Rwanda Rising: A New Model of Economic Development (PART III)

The model for the agency is Singapore’s development board. In 2007, Kagame took a team to Singapore to study how the country turned itself from a regional trading post into a global business capital.

The model for the agency is Singapore’s development board. In 2007, Kagame took a team to Singapore to study how the country turned itself from a regional trading post into a global business capital.

But while there are parallels between the two, Singapore has advantages that Rwanda does not, from its outstanding education system to its geography to its fastidious reputation. (It annoys President Kagame that foreigners often don’t know that Rwanda, too, is tidy. At a speech in Boston last year, an American rose during the Q&A time and praised Kigali for being surprisingly safe and clean. Those in the audience recall that the president called the guy out. “What did you expect?” he said. “Did you expect us to be violent and dirty?”)

Then there’s the lingering taint of the genocide. “Rwanda’s biggest challenge is reputational. It’s associated with war. It’s seen as so poor that people think of it as a place to do charity.

The opportunities are there, but it hasn’t been taken seriously as a place to do business,” says economist Jean-Louis Warnholz of Oxford’s Center for the Study of African Economies. Commerce minister Nsanzabaganwa agrees:

“One of the development board’s priority projects is to devise an image-building strategy so that the genocide image is replaced by something else.” But this is tricky. Part of Rwanda’s appeal is the compelling story it can (very carefully) tell and sell: Come invest, and be a part of our amazing renaissance.

In the dozens of conversations I had with investors and donors, the genocide and Rwanda’s awe-inspiring recovery from it inevitably came to the fore -- and these supporters were unanimously thrilled to participate in the rebuilding of the country.

The words of RealNetworks’ Glaser, who has created internships at his company and given more than $6 million to build health centers in Rwanda, were typical: “If we can make this place a beacon of hope -- a place where just 15 years ago, an eighth of the country was murdered in the most brutal way possible -- then that hope should be possible anywhere.”

Asked about 1994 and Rwanda’s image, President Kagame responded, “We will not forget the genocide, but we will not be defined by it, either. Each year, we use the memory of the genocide to convene a national discussion, but then we use the discussion to talk about the future.”

Many Rwandans I spoke with expressed the wish that outsiders see the country through a lens other than that of 1994, but not one articulated just how they could or would make that happen.

Kigali,” one aid worker explained to me, “is Africa that Americans can handle.” There’s little crime. There are plenty of small, shabby houses with rusty corrugated-metal roofs, but the neat streets, many fringed with careful landscaping, are remarkably free of honking or traffic jams, at least by the standards of a developing country. Plastic bags don’t clog the drains -- the government banned them for environmental reasons -- nor do odors of street food compete with the mingled scents of frangipani and diesel, since hawkers were outlawed too. Several cafés offer free Wi-Fi. Downtown, there’s even a new 24-hour supermarket.
Bugesera, by contrast, is the Africa that most Americans expect. About 40 minutes’ drive south of Kigali, down a road paved two years ago, this dusty district has unreliable rains, scarce jobs, and enormous families. It was one of the areas hardest hit by the genocide -- nearly 10,000 people died in the Nyamata parish church alone. This is where you can find the sad-faced moms in African wax prints and American T-shirts holding wailing, malarial babies.

It’s places like Bugesera where Rwanda most needs the help of nongovernmental organizations. The country will never be prosperous if the countryside remains poor, but it’s not appealing for private investment.

“We have opportunities for investors, but we are facing big problems here. You can’t do anything when you don’t have health security,” says Berthilde Mukantwali, the top government official in Ngeruka, a slice of Bugesera on the Burundian border. She pauses and holds her head. “You have to excuse me. I have malaria.”

Later this year, construction will begin on a health center -- the first for Ngeruka’s 26,000 people. This is a pretty traditional NGO project: Foreigners provide where the government can’t, especially in the building and equipping of medical facilities and schools.

In Ngeruka, $500,000 in funding will come from singer Garth Brooks’s Teammates for Kids charity.

But Rwanda still does things differently. Its oversight of not-for-profits is tighter than in many other developing countries. In a modern spin on imihigo -- a traditional Rwandan concept in which two people or groups publicly pledge to work toward a stated task -- organizations must file annual action plans and reports, and they’re continually reminded to align their plans with the government’s. Failure to do so can mean expulsion.

“The government has taken on a very forceful role -- coordinating without bludgeoning,” Jessica Price, country director for U.S.-based Family Health International, says carefully.

Staci Leuschner, who heads local operations for the not-for-profit PSI, says the government “has been particularly encouraging of innovation,” especially health services.

Two years ago, for instance, PSI created new packaging for Coartem -- a drug cocktail from Novartis that is the most effective malaria treatment available -- with graphics that show even illiterate moms how to dose their infants and toddlers.

The government quickly agreed to test it, not in one district or two, but everywhere. The packaging helped spike the drug’s usage and cut the number of deaths from malaria. Novartis now plans a similar venture in Kenya.

To be continued tomorrow

 

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