When I heard that the United Kingdom had gone back on its pledge of channelling aid to Rwanda through the budget as general budget support, I was thrown back to the mid-1990s. Rwanda then was a darling of the West. All donor countries were falling over themselves, stuffing her with what went for aid.
The country was an object of pity, having just emerged out of a near-abyss. For that, they sought to appease their conscience.
Problem was, there was nothing to show for that aid, save for a multitude of humanitarian NGOs and their massive four-wheel-drives. Every part of Rwanda was teeming with swarms of these organisations and the monster vehicles, yet people lived in squalor. Hunger and disease stalked the land even as citizens trooped to the organisations for rations of food and medicine. The government and the organisations seemed to be locked in a tug of war, as the former struggled to wrest control of its citizens from the latter, while the country stagnated.
Kinyinya and Nyarutarama, both upmarket suburban estates of Kigali today, provided a good example.
To reach them, you had to navigate the backbreaking, rugged track that led to Kagugu, further north. Past Nyarutarama, to your right you reached a smooth tarmac road that incomprehensibly sprang from the track, leading to Kinyinya. In Kinyinya sat a fortified, exclusive enclosure that housed the Deutsche Welle relay station. The enclosure, with its short strip of tarmac road, was an island of luxury in an empty wilderness, totally detached from its surroundings.
On both sides of the rugged track and the smooth strip of a road that shot from it, haggard-looking citizens were bent over every day, cutting the tall savannah grass and shrubs that stubbornly resisted their feeble attempts. The hungry citizens were working for what was referred to as “food for work”.
This was not an isolated case. All over Rwanda citizens were working for food, doing work that neither benefitted them nor built their country in any other way. It was literally a hand-to-mouth existence. Clearly, the relationship with the donor community portended a future that would be bleak.
So, the government booted out all NGOs, leaving only a few that gave meaningful assistance. It needed assistance, yes, but only it knew what areas needed to be assisted. That’s how it came out strongly to campaign for general budget support from the donor countries. The campaign was long and drawn-out but eventually the donor community relented.
Once the government was in full charge of its own development, transparently showing the donors where every penny went, the country took off at a speed that confounded friend and foe. By the early 2000s, even the donors could not hide their amazement at the spectacular growth the country was registering. Today, that growth is becoming faster by the day, except for recent interruptions due to donor-fund revisions. Meanwhile, Rwandans have started to refer to donors as development partners, with intentions of wooing them for investment and finally doing away with their aid.
But a problem has been tugging at the heart strings of the donor community: the stubborn leadership of this country. Where every country that’s aid-dependent kowtows to the donors, Rwanda obstinately sticks to its independent spirit, forever unwilling to answer to their every fancy, as they’d wish. And, rather than break this independent spirit, partnership seems to enhance it.
When you see the gymnastics donors are involved in, therefore, you should know that they are looking for a process that will break that spirit.
The accusations of dictatorship and press-freedom suppression that have been with Rwanda since the late 1990s are in the service of this process. The UN accusations of genocide perpetration in DR Congo that failed to stick were an attempt at this. But the last chance came with the recent accusations of Rwanda’s involvement in DRC’s problems and they were seized upon even before they were confirmed.
Now donors have got an excuse to wriggle themselves out of that partnership commitment and it’s back to “food for work”. The UK says it will “provide cash grants or cash for work to the poorest” – while it knows not how to pick them. It will “supply textbooks and supplementary readers to primary and secondary school pupils” – discarded by their pupils, no doubt. It will “provide emergency relief to refugees” – as if that’s assistance to Rwanda. It will set up “child development centres”, “VSO support programmes”; it will this, it will that. All through NGOs. All blabbering baloney!
The government should put its foot down and reject a return of this “food for work”. Those fat NGO employees and their fat drives, those islands of luxury unconnected to the citizenry, can go find employment elsewhere.
Who would not, in the words of first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, “prefer freedom in poverty to opulence in slavery”?