As I touch down in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, I am not sure what to expect. My flight has been smooth and incident-free, and the airport is as anonymously modern as any international airport. But it is hard to arrive in Rwanda without thoughts of the 1994 genocide of 1m people.
I have come to Rwanda at the invitation of President Paul Kagame, whose aides had seen an account of a Lunch with the FT that I had had a month or so ago in London with William Wallis, the paper’s Africa editor. Over lunch at Angela Hartnett’s chic new Italian restaurant we had discussed the World Bank (where I worked for a couple of years) and Dead Aid, a book I have just written arguing against dependence on foreign aid and offering alternative ways to finance development. Now I am here in Kigali to address senior cabinet officials and other leading Rwandans.
Irene, a young presidential aide, meets me at the airport, and within minutes we are in an air-conditioned official car hurtling down one of many lusciously green hills surrounding Kigali – Rwanda is, I am told by everyone I meet, known as the land of 1,000 hills.
The city of Kigali, home to about a million people, is itself strikingly green and clean. I was born in Lusaka, Zambia, live in London and have lived in numerous cities across the United States, apart from travelling extensively, but Kigali still comes as a jolt to my sensibilities. The country has a stringent anti-plastic bag policy and on one Saturday every month Rwandans get together to pick up litter and spruce up their surroundings.
In the evening at the Novotel, I address a meeting, hosted by the country’s prime minister, of 200 eminent Rwandans about some of the ideas from my book about how to develop long-term sustainable growth independent of foreign aid. I am told by more than one guest, “You are preaching to the converted” – an interesting choice of words, incidentally, in this highly religious country (about 95 per cent of Rwandans are said to be practising Christians).
It turns out that the president and his government are about to go on a week-long retreat to a town in western Rwanda to discuss the country’s development strategy, and a key item on the agenda will be how to wean the country off aid.
Following Kagame’s lead, Rwanda is already obsessed with turning the “no-aid” development theory into a reality. This is not to say that the country does not use aid, nor that all of the country’s aid programmes have been wholly ineffective (some argue that the country has managed to eradicate malaria using aid programmes). But the fact that Rwanda’s leadership is actively making strides away from aid dependency is a clear acknowledgement that they feel, as I do, that engagement with the markets is the proper way to deliver long-term growth and to reduce poverty.
Women feature prominently across the political spectrum in Rwanda: more than half the members of parliament are women, as are the chief justice, the speaker of parliament, and 40 per cent of the cabinet. One of my hosts suggests this is largely a legacy of the genocide, as many men were killed and families disbanded. Women frequently took charge of the homes and have been – and are – central to rebuilding the country.
Yet another woman from the president’s office accompanies me to the Gisozi genocide memorial, a 15-minute drive from the centre of Kigali. It is a beautiful garden, where the remains of as many as 300,000 victims (many of them unidentified children) have been laid to rest.
As we leave the centre, we stop to look at a video in which a Rwandan survivor is saying, and I paraphrase, how he wishes “the global community would just learn to keep its word on the promises it makes”.
The highlight of my trip comes, on Valentine’s Day, at the official residence where I meet President Kagame, the key architect of the country’s rebuilding since 1994. He turns out to be chatty, opinionated, thoughtful and charismatic. I’d been told that he works all hours of the day and is the mastermind behind “Team Rwanda”, the exercise to bring the country back from the brink of what could have been a permanent disaster. At the core of the strategy is a mix of nation-building and political savvy – Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, for example, comes from an opposition party.
Challenges remain. The country remains desperately poor (per capita income is less than US$1,000). Which is why it is even more puzzling that an economy whose budget is at least 70 per cent dependent on foreign aid would dare to work towards less help.
What, I ask, infuriates the president about aid? As we talk it becomes clear that it is a combination of two things. First, not wanting to be bossed around and told what to do by foreign bureaucrats. Second, that with aid dependency comes a loss of dignity, damage to entrepreneurship, and a decrease in innovation: all factors critical to any society’s long-term economic success.
After Rwanda my trip continues to Kenya and I manage to squeeze in a trip to Kibera, a suburb of Nairobi. With 1m people crammed into approximately 2.5 sq km (roughly 75 per cent the size of New York’s Central Park), it is frequently described as “the largest slum in Africa”, and certainly there is sewage and garbage everywhere I look. It occurs to me that Kibera provides a test case for the effectiveness of aid. Here, aid intervention could be measured and judged on its ability to change millions of lives.
Surely just a small portion of the billions of dollars available to the Gates Foundation could raise living standards and eradicate the disease burden in this area in one fell swoop?
Instead, as I walk through the mayhem that is Kibera, I am reminded once again about some of the many absurdities involved in aid.
Kenya has one of the highest ratios of development workers per capita, and, with the headquarters of the United Nations’ agency for human settlements located just hundreds of metres away from where I am walking, it seems painfully ironic that Kibera’s population has been growing since 1918.
My question to those who champion aid as a universal panacea? Why not just try to sort out Kibera and the lives of its inhabitants?
I am not holding my breath.
Dambisa Moyo is the author of ‘Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is Another Way for Africa’ (Penguin £14.99) www.dambisamoyo.com
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published