Recently, the United Nations pledged $400 million to Rwanda to be paid out over the next five years. The announcement was happy news to a country that still has fresh emotional wounds from the 1990’s genocide from which it has yet to fully recover. This is the greatest nod from the international community that the country has received since earlier this year when it was awarded a seat on the UN Security Council.
Rwanda depends on external aid for 40% of the budget, but for years the nation’s GDP has been at 7%, slowing to 5.9% only in the first quarter of the year. Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s ultimate goal is to rely less on aid, and more on investment. Author Stephen Kinzer says that Kagame’s objective was to “have a country that really works, everybody speaks English, the Internet is super fast, the airport is totally free of corruption… then lure to Rwanda all the companies and economic interests that are working in this entire region.”
Many have spoken out against the nation’s president for human rights violations, including silencing political opposition and deaths attributed to Rwandan-backed rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. However, many are also lauding him for the way he is running his country economically. Vowing to make Rwanda a middle-income country by 2020, Kagame has boosted the nation’s coffee, tea, and tourism industries dramatically.
Harvard University Professor Michael Porter is convinced that Rwanda is playing to its strengths by focusing on these areas. Natural resources are scarce there, but volcanic soils in high altitude are rich in nutrients and allow for abundant coffee and tea production, and the country’s rich biodiversity has opened up a great market for eco-tourism (for instance, Rwanda is one of the few safe places in the world to view mountain gorillas in their natural habitat). According to a statement issued by the Rwandan government on Thursday, approximately $124 million from the UN will be put towards economic and “governance” projects, bolstering these industries even more.
Much of that will also go toward increasing Rwanda’s energy capacity. Kagame wants his people to be ready to meet whatever demand for labor that may come with such a change. In an interview with Justin Fox, he said, “We keep sending our people to institutions of higher learning in the sciences, engineering, and management. It’s the focus because we want our people to understand how the new world works.”
But most Rwandans remain poor farmers living in subsistent conditions, and the lofty goals of 2020 cannot come soon enough for them. Luckily, the other $276 million from the UN will be spent solely on development in order to strengthen the health, education, and nutrition of the people. With memories still marred by a violent history, this country’s problems won’t disappear overnight, but progress is a principal priority of the people and the current administration alike. Speaking about Rwandan’s newfound awareness of their interdependence in the interview with Fox, Kagame says, “Yes, we need each other. We are more similar than different. It helps the society to move forward.”
– Samantha Mauney