About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Who benefits from aid to Rwanda?

Recently, the Daily Telegraph published a story quoting David Himbara saying that aid to Rwanda goes to Kagame. Really?

A visitor driving from Kanombe airport to downtown Kigali would be struck by the way post genocide Rwanda is shaping herself. The road is smooth to a fault – like in Dubai. The pedestrian sidewalks on either side are better than what you see in London or New York. The palmtrees that line the boulevards are as neat as those of Singapore or Paris. The public gardens – with their neatly mowed lawns and carefully manicured flowers – rival those in Brussels.

Public fountains work as those of Palo Alto. The bus stops are as good as what one finds in Zurich. The road markings and their flashlights are as crisp as those in Berlin. The digital traffic lights counting by the second rival those of Hong Kong. The streetlights are as bright as what I see in Amsterdam. The policemen and women on the streets are dressed in well-pressed uniforms with carefully polished boots – and they do not ask for bribes.

These physical observations are ordinary public goods maintained through the routine work of many cities in developed countries. However, anyone conversant with public infrastructure in cities in Africa, these attributes of Kigali are rare.

Nairobi and Kampala’s public gardens are overgrown bushes where they have not been turned into concrete; Accra and Lagos’ gardens are now makeshift markets where thieves and petty criminals hold sway; in Kinshasa, they often serve as garbage-dumps. Kigali’s infrastructure therefore hints at something that has eluded most of post independence Africa – effective social organisation. This has been Africa’s fundamental post independence failure.

What do I mean by social organisation? It is the ability to create systems and processes that work daily on mundane and routine tasks to consistently deliver a predetermined outcome. In short, social organisation is the art of institutionalising power; the opposite is personalising it.

It is the ability to build a state that enjoys a degree of autonomy from group and individual pressures, one that can ensure an impersonal application of public policy. It is the process of ensuring that political institutions and public policies embody a collective vision; individual public officials should not divert public funds for citizens’ healthcare or education to build a private mansion – and get away with it.

Rwanda is by every measure a very poor country compared to its neighbors. It is extremely poor in natural resources relative to Congo. It is decades behind Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in terms of inherited institutions and skills to run a modern bureaucratic state. It also lags behind these countries in terms of democratic capacity – the existence of political institutions and social forces to drive participation and contestation. It is only better than Burundi in GDP per capita.

Yet post genocide Rwanda has done many things some of which have eluded even the world’s largest economy, the USA. For example, it has almost 100 percent medical insurance cover for its citizens. Thus, even the poorest peasant in the remotest part of the country who needs it will be evacuated to India or South Africa for a kidney transplant.

Every so often, Rwanda’s neighbors – Tanzania, Uganda and Congo have received helicopters from Kigali flying unto their territory to evacuate Rwandans injured or killed whenever and wherever there has been an accident. Given that the people who travel by road are not the richest in a society (because the rich fly) and therefore with the least political influence or personal connections with those in power, this service to the citizen is unique.

In Rwanda, a malnourished child is not a mere statistic in a government report. Every malnourished child has a name, a family and an address. His/her mother gets milk and nutritional cereal daily for the child from the nearest government hospital. Whereas scholarships to study abroad in most of Africa are largely given on the basis of personal connections, it is only in Rwanda where they are given almost entirely on merit.

Thus, a daughter of the poorest peasant in Rwanda has almost an equal chance with the son of Rwanda’s powerful minister of defense, Gen. James Kabarebe, for a government scholarship to Harvard. In Rwanda unlike in most of Africa, you have government programs to build good quality housing for the poorest and remotest villagers.

These realities contradict the narrative orchestrated by human rights organisations to project President Paul Kagame and his government as bloodthirsty hounds out to terrorise the Rwandan people. Surely, would a government whose ruling elites spend most of their time trying to provide the best services to the ordinary citizen terrorise the same citizens? Kagame’s regime has many authoritarian tendencies but this does not make it a regime that unleashes arbitrary violence against its people or steals from them. That is why human rights advocacy on Rwanda loses meaning.

These realities in Rwanda also contradict the headline story by The Daily Telegraph that foreign aid given to the country goes to serve Kagame. The surprising thing was that The Daily Telegraph was quoting Kagame’s former Principle Private Secretary, David Himbara. While aid is often stolen in most recipient countries, in Rwanda, even the most biased donor will admit, aid has the highest rate of return per dollar spent.

One reason for this success has been Kagame’s authoritarian capacity to crack down heavily on elite corruption and privileges in defense of the right of ordinary people to get government service.

In Uganda, as in more democratic Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, etc. democratic compromise has been achieved at the price of allowing the impunity of elites to loot public resources. We must remember that in most of Africa, the democratic process tends to promote the power and privileges of elites who use a combination of corruption and ethnic or religious appeals to cultivate political constituencies.

So ordinary people have little or no voice in the democratic process. For example, they do not belong to civil society; they belong to “traditional society”. Instead of being rights-bearing members of political parties, they are clients of powerful individuals. The poor do not write in newspapers and speak on radio and television. Perhaps human-rights mongers need to reflect on these issues as well.

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