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Reinventing Rwanda

There's a new promise of prosperity. So why are human rights advocates unhappy?

June 22, 2008|Stephen Kinzer | Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author, most recently, of "A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It."

In the dozens of poor countries I've covered as a foreign correspondent, development specialists -- people who run projects aimed at pulling nations out of poverty -- have generally worked hand in hand with human rights advocates. That makes sense because these two groups are natural allies. Both instinctively support governments that promote freedom and prosperity and oppose corrupt and repressive ones.

Recently, though, I've been spending time in a country where these two groups are on opposite sides: Rwanda. No other country's government is so highly praised by development specialists but also so roundly condemned by human rights advocates. In fact, Rwanda's spectacular rebirth since the shocking genocide of 1994 has reignited an old debate about the very nature of human rights -- and about whether the West's obsession with this concept can undermine innovative solutions to problems that hold entire nations in misery.

Over the last few years, Rwanda has emerged as the most exciting place on Earth for people whose dream is to end global poverty. Development specialists are flooding in, drawn by the dazzlingly original, entrepreneur-driven program that President Paul Kagame is promoting. One aid administrator told me that Rwanda is "the only country on the planet that has a chance of going from absolute poverty to middle income in the space of a generation." A Harvard Business School report last year found that economic conditions are steadily improving and that the country is "corruption free," "stable with social progress" and possibly on its way to becoming the "Switzerland of Africa."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa calls Rwanda "a miracle unfolding before our very eyes." All over Africa and beyond, experts are beginning to hope that this country, so devastated by the genocide 14 years ago in which more than 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, will give the world a new model for fighting poverty.

During one of my interviews with Kagame, I asked him why, despite decades of study and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, no one has come up with a formula for ending poverty in Africa. He rejected the premise of my question. "Everyone knows how to develop Africa," he said. "The problem is that no one does it."

Kagame's formula, modeled after those that brought rapid development to East Asian countries, is simple and straightforward. First and above all, he believes in security; under his rule, Rwanda has become the safest country in Africa, a place where even in the capital people walk alone after dark carrying cash, cellphones and other valuables.

Then comes honest governance; no African government has ever waged the kind of campaign against bribery and influence-peddling that Kagame is leading in Rwanda. Add education, population control, first-class infrastructure, gender equality, good healthcare and a strong sense of private initiative, Kagame believes, and the result is prosperity.

But although diplomats, economists and development experts are full of praise for Kagame and his government -- and many Rwandans share their enthusiasm -- American and European human rights advocates are less impressed. They point out that Kagame won his last election with 95% of the vote and that there is no prospect of anyone defeating him in 2010, when he is expected to be reelected to a second (and, by law, final) seven-year term. The European Union judged the last election "not entirely fair," and the U.S. State Department called it "seriously marred."

Human rights advocates also reject Kagame's view that Rwandans must view themselves only as Rwandans and stop using the words "Hutu" and "Tutsi." He allows people to complain, for example, that the country is ruled by a small clique, but not that it is ruled by a small clique of Tutsi. A reporter may assert that Rwandans are miserable, but not that Hutu are miserable. Last year, a journalist was sentenced to a year in prison for writing that "those who killed Hutu are free" because national leaders "think the Hutu who perished are not human beings."

How does Kagame explain such prosecutions, which seem to contradict Western notions of free speech and an unfettered press? He says they are necessary because Rwanda faces another challenge, a psycho-spiritual one that may be even more daunting than making a poor country rich. Its population remains deeply divided as a result of factors that led to the 1994 genocide. Kagame considers the limitation on speech essential to prevent another explosion of mass murder. His critics call it an unjust, self-serving and dangerous restriction on free speech.

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