African Agaciro (Dignity), Aid and Mindset

In the last few weeks much has been said in the media regarding aid suspension in Rwanda and Uganda. The reason given for the aid suspension for Rwanda is alleged support it is giving to the M23 rebel group that recently overran and occupied the town of Goma in eastern DRC.
Gerald Mpyisi
Gerald Mpyisi

In the last few weeks much has been said in the media regarding aid suspension in Rwanda and Uganda. The reason given for the aid suspension for Rwanda is alleged support it is giving to the M23 rebel group that recently overran and occupied the town of Goma in eastern DRC.

Since the announcement of the aid suspension by various bilateral and multilateral donors several articles have appeared in the local media reacting to the suspension. One article by Sunny Ntayombya published December 5 in The New Times read "Aid cuts: Now isn’t the time to panic”. And, in another, my friend pan Butamire put it this way - “As for Rwandans, they are ‘not for turning’, even when it means going through hell. Aid or no aid, they will sing. Even if they were to grow pin-thin, they will not be diverted from their course”. (See The New Times December 7, Rwandans will not be diverted from their course, hata wakonde...).

Diana’s article - “Aid Suspension – a Blessing in Disguise”, (The New Times December 6) was quite revealing.  Recently while briefing the members of parliament, the Minister of Finance, John Rwangombwa, told parliament - “The remaining RWF155 billion that might come or might not, is no cause for alarm at all. This only means that growth will slow down a bit. This requires us to use our money more efficiently.”   

Our neighbour to the north-east has been suffering the same fate. This is a quote from one of their daily papers. “The government will review this financial year’s budget to make adjustments in light of hundred-million dollar cuts in direct aid by the country’s development partners. Until yesterday, some government functionaries had been maintaining that the government would somehow manage even without the development partners’ financial support”. I have always wondered who coined the term “Development Partners”. A few years back I travelled to a European country as a guest of the YMCA and at every meeting I was introduced as “our partner” from Rwanda. For a long time I kept marveling what sort of partnership this was in which one is always the recipient and the other always the donor. I was later informed that the word “partner” was introduced by the donor because it sounded less condescending. It is no different in “Development Partners.”

It is a proven fact that in reality aid has not contributed to poverty reduction but rather has made the recipient even poorer. I belong to the category which advocates for removal of aid especially in its current form in which, in addition to being used to gain influence, is also used as a reward for good behavior. Aid is never given out of a benevolent desire to do good but to keep the recipient subservient. This is true in any situation involving a benefactor and a beneficiary. It is not very offensive to look at it in terms of Master and Servant. By the time Bingu wa Wamutharika of Malawi passed on, the donor community was engrossed in twisting his arms for daring to tell them to keep their aid if they did not accept to let Malawians decide on how the aid would be used. President Kagame has ingeniously referred to aid thus – “nobody owes us a living, this aid thing is nothing but a tranquilizer and nobody will make us independent except ourselves”.

In view of the well established fact that aid benefits the donor more than the recipient and ultimately only serves to make the recipient even more dependent, and considering the abundant literature available such as Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid”, and hundreds of political speeches by African leaders on how ineffective aid is, my question is: can we (Africans) afford to do without aid? Why have we failed to liberate ourselves from this bondage and instead get flustered when it is suspended? Are there any think tanks strategizing on how Africa can reduce its dependence on aid and hopefully see its (aid) ultimate demise? What would happen to us if all aid was cut today for good? To what extent can “Kwihesha Agaciro” be meaningful when most African countries still need aid to pay salaries?  I look forward to interesting and lively debate in the next few days on the various scenarios to address these questions - fodder for the regular tweeters.

A couple of weeks ago a prominent economist observed that it would be unwise and irresponsible for donors to suspend aid to Rwanda as this would contribute to increasing insecurity in the region which leads to instability, conflict and chaos. While I do not doubt that this could indeed be the case, it unfortunately underscores the fact that not only do we need aid for development but also for maintaining our own security. This year the African Union was supposed to hold its annual heads of state summit in Malawi but had to shift it to Addis Ababa because Malawi would not allow the presence of President Bashir because of his indictment by the ICC. President Joyce Banda reluctantly took this decision due to threats from the donor community to suspend aid. Sadly, these two cases seem to indicate a resignation to a state of perpetual reliance on aid, a scenario that is in contradiction with our desire as Africans to free ourselves from dependency on other peoples’ taxes.

Can African countries really do without aid? Of cause we can, and we must. Despite hardships Zimbabwe has not crumbled and it is not the only one whose aid has been frozen for years. I still find Zimbabweans a very proud and self-respecting people. However, this might be easier said than done and will demand an overhaul, a conversion, a paradigm shift of the African mindset and attitude.

A few years back I contributed an article in this same paper on the African’s propensity to acquire huge, luxurious and expensive everything, compelling us into living beyond our means. In that article I specifically pointed out the lavish, expensive and fuel guzzling 4x4 Land cruisers that African top politicians are driven in using public funds. A few months after my article appeared (I am sure it had nothing to do with it), most Rwandans were reassured and thankful when the President announced that no longer would the government continue to provide vehicles to government officials using public funds. This act was certainly a shift from the status quo and it resulted in savings of millions of dollars for more rational projects such as roads. Such a change is what will ultimately lead us to ‘Kwihesha Agaciro” or self dignity. Another strategy in this direction is the creation of the “Agaciro Fund” and going by the response from the public the goal to achieve aid-independence might be achieved sooner than la
ter.

Dignity starts with the individual before it becomes a national character. While it is the nation that will become aid-independent, the mindset shift, the transformation, must start with you and me. At the individual level we must learn to live within our means and stop aping western life styles. By the time an American owns a home such as those in some parts of Kigali he would have been a millionaire for years. I am always astonished by the number of very costly and luxurious vehicles on African roads. You should see the number of such vehicles parked outside the stadium when there is a public function. It is embarrassing. My daughters prefer the word vulgar. Many Africans lead life styles that are not very different from the rich in the West and yet we continue to beg for their aid. Imagine the amount of foreign currency the country would save if we decided to build apartments instead of family houses having three levels. Imagine the savings if all those Land cruisers, Benzes, BMWs, Audis and Range Rovers were to be replaced with the earlier model of Toyota RAV4 – a comfortable and economical car. The amount is staggering. Maintaining and sustaining life styles beyond our means is unattainable, absurd and outright ridiculous. The question is: Do we have the courage and moral fibre needed to reverse the status quo?

A nation builds reserves because citizens are working and saving. In China the State also works and saves. Perhaps that is why it will soon overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. At the national level, strategies to create jobs so that citizens can earn and save must be right at the top on the government’s development agenda. Businesses must be persuaded to pay taxes and in this regard more friendly tax collection methods should be devised to promote more businesses and build a stronger private sector.

Education is central in order to equip the next generations with the appropriate mindset to develop a culture and willpower that will lead them to economic independence. That kind of education should start now in our primary schools. The primary school syllabus should include teaching our children business concepts and the culture of saving and economic discipline. Our education system should be improved so that less and less of our young people have to seek education abroad. We should put more emphasis on producing highly qualified technicians and artisans. Public servants should be encouraged to think like an entrepreneur. In the public sector, a lot of money could be saved if employees understood and practiced great customer service concepts especially the concept of “TIME”. Speed seems to be an alien to us.

In many African countries as much as 60 per cent of the budget comes from direct aid support. It would be an insurmountable challenge to manage were this aid to be cut. However, I believe this is the time to start the debate and look at the various scenarios and available options on how dependence on aid can be reduced and eventually done away with.  Yes, it will hurt. Nothing good comes without toil and sweat. We should look far beyond our nose and plan for the future. For this to be achievable it must be driven from the top - leaders should walk the talk. The ultimate “Kwihesha Agaciro” is the day when we will be able to manage our affairs as a nation without having to depend on anyone’s aid.

The author is an IT expert, researcher and business leader based in Rwanda

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