Rwanda and other aid darlings
Efficiency versus freedom
Aug 5th 2010
THE differences between tiny Rwanda and the rest of Africa are immediately palpable even to the most casual visitor. The discarded plastic bottles and bags that pollute almost every other country on the continent are nowhere to be seen: the government has banned them. The tarred roads are usually in good shape; speed limits are actually enforced, by smart traffic police who fill out paperwork in exchange for a statutory fine rather than shaking you down for a bribe. Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, rates Rwanda as one of the more honest countries in Africa. The World Bank says it is the fastest-improving as a place to do business. Hotels in the capital, Kigali, brim with Westerners attending conferences. Paul Kagame (above), the president who has overseen all this, is a darling of the aid-giving world. Western governments and prominent religious leaders have hailed him as the sort of man in whom to put their faith—and money.
Considering that Rwanda witnessed one of the most appalling waves of barbarity in history just 16 years ago, when around 800,000 people were hacked to death in three months, the efficiency is extraordinary. So much has gone admirably right in terms of development. But a lot is going depressingly wrong in politics. Mr Kagame has become more ruthless and authoritarian. In the run-up to the election on August 9th the opposition has suffered grievously. So where should the balance between development and freedom lie? Can democracy be shoved aside in the battle against poverty? And what should outsiders do to tilt the balance back?
The dilemma is not exclusive to Rwanda. The West has long sought leaders, such as Mr Kagame, who can be relied on to spend aid money well. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and even, for a time, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo have been singled out for favoured treatment. Their countries have been graced with aid cash, debt forgiveness and political support. The West’s selective generosity has been prompted by various motives: guilt over past colonial wrongs; genuine altruism; and domestic self-interest that enabled left-of-centre parties to display their moral credentials abroad while reluctantly accepting the triumph of capitalism at home.
In Rwanda this has been taken to an extreme. Western guilt, which Mr Kagame has cleverly exploited, has been deeply felt. In 1994 the United States, the UN and Europe stood idly by as the genocide exploded. Since he took over a decade ago, Mr Kagame has happily presented himself as a development model for the whole continent, looking to Singapore rather than neighbouring Congo, a country far richer in resources whose people remain sunk in poverty as politicians feud and loot. In an effort to foster a sense of national unity and purpose, Mr Kagame has tried to abolish ethnic division between the Tutsi minority (to which he belongs) and the Hutu majority, whose members committed the genocide, by legislating their names out of the lexicon. Anyone challenging his “one Rwanda” policy, where Tutsis and Hutus no longer exist, can be jailed for “divisionism”.
The run-up to the election has been particularly ugly. The charge of divisionism has been used to swat criticism. Critical newspapers have been closed down, a reporter from one of them shot dead outside his home. Victoire Ingabire, head of an opposition party that has been barred from registering for the poll, has been charged with genocide denial and put under house arrest. Another opposition leader has been accused of terrorism. And the deputy head of a third party has been killed. The government denies involvement in all this and no solid evidence contradicts it (see article). But newspapers favouring Mr Kagame now describe his critics as “cockroaches” and “traitors”, the same insults that Hutu extremists used to egg on the massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
It mustn’t be either/or
Messrs Kagame, Meles and Museveni have all improved their countries’ lot. But election time invariably shows up the flaws in their model. All three leaders are growing more autocratic the longer they cling to office. The West has invested too much, financially and emotionally, in a select handful of charismatic aid darlings. Too often the aid lobbies have cheered them on, loth to acknowledge the flaws in people they need to prove that aid works. Too seldom has anybody promoted the more boring business of helping to build and reform institutions.
Withdrawing aid would be a blunt tool and, at any rate in the short run, would hamper the battle against poverty. But in the longer run, material development will suffer if authoritarian habits turn into tyranny. Those in the West who rightly praise Mr Kagame for his achievements in development must also loudly lambast him for his loathsome and needless tendency to intolerance.