a significant Bangladeshi community in their constituencies or who have a general interest in overseas social action. This resulted in a quite a few parliamentarians, including Eric Ollerenshaw MP, accompanying us to Bangladesh as well as Syed Kamal MEP. As well as that, volunteers, professionals and councillors went out. In total, 35 people visited Bangladesh for the launch.

Q: What was the response of the British Bangladeshi community to ‘Maja’?
A: There was a huge response. The British Bangladeshi business community was the first to come on board and it provided most of the funds for the projects. The donors of ‘Maja’, however, were told to come out with us to Bangladesh and not simply to give money. This resulted in businessmen taking part in the activities in Bangladesh–they got their hands dirty there! We also had endorsement from the London Tigers which has a large British Bangladeshi volunteering network which we worked through. Furthermore, we partnered up with Channel S, which is a Bangladeshi-based television station catering for people in Britain of Bangladeshi origin, and every day they televised the activities of ‘Maja’. In addition to that, we also had a lot of newspapers from both Britain and Bangladesh covering ‘Maja’, such as the Jonomot, the Potrika, the Daily Dhaka, the Daily Sun and the Daily Metro.

There has been a two-way learning curve stemming from ‘Maja’: the British Bangladeshi community is now aware that British politicians are actively involved in overseas social action while the parliamentarians and volunteers who went out to Bangladesh have come back with a much broader, deeper understanding of the country.

Q Were you satisfied with the overall response of the Conservative Party to ‘Maja’?

A: Without a doubt, yes! ‘Maja’ is a major demonstration of our Party’s steadfast commitment to international development and I am immensely proud of this. The first social overseas aid project I got involved with was the Waves Network in 2005 and I introduced David Cameron to this before he gave his leadership speech, so it really goes to the roots of the new Conservative party that the Prime Minister has built. We focus on social action projects at every Conservative Party autumn conference and, indeed, throughout the year in constituencies. Then there is ‘Project Umubano’, a social action programme in Rwanda and Sierra Leone which has been running for four years now. We have social action activists and promoters throughout the voluntary party. Social action is very much part of the Conservative Party’s DNA.

Six years on from when I first mooted at conference the concept of forming social action groups, it has now become imbedded and ingrained in what the party does as a whole. And this is line with the party’s history of traditionally being a party of volunteering people-be it as governors or as members of parish councils, for instance. So I knew that social action was instinctively a Conservative practice. It was fertile ground and we sowed the seeds and it has produced a good crop.

Q: Can you describe what happened during the visit to Bangladesh: how long did you go for, where did you go, what did the projects entail and what was the reaction of politicians and ordinary people alike there?

A: The visit all in all lasted a week. We arrived in Dhaka, the capital, and from there travelled to Sylhet which was the main area where we worked in and where we spent our first three days (we chose Sylhet because this is where many of the 500,000 plus British Bangladeshis are originally from, having arrived in the UK from there in the 1970s and 1980s).

Under the supervision of Tobias Ellwood, and working in partnership with Islamic Relief, the Hazi Muhammed Shafiq High School, which has 400 students, was completely renovated. It went from being a skeleton of a building with no electricity, lighting, sports equipment, computers or adequate toilet facilities to a building which we are now proud to call a school.

Together with the eye charity BRAC, Nicky Morgan led the project to discover what needs to be done to improve eye health. This project also helped to fund numerous cataract operations. Anne Maine and London Tigers led the team which was supporting the development of sports, principally football and cricket, while Andrew Stephenson led a team to teach the English language to pupils in two primary schools.

Once we had opened up the projects, we headed back to Dhaka where we conducted political meetings. These were then followed by an epic cricket match against Bangladeshi parliamentarians…which we lost! I umpired the match and my team accused me of awarding too many “no balls” against us! But while we lost the match, we made lots of friends.

When we first arrived in Dhaka and Sylhet, the initial reaction of the locals was one of intrigue and curiosity-why on earth are these people here and working in the sweltering heat?! But we overcame any suspicion that it was a publicity stunt by working hours on end. Gradually, the locals began to join in with the work.

Bangladeshi politicians remarked to us that the projects they witnessed in action were something that they were going to replicate themselves as they had learnt so much from it. Subsequently, we have had a huge request from politicians there to come back and carry out work in their respective constituencies. And we are definitely going to go back. The British Bangladeshi community has been enthused, the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh has been enthused…so watch this space!

Q: How would you sum up the results of the launch of ‘Maja’?

A: We hopefully put something in which has made a lasting difference to people’s lives and we brought back something which will make a lasting difference to our lives.

Q: What does it mean to you to have established and spearheaded ‘Maja’?

A: I have always been involved in community groups and I know that volunteers always come back with a lot more than what they give. In the political world, volunteering and social action really is food for your soul. It keeps you connected, it gives you a huge amount of satisfaction, it allows you to see results very quickly and the way it brings people together is phenomenal. I would also like to say that the job of any government is to bring the community together and make it easier for people to work together. And this is what the Big Society is all about: allowing public services to be run by charities and voluntary organisations, allowing people to run their local post offices, for example. So the Conservative-led government is doing its bit in allowing programmes like ‘Maja’ to thrive, and the social action programme of the Conservative Party is a great example of the Big Society. The Big Society doesn’t have borders–it can encompass all parts of the world–and it represents what the new, compassionate Conservative Party is about.