US envoy to focus on health, social devt during tenure

The Governments of Rwanda and the United States have had a long history of cooperation in a range of issues, from business to security matters. Last month, the US Government dispatched Erica J. Barks-Ruggles as its new ambassador to Rwanda.
Amb. Barks-Ruggles, during the interview with this newspaper at her office last week, cited health as the priority area during her tour of duty. (Doreen Umutesi)
Amb. Barks-Ruggles, during the interview with this newspaper at her office last week, cited health as the priority area during her tour of duty. (Doreen Umutesi)

The Governments of Rwanda and the United States have had a long history of cooperation in a range of issues, from business to security matters. Last month, the US Government dispatched Erica J. Barks-Ruggles as its new ambassador to Rwanda. The New Times’ Collins Mwai caught up with the envoy for an interview, during which she spoke about priority areas during her tour of duty, and a wide range of issues, including the threat posed by eastern DR Congo-based FDLR militia, a group comprised largely of remnants of people culpable for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.


What is your take on the current bilateral relations between the two countries?

We have an extremely strong relationship with Rwanda; a robust respectful relationship, which cuts across a huge number of important issues, both for bilateral relations and for the region. We have an extensive cooperation in economic development, health, education, good governance, peace and security.

In health and education, we have five US government agencies that are working on a programme with more than Rwf63 billion this year, together with international partners and the Ministry of Health, to continue to our efforts on malaria, HIV/Aids and further strengthening the Rwandan health system.

We have made some huge gains and progress; we had a few problems and learnt a few lessons in the process, particularly on malaria but, overall, the trend has been positive.

In economic development, we have a series of American investors in the private sector and also programmes in the public sector to assist with that. Part of it has been in agriculture which is at the heart of the Rwandan economy; this year we are spending Rwf2.3 billion on a programme called ‘Feed the Future’, which is an initiative to support improvements in food security as well as economic development of the agriculture sector.

We have programmes looking at value added products, transportation from farm to markets as well as helping farmers improve the quality of their products. We also have a programme that is looking at private sector investment, in the agriculture sector, this year alone, for instance, in the diary sector, we have created 6,000 jobs in the country.

‘Power Africa’ is another very important project; it is a $20-billion five-year project that was announced by President Barrack Obama on his last visit to Africa. Just in the last week, my first trip out of Kigali was to the Global Giga Watt solar project.

Amb. Barks-Ruggles.

Most of the partnership seems to be in the nature of government to government, do we have instances of private sector’s involvement in terms of investments?

We have Symbion Energy, which is signing a memorandum of understanding to invest in the methane gas project in Lake Kivu. We also have Land O’ Lakes dairy cooperative working with dairy cooperatives here to improve their products in terms of quality and also the time from the farm to the market place so that they do not lose much along the chain.

We are also working with a number of NGO’s in various efforts, for example, in the education sector; at Peace Corps we have 115 volunteers split evenly in education and healthcare. Our NGO sector has been very involved both as partners of the government and through their own involvement.

What are the areas that you plan on giving priority during your tour of duty?

I would say that near and dear to my heart, health is one of them, if people are not healthy, they cannot stay in school or work. Continuing our robust partnership, especially in HIV/Aids prevention and working on how we can get to an Aids-free generation in the future.

A nurse immunises a baby at Kacyiru Police Hospital. (Timothy Kisambira)

Malaria is another challenge, which is equally important. We have been working with the government to figure out what went wrong this last year with the malaria bed nets that were unfortunately substandard. We were able to help investigate what went wrong which will help them avoid this kind of thing in the future. Health is absolutely important for the future of the country and for the future of the world.

We all need good health and good education.

The economic development will be another focus. I want to make every effort I can to help every US investor – for those who are interested –get the (feasibility) studies done, for those who need them, as well as getting through the systems because I think private sector investment is absolutely critical to economic growth.

Regional security and good governance, you need strong democratic institutions with the accountability to people, that can tackle corruption and that work together on regional issues to have that security for the long term but we also need to address the short term insecurity issues and the FDLR issue is really important .

The other thing is looking at global issues that affect all of us, critical among which is climate change because it is affecting the whole planet and I think we need to work together to find solutions because none of us have the magic key.

Going by the support over the years, are you content with the administration and impacts of the assistance?

Rwanda has a very good track record of accountability and use of assistance in both local NGOs and the government. One of the things I want to do while I am here is to get out and see the rest of Rwanda. I want to go out and see the impacts for myself.

It is important for me to understand how our programmes are working by talking to Rwandans and seeing what we have been able to do and what they have also been able to achieve. Through this, we will learn where we need to make adjustments and where we need to bring in more support.

The US government established a reward for justice programme nearly a decade ago. Among the subjects are suspects of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Years later, we have key masterminds on the list like Felicien Kabuga still on the run…

Last year, Steve Rapp, who is our special envoy on war crimes, announced that we were changing slightly in splitting out the war crimes part from our global reward for justice programme, which is more focused on terrorism.

We needed a separate line for war crimes; we now have a war crimes rewards programme which offers rewards up to $5 million for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of war criminals. There are nine Rwandans who are on that ‘wanted’ list; three remain before the ICTR and six whose cases have been transferred to the Rwandan Government by the ICTR.

Those nine remain on our list and we will be happy to pay our rewards for information that leads to their arrest and conviction. We are working closely with the Ministry of Justice on those issues.

Amb. Barks-Ruggles.

The FDLR militia issue has now become a 20-year-old tale. The January 2 deadline lapsed more than a month ago but we are yet to see any efforts to flush out the group except for rhetorics. Your government has on several occasions called for neutralisation of the group, what should be the critical way forward?

The US Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Region Russ Feingold (who was recently touring the region), has really been working hard on the issue, he said during a media briefing in Kinshasa recently that eliminating FDLR is an important part of the unfinished business, it needs to be taken care of now.

We believe (military action against the FDLR) needs to start now, we believe that it needs to be coordinated by FARDC and Monusco forces. We have given our full support for that on the government’s promise that it is going to happen and we believe it needs to happen.

We have also said that once it starts, it has to be sustained and it needs to be comprehensive. Military action is the stand now as has been directed the Security Council and that is where we need to be.

We are going to keep pressing on this because we understand the continued instability in eastern DR Congo affects not only Congo, where it has huge effects on their economy and their ability to develop, but also on the region; Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. We believe we have an opportunity here as the international community to address this issue.

Still on FDLR, do you think that the recently established East African Standby Force would be better placed to deal with the militia group?

We would like to commend the regional effort to put this force in place a year ahead of schedule, which shows an incredible effort has been put in by the region and we recommend the whole region on this. We think it is an important initiative and effort.

It is up to the region to say where such a force will be deployed. We can see that there might be various places, whether in South Sudan, against Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in the future, but it is really up to the region working together with the African Union because that is how this was set up. For us, we view our role as how can we support.

What do you make of the ongoing regional integration efforts in the East African Community?

Speaking from our own experience, our two biggest trading partners according to most people are Europe and China. But the answer is Canada and Mexico, our closest neighbours who we share a border with. We have people and goods back and forth across the border.

The same can be true and should be true no matter where, including in this region. The more countries trade with each other, the more they exchange information, the more they work together on issues which brings them together and makes people understand that they are invested in each other which helps improve stability and peace.

I applaud regional integration efforts as we have seen how much they have done for our stability and economy and ability to provide better opportunity for our citizens.