(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Misunderstood


I'm sitting here in my living room in Kigali – Rwanda being one of my three current "homes" in addition to Burundi and the US. I'm sipping coffee on a Sunday morning and reflecting on my past week here. It's been busy with meetings, presentations, keeping up with things in Burundi, and a visit to the genocide memorial yesterday. One thing that I often think about is the fact that a lot of African countries are misunderstood. Rwanda is one of them.

People basically know about it because of the genocide but beyond that, people have little awareness of what the country is about seventeen years later. People that spend time in sub-Saharan Africa are aware that it is rapidly becoming one of the shining stars on the continent in spite of some huge disadvantages. In addition to the unbelievable challenge of overcoming the massacres, intense ethnic hatred and/or distrust, massive population movements both into and out of the country, it also has some basic economic obstacles. It is landlocked. It has no port and has to import almost everything by truck from the coast through Kenya or Tanzania. It has some tourism (gorillas) but it's insignificant. It has relatively few natural resources and it has the highest population density on the continent with all its available arable land already cultivated.

photo of Kigali from the Hotel des Milles Collines  (made famous in the film Hotel Rwanda)
And yet its economy is growing quickly. It has an emerging middle class. It's clean and well-organized. Crime and corruption are relatively low. I can walk home from a restaurant at night. None of that is true about Burundi. And yet for many, the perceptions of the country seem to be forever linked to the events seventeen years ago. Granted the country is not entirely out of the woods yet. The ethnic tension is still there though unspoken. It's still heavily reliant upon donor funding. There are also fears as to what would happen to the country if something were to happen to President Kagame given that, regardless of one's opinion about him (some feel he doesn't respect human rights but that's a long discussion that I will avoid here), he's clearly been a strong leader and played the key role in this amazing transformation.

But the country has shown a willingness to make some bold moves to not only get to where it is but also to lay the foundation such that the progress continues. It's just not clear how dependent it is on the president. One important thing they've done is create a functional legal system. Without the accountability of a legal system with integrity, you can't go anywhere. The funds that go into the government coffers are used relatively efficiently. That encourages donor investment. People pay taxes. And the government aggressively delivering. It is improving the country's infrastructure at an impressive pace.

one of the many examples of the unexpectedly modern - the lobby of the Mille Collines
Other bold moves include changing one of the official languages from French to English. That's an incredibly difficult thing to do when you think about it. One of the key rationales on the part of the government is economic (though there are some other reasons). They've also banned plastic bags. You don't have to travel much around the world to see how big a difference that makes. It's pretty amazing. And in a developing country where most people have to rely on walking great distances, forcing them to come up with alternatives to the late 20th century reliance on plastic is no small feat. They've also spent tons of money on IT infrastructure and is in the middle of a plan to roll it out to all corners of the country. There are also significant investments in the education and healthcare sectors producing some impressive results, particularly in the last five years or so.

Yet it's still a developing country with a lot of huge challenges ahead. Anyone who's picked up a history book knows how quickly things can take a turn for the worse, particularly in this part of the world. It's also in the middle of a rough neighborhood. I met with the head of security for the US Embassy on Friday and we discussed potential insecurity in other countries that may have a ripple effect on this country (particularly in the Congo and Burundi).

So we push forward with cautious optimism.

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