Nick Maurice: As your readers will be aware, one of the central recommendations of the Brandt Report “North South – A Programme for Survival” which led in 1981 to the formation of the Marlborough Brandt Group was that “new partnerships” should be formed between North and South and it was on that basis that we set up the link with Gunjur thanks to the then high commissioner in London Abdoulie Bojang, recognising that we in Marlborough would have as much to learn from the people of Gunjur as they might have learn from us. Thus the partnership was primarily based on the exchange of people between our two communities. And for certain that mutual learning has been the case, although my suspicion is that on balance we in Marlborough have been the principle beneficiaries and as the majority of people from Marlborough say when they return from their first visit to Gunjur “my perception of the world and my life has been changed by that experience” and they have gone on to prove that by becoming involved in international work of many kinds.
Friends in Gunjur have often said to me that their visit to Marlborough has likewise changed their lives either through giving them the self confidence to challenge the status quo; or through specific training in a variety of skills, to gain vital employment; and in many cases giving them the opportunity to travel to and work in other countries whether the UK, USA or Scandinavia.
As people are aware, our whole exchange programme has come under threat owing to the much stricter immigration policy adopted, particularly by the present Government, and it is well nigh impossible for us to obtain visas for young friends from Gunjur to visit us in Marlborough. In the past two years we have had nine visa applications turned down. A number of factors have led to this tightening of the rules on immigration. One has been the influx to the UK of people from other Europeans countries as more countries join the EU and therefore have the right to travel anywhere within Europe. This has led to many people from Eastern Europe arriving on our shores and we have to accept that UK is becoming a very crowded island with a population of 63 million people. A second reason is that it is well known that there are many illegal immigrants living in UK, not least from Africa and unless an individual from Africa can show that he or she has good reason to return to their country of origin they will not be trusted by the authorities to return at the end of their stay. We had a very unfortunate incident some years ago when four visitors to Marlborough “disappeared” and that is on the Government records and is referred to when we appeal against the refusal of visas for friends from Gunjur.
The UK border Agency has been reluctant to issue visas to people from Gunjur you invited as part of the exchange of people. How big an obstacle is this to the pursuit of the goals of the link and what are you doing about it?
So the link is on a different footing now with a one way stream of visitors from Marlborough to Gunjur and we bitterly regret that. It undermines everything that we have stood for in terms of mutuality and reciprocity within the relationship. We are in correspondence with our MP Claire Perry who of course visited Gunjur in January 2013 and understands very clearly what we have been striving to do in terms of developing relationships between people from different cultures and faiths and understands the problem we are now facing. She has referred the problem to the Minister for Immigration and we are waiting for his response.
Wearing a different hat, as the founder of the coalition BUILD (Building Understanding through International Links for Development), we have recently conducted a three year consultation with representatives of the African diaspora in different parts of the UK and it is clear that many people feel that they are confronting more racism and Islamophobia in the UK now than was the case 5-10 years ago. This only reinforces the need for more links such as ours to combat the ignorance that many people in the UK have towards people from other countries and faiths. But it also suggests that Governments may be reflecting the attitudes of their voting public and that taking a more liberal attitude, recognising the vital contribution that the diaspora make to our lives here as well as recognising the vital role that cultural exchange such as ours can play, is extremely unlikely at the present time. This change and others within the link have meant a change of focus. Whereas in the past the visits of young people from Marlborough to Gunjur have been an opportunity for them to “get their hands dirty” on a project by working alongside young Gunjurians usually on a building project, but always and essentially living with local families so that they become immersed in a different culture and faith and develop very strong and long lasting bonds of friendship, now we are focusing more formally on the enormous educational potential that Gunjur has to offer our young people. In the formal curriculum for the International Baccalaureate, students have to undertake some action or creativity or service and they have to write an extended essay. Gunjur provides so many opportunities whether it be undertaking a radio programme with Janneh Koto FM, working on the disability programme or studying the role of Islam in Gunjur or the impact of climate change…..I could go on!
The project implementation body of the link Tarud is only a shadow of its former self compared to what it was doing in the late ’90s and I stand to be corrected. The general perception is that it has lost its vibrancy. How would you respond to this and what are you doing to make it more responsive to the developmental needs of both communities?
As for our relationship with Tarud this has changed also. You are right that there have been changes within TARUD and one of the disappointing features has been that many highly skilled people who have worked for TARUD in the past have gone abroad and that is still happening. This of course reflects a wider problem in The Gambia and throughout Africa of skilled and educated people seeking “a better life” elsewhere for perfectly understandable reasons. And of course those people continue to make a massive contribution to development back home through the sending of remittances to their families. An area that we want to discuss with the Gambian diaspora in the UK is how we can collaborate to be more strategic in our support for development in Gunjur and The Gambia.
Another issue is always getting the balance right between support for development and the problem of dependency. It is relatively easy to find financial support for projects whether it be pre-school education, water and sanitation, women’s livelihoods or health education, but the issue of sustainablity has to be at the heart of this support. Gunjur and The Gambia ultimately can and have to “stand on their own feet”. There is no question that aid can do a lot of harm unless it is properly owned by the people for whom it is destined, properly targetted and sustainability is written in to the aid programme. TARUD cannot eternally to be dependant on MBG for support, and we have had discussions about the potential for employing a fundraiser who can seek sources of funding within the Gambia. One potential area is through approaching private businesses, whether tourism, IT, banks or telecommunications who may have corporate social responsibility programmes and understand the need to be supporting development projects in The Gambia.
A problem that we often face is getting the balance right between proactitivity as opposed to reactivity. The reality is often that when we from Marlborough come to Gunjur we can see areas where development is very much required and if we are not careful can be seen to be imposing our ideas on where the focus should be. Whereas, ideally it should be TARUD at the heart of promoting a development programme in consultation with the wider Gunjur community and in particular the poorest minority members of the community, developing a strategy, working up a proposal and presenting it to us for consideration. A case in point is the work we are currently doing considering how we can combat the problem of unemployment amongst young men in Gunjur by seeking the potential entrepreneurs in the community who with a little bit of financial support could start up successful businesses, employing others and bringing wealth to the community. The reality is that this idea came from the Marlborough end although we are delighted that already a lot of work has been done by colleagues in Gunjur developing a strategy for dealing with the issue.
You have served as director of BUILD for nine years. What did you do in all that while to promote links like the one Gunjur has had with your community elsewhere and how successful has the endeavor been?
BUILD is a coalition of agencies all signed up to a dream. The dream is that nobody in the UK in the UK should escape life without being touchd at some point by a partnership with a community in the Global South, whether that be through a school partnership, town (like Marlborough Gunjur), hospital, local authority, Church, Mosque, football Club, musical band etc.
We have worked very closely through an All Party Parliamentary Group “Connecting Communities” which has given us access to senior Ministers as a result of which the previous Labour Government put considerable funding into school, hospital and community partnerships. We believe that there are now some 4000 schools in the UK that have partnerships with schools in Africa and Asia, 125 hospitals that have similar partnerships and approximately 350 towns that have partner towns in Africa.
But our other achievement was the production of our Toolkit for Linking launched for us in 2007 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu which clearly sets out the principles and practice of forming partnerships and how these partnerships can be formed and sustained.
More recently we have been working with African diaspora organisations in six centres around the UK looking at how we can build on the links that they have with their home communities to involve the wider community. So if you are a Malawian nurse working in a hospital in the UK could you develop a link between the hospital here and a hospital in Lilongwe? If you are a Gambian teacher in Bristol could you develop a link between your Bristol school and a school in your home community of Serrekunda? That was the plan.
When it came to meeting these people around the UK they told us that they had a different agenda which was about feeling remote from the UK Government. That there was little appreciation of the contribution that they are making to society in the UK or to development in their countries of origin, not least through remittances. We are rising to that challenge and exploring ways in which we can get the African diaspora more closely involved with the Department for International Development and with the All Party Parliamentary Groups that are concerned with Africa.
Finally, what do you see the Gunjur Marlborough link doing in, say, twenty years?
Where will the Marlborough Gunjur link be in 20 years time? Who knows? It will be a different world again and of course the changes that have taken place since we began 30 years ago have been phenomenal. But of one thing I am clear. We shall have left a lasting legacy through the many hundreds of people who have been involved in, worked for and have benefited from the strong partnership between our two communities.]]>