SEATTLE, Washington — Supplying foreign aid to Rwanda presents a dilemma for international donors. Following the 1994 genocide of nearly a million of its own people, the Rwandan government’s record of human rights still leaves many donors uncertain about the efficacy of giving.
The genocide was the sub-Saharan African nation’s darkest hour — civil war turned into “ethnic cleansing” between the Hutus, the majority ethnic group, and the Tutsis, the ethnicity of the previous royal regime.
While the United States and international partners were initially involved, President Bill Clinton advocated for reducing U.N. peacekeepers after safely evacuating foreigners — a move that many argue opened the path for the massacre to occur.
Adding to the horror of nearly one million deaths, the country descended into a grave economic crisis and resulted in widespread poverty.
Even with 90 percent of the country involved in subsistence farming, Rwanda is the most densely-populated of all African countries. In rural areas, post-genocide Rwanda experienced debilitating declines in literacy rates, and uptakes in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and infant mortality.
Mid-way through President Clinton’s second term, he visited Rwanda to “pay respects” to the victims of the Rwandan Genocide, four years after the event. “We cannot change the past,” Clinton told the people of Rwanda, “but we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear.”
Since the genocide, international donors have supplied hundreds of millions of dollars and subsistence-based foreign aid in Rwanda. USAID alone has provided more than $126 million.
Even with steady inflows of foreign aid in Rwanda post-genocide, 39 percent of Rwandans were living below the poverty line as of 2015. Slow progress is being made, however, with this figure having decreased from 57 percent in 2006.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s administration has been in office since 2003. Since then, his government claims to have made “unprecedented socio-economic and political progress and consolidated peace”. Human rights groups do not share the same optimistic view.
Organizations like Womenaid International expressed their concern over the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and its handling of prosecuting those responsible for human rights abuses, mainly in connection to the genocide.
In its 2016 World Report, Human Rights Watch asserts that Rwanda’s government restricts freedom of speech. It also claims “serious setbacks” for the few independent human rights groups in Rwanda.
Human Rights Watch triggered an international response in September 2015 when it published a story regarding unlawful detention of “the country’s most vulnerable people” at the Gikondo Transit Center.
The Economist reported that “Britain, the second-largest bilateral contributor after the United States, has frozen, unfrozen and then refroze its aid”. Similarly, the Obama administration has canceled development projects and restricted military assistance.
Concern over suspected human rights abuses may discourage foreign aid in Rwanda, but under the Kagame administration poverty rates have fallen, energy infrastructure improvements have taken place and GDP has risen.
This presents a moral dilemma for international donors and financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF and the African Development Bank. If major powers continue the behavior of halting then resuming foreign aid in Rwanda, this debate looks set to continue for years to come.
– Tim Devine