Introducing a new series exploring the international community’s relationship with Rwanda.

Mt. Sabyinyo, a dormant volcano in the Virunga mastif which stretches across three national borders: Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Danielle Allyn.
Mt. Sabyinyo, a dormant volcano in the Virunga mastif which stretches across three national borders: Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Danielle Allyn.

“It may seem strange to you here, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” – President Bill Clinton, Speech to Rwandan Genocide Survivors, Kigali International Airport, 1998.

Negligence. Guilt. President Clinton’s statement exposes the former and implies the latter. Much has been discussed regarding the failures of the global community to intervene in Rwanda’s 100 days of horror. Scholars continue to debate the efficacy of hypothetical interventions – military, political, economic or technological; unilateral or multilateral; preemptive or reactionary.

Prior to 1994, Rwanda was marginalized on the international stage. Coffee and tea do not warrant treaties, war powers resolutions, or economic sanctions: oil and firearms do. As decades-old oppressive systems transformed into a violence demanding attention, the world’s passive ignorance metastasized into active and criminal neglect. This was not innocent inaction; this was intentional and calculated ignorance.

Clinton’s implicit apology four years after the genocide hints at an opposite but equally corrosive facet of today’s relationship: guilt. In the years following 1994, foreign aid poured into Rwanda. The impact of donor support on the nation’s rapid recovery is undeniable. But remorse is not a sustainable motive for partnership. Guilt-ridden foreign policy clouds the impartiality of policy makers. It coerces purposeful inattention to President Kagame’s purported political suppression and allegations of cross-border war crimes. It inspires superficial rather than substantive collaboration. It facilitates benefactor rather than beneficiary-driven assistance. Such partnership undermines capacity building and encourages paternalism. It allows Rwanda’s tragedy to fade into the semi-conscious of global memory, ushering in a corresponding retreat in funding. For Rwandans, however, 1994 will not and should not fade.

An honest look at 2016 Rwanda requires addressing global criticisms. Indeed, critics often describe the country as a “donor darling,” referencing the 20% of gross national income drawn from foreign aid, which at nearly 115 USD per capita far surpasses that of any of its neighbors. Reliable aid flows do much to finance Rwanda’s remarkable progress in fields such as female empowerment, environmental sustainability, healthcare decentralization, and poverty reduction, as examined in this series. However, in the words of Richard Manning, former head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s development assistance committee, “Just because you are dependent on aid doesn’t mean you have to have a dependent mentality. The Rwandan government, whether you like it or not, has a very clear view on how Rwanda should develop, and it expects donors to fit into that.”

While donor funds fill persistent resource gaps in Rwanda’s development plan – Kagame aims to achieve middle-income status for Rwanda by 2020 – the government does not shy away from “no” if benefactor conditionalities compromise autonomy. Taking criticism into account, there remains much that the world can learn from Rwanda.

In fact, the international community should prioritize Rwanda. But not due to remorse or pseudo-altruism. Rwanda must be recognized for its importance in the context of a changing Africa and a changing global future. The country is a leader in:

  • Gender equity – 64% of Rwandan parliamentarians are female. The global average is 22.7%.
  • Health care – Rwanda provides universal health insurance through the Mutuelles de santé program, in which economically vulnerable patients benefit from a $0.35 co-pay.
  • Environmentally sustainable development – Rwanda hosts one of the only climate change research centers in East Africa, a partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rwanda’s Ministry of Education.
  • Poverty reduction – Between 2006-2011, Rwanda reported average annual growth of GDP of 8.4 percent. This growth largely benefitted poor Rwandans: poverty fell from 56.7 percent in 2006 to 44.9 percent in 2011.

Rwanda’s geographic location makes the nation an ideal gateway to both East and Central Africa. Its development has not only been rapid but mindful of social, economic, and environmental justice. Today’s Rwanda is wealthier, healthier, and more equitable; it is a Rwanda deserving of consideration absent the shadow of 1994. In this series, readers will encounter Rwanda’s remarkable rise as experienced by Rwandan men and women, themselves the architects of change and the foundation for a renegotiated relationship with the world at large. In the coming weeks, we will introduce Rwandan climatologists working in collaboration with the MINEDUC and MIT. We will speak with medical doctors and graduate students in public health system delivery. We will meet female research fellows and career women. We will deconstruct Rwanda’s progress, identify opportunities to capitalize on momentum, and explore challenges that remain. We will assess top-down progress as experienced by individuals in every sector of Rwandan society. Amidst controversy, Rwanda rises, as the world watches. We would do well to watch more closely.