Making Foreign Aid Work in Africa

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Howard Buffett talk about why development assisstance needs to be a two-way street

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Jeffrey D. Etheridge/Auburn University

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (far right) and philanthropist Howard Buffett (second to right) have strong feelings on the West's role in Africa

The philanthropist Howard G. Buffett—eldest son of multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett—and Rwandan President Paul Kagame go back a long way. Buffett’s foundation has been active in Africa for years, investing more than $140 million in central Africa’s Great Lakes region, which includes Rwanda. Almost every time Buffett visits Africa, he stops by the Rwandan capital of Kigali to see Kagame. Rwanda is a bright spot in a troubled region, a poor, landlocked country that has nevertheless managed to persevere despite the horrors of the 1994 genocide, which led to the deaths of as many as 1 million people. Buffett—and many international observers—give most of the credit to Kagame, the soft-spoken, steely-eyed former rebel who has been the country’s president, and its driving force, since 2000. “You go to Rwanda and the president can say ‘this is who you need to talk to, this is what you need to do’,” says Buffett. “It comes down to the leadership and the commitment.”

Buffett and Kagame were in New York last week—the Rwandan president was presenting the philanthropist with a humanitarian award at the U.N.—and I had a chance to sit down with both of them. It’s been a challenging year for Kagame and Rwanda. Kagame is celebrated internationally for his efficiency and effectiveness in steering Rwanda’s impressive economic growth—traits that stand out in Africa, where too many leaders are corrupt, ineffective or both. But he’s come under criticism for allegedly supporting the rebel group M23 in a long-running civil conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. That led a number of Western countries in recent years—including the U.S.—to cut or suspend foreign aid to Rwanda, which makes up as much as 40% of the country’s budget.

For years, Rwanda—which has seen average economic growth of 8% annually over the past five years—had been the shining example of the good that foreign aid can do, if it’s used right. To Kagame—who denies having any part in the DRC’s civil conflict—it seemed unfair that the West would suddenly back off promises of aid, especially considering the international community’s failure to stop the genocide. “The world owes a big debt to Rwanda,” says Kagame. “Congo is a vast country. To blame [the conflict] all on Rwanda is simply absurd.”

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To Buffett, the suspension of Western aid is more than unfair—and he’s willing to do something about it. “Partners shouldn’t pull out the rugs from each other,” he says. “You should stick with it, and if you’re not willing to stick with it, don’t start it in the first place.” Last week’s Buffett’s foundation announced that it would provide $3.7 million for Rwanda’s Strategic Capacity Building Initiative, a development program designed to strengthen government institutions. That money was meant in part to close a funding gap left by other donors who had withdrawn aid to Rwanda. And Buffett—who was critical about contemporary philanthropy in his recent book Forty Chances—was scathing when he discussed the suspension of aid and the effects it had on Rwanda:

When you look across Africa, it’s only getting worse. There are more people hungry, more people dying of hunger. You can’t treat it like a game. Every time you hit a bump, if you’re not willing to take the bump, you shouldn’t show up in the first place. You need to be able to let go of some of the power. I can’t possible understand the context of what we’re doing like the people who are out there [in recipient countries]. And I get to go home! They don’t. The idea that we have it all figured out, that our solutions are the right solutions, with no adaptation and no flexibility, that makes us hypocritical. When someone is making as much progress as Rwanda is, it’s not fair to say you’ll make a commitment, and then when something you don’t like happens, then you pull the commitment. How do you build a country like that?

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For Kagame, effective foreign aid needs to be a two-way street, with both donor nations and recipient countries  making commitments to each other and sharing the responsibility. “When you give us money and say it should go to education, it must go to education,” he says. “But accountability must go two ways. You must hold me accountable but I also hold you accountable. We need a culture of partnership.”

Earlier this month the Congo government and the M23 rebel group signed declarations that move to formally end the hostilities in the eastern Congo. Analysts note that significant challenges remain before a lasting peace can be achieved in central Africa, a region that has likely seen more blood spilled over the past quarter-century than any other place on the planet. But it could be enough to lift some of the suspensions on aid to Rwanda. Even with peace, the region will face enormous challenges in the future, from extreme poverty to disease to the effects of climate change, which will hit impoverished, largely rural nations like Rwanda hard. You can take issue with Kagame’s methods, but he and Buffett are right that effective foreign aid requires collaboration and mutual accountability. It means transparency on the part of recipients, but also reliability on the part of donors. In an uncertain future, we’ll need that more than ever.

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