Politicians too often have an opinion on everything, whilst being light on experience. The Conservative Party have a volunteering programme called Social Action which turns this truism on its head. I joined 35 volunteers, made up of MPs and activists, on a trip to Bangladesh, where we spent a week undertaking four projects in the Sylhet region that will have a significant effect on some of the poorest people in the world.I helped document the work of BRAC and Sightsavers, two inspirational organisations coming together with the ambitious target of eliminating avoidable blindness in the region by 2013. Our team, led by Nicky Morgan, MP for Loughborough, saw how BRAC were building a network of ‘Barefoot Doctors’, women who visited each house in a number of villages to offer advice on such medical matters as eye care and family planning. We saw the impressive number of cataract operations that were performed each day and the instant, positive effect that they had on the patients, allowing them to return to work and so provide for their families. It takes 5 minutes to restore someone’s sight through a cataract operation at a cost of just £27. We’ll continue to work with BRAC to raise the profile of their Vision Bangladesh programme. If you are able to help restore just one person’s sight, you can donate via the BRAC website. Andrew Stephenson MP took a team to a number of schools to teach English, sometimes in classes of 120 children. A calf nonchalantly walking into one of the classes mid-lesson, gave Andrew some material to speak to the children about. Anne Main MP helped to launch a cricket centre and conduct trials for a football team in Sylhet, all under the auspices of the London Tigers, a London-based charity which has grown from strength to strength since developing from a local football team who felt they could give opportunities to disadvantaged Bangladeshi children in London.
The keynote project was working with Islamic Relief on the total refurbishment of the Hazi Muhammed Shafiq High School in Sylhet. 400 children were trying to get an education with no electricity, no fans, no proper toilet facilities a leaking roof and four children sharing each desk. We’ve remedied this with a little money, generously donated by four successful Sylheti businessmen, and a lot of hard work. The response from the children was worth it alone.
So why do we do it? Shouldn’t politicians be chained to their office desks sorting out the deficit? Doesn’t charity begin at home? These questions are valid but fail to look at the wider picture. We’ve spent a small amount of time, making a huge difference to people who have nothing. We have a moral responsibility to help where we can. Such programmes have a knock-on effect in the UK as well. The city of Sylhet has a population of 463,000. The Sylheti population in the UK is around 300,000. There is a well-trodden path of migration between this region and the UK, especially Tower Hamlets in East London. Bangladeshis play an important role in the UK. The vast majority of ‘Indian’ restaurants in the UK are owned and staffed by Bangladeshis, specifically Sylhetis and the curry industry contributes some £3.5 billion to the UK economy. However, 10% of the GDP of Bangladesh is from remittances, Bangladeshis across the world sending money back to their families. We should welcome Bangladeshis to study and gain experience in the UK, but they should feel that a return to Bangladesh is a realistic and attractive prospect should they wish to do so. Investment and improvement in their own infrastructure, education and health care will help improve the life chances of Bangladeshi people.
We can manage immigration more effectively by not simply waiting to act when people arrive at our borders. Programmes such as this can help. Bangladeshis should not feel that they have to migrate to London to find opportunities for their families. It should be more appealing for people to stay and help develop their own country, something which would be beneficial for both their country and the UK.
The work on this trip went against the grain of handouts and dependency. A Sylheti Member of Parliament, himself educated in Britain, told us that what was needed most was expertise and support, rather than simply dipping into our pockets. In our small contribution, we have given a few people a hand-up and opportunity.
The amazing scenery, the warmth of the people and, yes, the curries, left a massive mark on the group and we would all go back, to a man. Beyond the projects, the earthquake which rocked the Sikkim region of India just one hundred miles away, shook our hotel, leaving one MP to attend an official dinner in her pyjamas. We finished the week with a cricket match against a team of Bangladeshi MPs shown live on TV. I was stumped off a wide first ball. Of course, this was being polite to my hosts. No taxpayers’ money was spent on this trip, nor Conservative party funds. Four generous UK-based donors made this all possible and they should serve as a great example of how to remain loyal to the country in which they live, whilst loving the country where they were born.