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Two decades after one of the fastest and most brutal genocides in history, Rwandans are healthier and wealthier than ever before. Education is at an all-time high, corruption at a low and investors are flocking to the country. Despite this amazing progress in Rwanda, some experts are hesitant to call the country a total development success just yet.

The Rwandan genocide of the 90s shook the country to its core. The population, especially the Tutsi minority, is still dealing with the aftershocks of the violence. In particular, concepts like political competition and unregulated free speech are regarded warily at best. Many feel that allowing these would open a back door into the country for the génocidaires who fled Rwanda and have yet to repent. The memory of the genocide is fresh enough in many minds to keep the political discourse severely stilted.

Still, despite the hesitance Rwandan politics show in internal discussion, nobody could argue that Rwanda has trouble standing up for itself to aid providers. In 2011, 20 percent of gross national income was foreign aid, mostly aimed at the still significant portion of Rwanda’s population that lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Richard Manning, the former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s development assistance committee, says that’s no bad thing. “My thesis for a long time has been that no country will develop successfully unless it is prepared to say no to donors,” Manning said. “Just because you are dependent on aid doesn’t mean you have to have a dependent mentality. I think that’s the crucial thing. It’s very clear that 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.”

A major driving force behind Rwanda’s rapid progress is the current president, Paul Kagame. His ethnically Tutsi militia put a stop to the genocide of Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu majority in 1994. He established a democratic government while avoiding many of the pitfalls recovering democracies stumble into and he oversaw the trials of guilty parties mostly without creating new injustices.

However, Mr. Kagame is not perfect. Despite a decades-long career, he has not come up with a clear successor. Instead, he seems to have driven away or removed every candidate for office that is not him. He “won” his last election with 93 percent of the vote and will not be up for re-election until 2017. According to the constitution he helped draft, he is not eligible to run in the 2017 election, but his administration is already starting to make a path for the removal of term limits.

Rwanda’s recovery has made it a role model for other developing nations, especially those recovering from violent conflict. Unfortunately, it would be very easy to look at Rwanda’s experience and see that tight political control is a key part of development. At best, a less-than-capable leader could hold back a country’s development with this interpretation. At worst, it leads war-torn countries right back to where they started.

– Marina Middleton

Sources: USAID, African Economic Outlook, Forbes, The Guardian, The Economist 1, The Economist 2
Photo: Flickr