In 1990 Rwanda was, if not the poorest, one of the poorest countries in the world. The regime in power had managed to ‘allow’ systematic moments of ethnic cleansing against the Tutsi population.
This had seen a huge number of people living as refugees around the world.
During the period just before and after independence, Rwanda’s government failed to manage population growth and the population exploded from 1.6 million to 7.1 million.
From independence in 1962 until 1994, just fewer than 2,000 students graduated from any form of university education in Rwanda.
The political and economic reality of Rwanda even before the Genocide was dire. The movement of goods and labour were severely curtailed and a bloated bureaucracy kept the business power in the hands of a small minority close to power.
In October 1990, the Rwandan economy was in disarray and the government had to ask for assistance in the form of Structural Adjustment from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
According to James Tyner, a historical writer, by 1992 the government had used some of these funds to import 85 tons of munitions and 581,000 machetes.
The justification given by the government was that they needed to protect themselves from foreign aggression. Perhaps the world’s poorest country suddenly became Africa’s third largest importer of weapons.
To say the economy was in shambles, that the political structure was predatory, and that the future looked bleak, would be very kind assessment. Then there was the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994.
Over the course of 100 days, a government-trained militia murdered one million people. The world stood watch as the fastest killing machine since the atomic bomb destroyed all economic activity using the most rudimentary weapon; the machete.
After the Genocide
By the time the Rwanda Patriotic Front took control of the country, and thus ended the Genocide, they could have been forgiven for regretting their victory.
Going from one of the world’s poorest countries to then having, for all intents and purposes, no economy for 100 days and losing over 10% of your human capital is beyond devastating.
The new coalition government led by the RPF, put security and regional stability at the forefront of its reconstruction agenda. But, perhaps the biggest three determinants of the development that Rwanda sees today were theoretical approaches adopted by the leadership.
The first was the government decided that each franc spent would be spent wisely; this was done through high accountability by leaders, transparency, and emphasis on efficiency.
Next there was a strong removal of the preceding fiefdom government.
The high turnover of government officials, but with a constant positive result with regard to development, shows that no individual is above the institution that they lead.
The last theoretical approach flew in the face of many economists’ argument. The government argued that, contrary to fears that overpopulation was the worry, the people were the primary asset that Rwanda had.
Over the course of the last 20 years, the government has increased access to education (most importantly for both genders) and increased health care coverage.
Today, according to the World Bank, primary school enrolment is at 98.75% with 52% of those being girls. Rwanda’s Mutuelle de Santé, a public health insurance scheme, covers over 90% of the population.
What does this mean?
Ambition has become the name of the game for Rwanda and so far, it has worked wonders. From 2008 to 2012, Rwanda lowered the poverty rate (12%) and the economic growth averages (8.2%).
The newly launched Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy 2, looks to increase economic growth to a 11.5% average and reduce poverty by 15% to under 30% overall.
While Rwanda last year was the 9th fastest growing economy on earth, there is still much that needs to be done. The 2017 goal of reducing poverty to less than 30% is ambitious.
Diversifying economic activity away from agriculture is difficult and increasing integration with regional parties requires the participation of all.
That being said, as Rwanda begins to commemorate the Genocide during the next few difficult months, one must consider a child born in 1994. They were born to a country that was decimated and destined for failed state status.
Had the country simply returned the level of economic status quo that preceded the Genocide, they would likely have been malnourished, undereducated, and discriminated against due to gender and/or ethnicity.
Today that child sees a different Rwanda. They see a country where they can prosper and excel if they try hard enough.
The writer is a Rwandan economist based in Copenhagen