By Michael Fairbanks
My friend Jane Lichtenstein, an advisor to several African governments, and I had a long discussion over lunch recently about working in Africa, and the difficulties in comprehending what is happening and why. We agreed that in most parts of Africa, one might never understand what is going on. Then Jane said, “In Rwanda it is easy, believe what you see.”
The Economist magazine recently ranked Rwanda, together with China, as one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world over the last decade. The World Economic Forum ranked it as the fourth most competitive place to do business in Africa. And the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey, perhaps the most anticipated index in the world for emerging economies, crowned Rwanda as the top reformer over the last two years.
But Rwanda remains a paradox to many. In fact, almost everyone is mystified as to how a country with a bad location amidst poor regional infrastructure, brand new institutions, low numbers of skilled workers, and few natural resources can grow at all.
So many resort to unsubstantiated attributions of a Maoist cabal of the ethnic minority stealing minerals from neighbors, large aid dependency fueled by Western guilt, weirdly varying accounts of the level of remittances, and smug speculation that President Kagame will never step down when his term is up in 2017.
These are lazy thinkers, what the Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda calls, “the one hour a week intellectuals” who fly in for their newspapers, don’t speak the local languages, and interview the shrillest and most grave observers of Africa.
There were 60 events during the campaign that led up to last August’s Rwandan national election where over 100,000 people attended, and several that topped 200,000. One European journalist said to me, “You know Kagame pays all these people to show up.” I asked, “How much does he have to pay them to arrive at 4:00 am, to get them to wear his image on their shirts and dresses, and to dance and sing all the way home?” The journalist responded, “Well, they get paid in the Congo.”
Many journalists subscribe to a paradigm that is easy to sell to their editors, many of whom have never been to Africa: The continent is trapped by its history; and all African leaders are part of a collage of deceit, violence, and power mongering.
The truth is that Rwanda has done scores of things a little bit better than their neighbors. The accumulation of real improvement in many categories has created a large effect. These anomalies to the Western editorial line on Africa should not be swept blithely under the rug; they need to be revered, comprehended and explored. They may be a sign that Africa is not Africa anymore, but a series of states varying widely in honesty, innovation and dedication to democracy. The new editorial line is this: some in Africa refuse to be trapped by history, or lazy, Western attributions.
Five Rwandan Anomalies
- Progressive values: 56% of the Parliament is women, which leads the world. Other key posts include the Ministers of Development, Gender, Health, and Justice; the Chief Operating Officer of the Rwanda Development Board; and the Founder of the National Airline. (See The Daedalus Experiment’s unedited interview with Rwandan Minister Aloisea Inyumba for an inside look at the role of women in Rwanda’s development.)
- Fiscal and monetary competence: While world growth has been revised down to 4.3%, Rwanda’s growth has just been revised up to 8.5%; remittances, foreign investment, and aid flows are increasing. Inflation, which is driven by rising global energy and food costs is, by far, the lowest in the region. Rwanda now exports food and overall food security is the best in East Africa. The liquidity and capital sufficiency of the banking system continues to improve. Regional trade is increasing. The exchange rate is stable and government has coordinated policy measures (including lowering taxes and transportation costs and improving agricultural information to producers) to mitigate global supply shocks. Tax collection (14% of GDP) continues to improve and regional policies are being harmonized. There will be a new stock index next year and a Diaspora Bond to meet the demand of a new class of investors in the nation. The Rwandan Life Sciences Fund will be launched soon to allow average people to invest in new technologies.
- Integration with the world: There is good broadband infrastructure in place, the best in the region by far. The number of Rwanda users to Facebook doubles every month. 73% are between the ages of 18 and 34. The President is warmly embraced by the young people and is known as “the Twitterer and Chief.” (See my attached article on the Rwandan twenty-somethings.)
- Trust: According to the Gallup Organization, 95% of Rwandans are confident in their national government, placing the country fourth highest in the world. 77% of people are satisfied with their freedom of expression, belief, association, and personal autonomy. 73% of the population considers their local area to be a good place for ethnic and racial minorities. 30% of respondents to the 2009 survey expressed trust in others, placing Rwanda in the top 30 countries in the world. 91% approve of the country’s efforts to preserve the environment. Confidence in the military and the judiciary is high with approval ratings of 98% and 84%. 86% of Rwandans believe the electoral process to be fair and honest which also reflects confidence in state institutions. 93% of citizens agree that hard work allows people to get ahead.
- Traditional values: Rwanda has an explicit strategy of building modern institutions on traditional values. Gacaca was the homegrown solution that tried 1.5 million perpetrators of the Genocide. Based on the village system of peer justice, it cost a few million dollars. The National University of Rwanda found that 95% of the survivors and even 80% of the detainees viewed the system as more efficient than any other form of justice. 81% of the victims and 48% of the detainees had confidence in the integrity of the system. Umuganda requires each citizen, including the President, to clean the street in front of their home, and remove brush from waterways, on the first Saturday of each month. Visiting heads of state who happen to visit on that day have engaged in the practice also. Imihigo is the performance contract that government officials make to one another. Fifty mayors were changed last year when they did not meet their commitments to their people. Ubudehe requires that 30% of the national budget is pushed down to the local level where decision makers are held accountable by local constituents. The program won the United Nations Public Service Award. (For a more comprehensive list of Rwandan policy innovations, click here).
The most inefficient politician in the world
The Rwandan story is complex, one of values, attitudes, goals, and beliefs. The Rwandans believe in competition, are optimistic about the future, self-reliant, sober, detail-oriented, self-disciplined, and what I would call “group determined.” These arise from a series of cultural factors having to do with such things as location, colonial status, ethnic identity, conflict, refugee status, military culture and crisis. [Please see my interview in this issue with Minister Inyumba.]
Journalist Mwenda, who enjoys an Africa–wide audience for his iconoclastic views, as well as Fellowships at Stanford, Yale and the Ugandan prison system, calls Paul Kagame “the most inefficient politician in the world.” He says, “Kagame focuses on sidewalks for the poor, rural health clinics, and the One Cow Per Family program, which instantly enriched the rural poor.” I asked him, what is the one message I should tell about Rwanda? He responds, “Tell Americans, Rwanda has a government that cares for its people.”
I have learned a few things that, after thirty years of working on the continent, I never saw in any other African nation: the urban elite have no more access to government-sponsored foreign college scholarships for their children than the poor. The president has provided army helicopters and government airplanes to take dangerously ill rural children for care in India and Europe.
Three million people have returned to live and work in Rwanda, and even if they were perpetrators of the Genocide, once they confessed their crimes, their land and houses were returned to them. Sixty-five percent of the Rwandan army, including important leaders, were Hutu that invaded the Congo in 1996 to prevent the Hutu Power people, under the protection of the UN Peace Keeping forces, from reorganizing to invade Rwanda. (The army is now thought to be 85% Hutu, even though ethnic identity is no longer recorded. 70% of the Cabinet through most of the last ten years, including the prime minister, was Hutu.)
There were six armies in the region at the time from Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Congo and Rwanda. A very senior Western intelligence official told me that “everyone misbehaved,” but the Rwandan army was “by far the most disciplined,” and that they “stayed in the forests and rural areas while most of the crimes against humanity occurred in the cities.” And then he added, “There is zero forensic evidence that allows us to understand what really happened.”
These are critical facts that need to be verified by academics and the branded press because it may help to refute the attributions of “reverse genocide.” [Please see my book review in this issue.]
My personal duty
A former European ambassador to Rwanda told me, “If reverse genocide is seen as morally equivalent to the 1994 genocide, it lets the old guard of the United Nations, the French, and the activists and journalists, who were directly or indirectly complicit, off the hook.” He added, “If they can tell that story, it then becomes just another tribal war in Africa, a fight between savages that they had nothing to do with.”
Not long ago, I visited Paul Kagame in his suite at a New York City hotel. He was preparing to be one of five presidents in the world to speak out on environmental concerns and assume chairmanship of the Millennium Goals Project. I sat there alone with him and asked him how he managed to work so hard on behalf of all Rwandans, to grow the country, provide free education and health care to all citizens, and to somehow lower the percent of foreign aid as percent of the government budget, while some continued to criticize him. He said, “I consider it my personal duty.”
I asked him why he doesn’t come out and refute the awful things that some of the French, the Hutu Power people, or the journalists who spend time with them say. He said, “Because if we do the hard work, then people will know.”
I think the real answer is that Paul Kagame sees calling attention to these facts that should be further explored, or refuting the calls of those who fostered the Genocide, as beneath his dignity. But it’s not beneath mine.
Rwanda is a country that lazy thinkers won’t understand; where Western activists, jaded by their experiences elsewhere, are flummoxed by positive results. It is not a perfect place, no country is. Rwanda must continue to build levels of leadership. It must diversify and upgrade its export base; continue to raise the tax contribution to its GDP; encourage the banks to be more innovative in lending and products; build more hospitals; and find ways to integrate its poorest citizens into global networks of industry, trade and learning.
But no poor country has ever achieved such good results, so fast; results that are easy to see, and hard to believe.
Rwanda: Can We Believe What We See?
Rwanda has grown at 8% each year for almost a decade. Women make up 56% of Parliament. Some say this is the bellwether nation of Africa and that its leadership is ethical and disciplined. Others say Rwanda is responsible for the problems in eastern Congo and suppressed the opposition in last year’s election. How are we to reconcile these varied positions? We shed new light on the debate, and some of the secrets behind Rwandan economic growth.
We invited teachers, young professionals, tourists and a few expatriates who are dedicating their lives to the country to write about their experiences. We did not ask those who haven’t lived or worked there for a period of several years, or traveled there in the last few months. We did NOT invite the government, party members, anyone from the opposition, or for that matter, any professional politician to write. They already have access to the media and their positions are staked out. Our goal is to uncover the informed, moderate heart of Rwanda, the country the majority of people experience.
Thank you for reading this. Please don’t miss the interview with Minister Aloisea Inyumba Historians may one day review this interview for insight into modern day Rwanda. We know you will comment, and tell us what we could have done better.
– The publishers: Michael Fairbanks and Elizabeth Hooper
Sometimes I get confused, too. The debate concerning Rwanda is heated, and there seems to be a lack of clear data on why the economy works, to the role of women, the astounding voter turnout, and the war in the Congo. In this article, I request the branded international press and leading members of the professoriate to look into some new issues. Most of the academics are policy people, interested in normative work not deeper levels of the truth; the press seems only able to sell visions of the continent, both positive and negative, that are sensational, obsolete and misleading. Maybe they don’t have the resources to cover things right. I know they don’t speak the local languages or even live in Kigali. So, much of their writing looks like warmed over porridge. I present to them some questions that bother me, and some rocks to turn over.
 Michael Fairbanks is a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, and the author of Harvard Business School’s, “Plowing the Sea, Nurturing the Hidden Sources of Growth in the Developing World.” He was a paid consultant to over thirty nations and the government of Rwanda until five years ago, and is now a member of the President’s Advisory Council, a group of volunteers from around the world that provide advice to the broad leadership of Rwanda.
 Minister Aloisea Inyumba is a very modest person, and difficult to get on the record. She personifies many of the traits of the leaders of Rwanda: reticent to speak about herself and too busy building the future to write down the past. This interview will interest anyone who cares about the modern history of Rwanda, and the role women played in the war and building the nation. It is completely unedited.