Rwanda: Why Development Is Not Enough

On September 21st, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, advocated for international cooperation to promote global health and public-private partnerships to create technology jobs involving artificial intelligence across Africa. Kagame’s claim, “the future is digital,” mirrors his past attempts to anticipate new opportunities for Rwanda’s development. Kagame and his ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), outlined their futuristic vision of a prosperous and developed Rwanda in 2000 with the Vision 2020 program, which aimed to transform the country from impoverished to middle-income through economic development and good governance. As Kagame explained to This is Africa in 2013, “Our thinking is based on people. In national budgets, we focus on education, health, we look at technology, skills, innovation, creativity. We are always thinking about people, people, people.”

Growth in Rwanda has come in many forms, including agriculture, entrepreneurship, mining, and tourism; Rwanda’s real GDP grew by more than 120% over the last two decades according to the World Bank. This growth decreased poverty, with Rwandans’ average daily income increasing from $0.50 to $1.50 from 2001 to 2012. Kagame also introduced the practice of Umuganda, which requires Rwandans to complete a few hours of community work on the last Saturday of every month, in an attempt to create a strong communal work ethic within the country.

Infrastructure and health improvement has also been a priority in Rwanda, with the percentage of roads considered to be in good condition rising from 11% to 52% from 2006 to 2009 and with 4,000 deliveries of blood and medicine to rural areas between 2016 and 2018 made by Zipline drones, according to Zipline’s founder. Rwanda has engaged in increased levels of privatization and economic liberalization, factors that have given the nation a stronger role in the global economy and the government has taken a hands-on approach to enhancing the nation’s infrastructure.

Kagame’s focus on “people,” however, only regards their benefits to production; Rwanda’s ruling regime is rife with human rights abuses and authoritarian policies, ranging from restrictions on free expression to summary executions. Security forces summarily executed 37 Rwandans for petty crimes between 2016 and 2017 and Reporters Without Borders ranked Rwanda as 136 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom in their 2022 report. The organization described Rwanda’s level of press freedom as “one of the poorest in Africa.” 

Rwanda’s last election occurred in 2017 and saw Kagame win 99% of the vote in an election described by Ida Sawyer, Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, as “no surprise in a context in which Rwandans who have dared raise their voices or challenge the status quo have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed.”

Rwanda’s use of force involves its neighbors and the Rwandan diaspora. During the same UN General Assembly session where Kagame spoke, Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi blamed Kagame’s regime for destabilizing the Congo’s North Kivu through its continued support of the M23 rebel group. Tshisekedi stated that ignoring Rwanda’s complicity in supporting the group “will only encourage Rwanda to pursue its aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the DRC.”

The RPF has also allegedly murdered opponents residing in foreign nations, including businessman Revocant Karemangingo, an outspoken critic of the regime residing in Mozambique, who was killed by gunmen near his home in Maputo in 2021. 

Kagame’s legacy of development has led many western leaders regard the regime in a positive light, with the term, “benevolent dictator,” having been used to describe his rule. Former British prime Minister Tony Blair stated in 2010 during a visit to the U.S.:“I’m a believer in, and a supporter of, Paul Kagame… you can’t argue with the fact that Rwanda has gone on a remarkable path of development.” Former U.S. Assistant Secretary State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy claimed that Rwanda is “demonstrating the true potential of Africa.” 

The U.S. and other western nations provide aid to Rwanda; the U.S. provided over $147 million in bilateral aid in 2021 to support “integrated programming to advance goals in democracy and governance; health and nutrition; basic and higher education; youth, and economic growth including food security; and environmental programs” according to the State Department and the UK made a deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda in exchange for the UK providing £120 million in aid to Rwanda.

Aid freezes and condemnations have occurred in the past over Rwanda’s support for M23 and authoritarian domestic policies, but these acts have not been sustained and western nations continue to view Rwanda as an ally. 

The moral contrast between Rwanda’s competency with development and its authoritarianism has left western analysts conflicted about their view of the country. Commentators do not ignore the abuses per se; a group of civil society organizations wrote a letter to the Commonwealth of Nations, of which Rwanda is a member, requesting that the Commonwealth urge Rwanda to accept numerous human rights focused demands. Instead, western commentators legitimize Kagame’s rule and abuses because he has been “benevolent,” since he encourages development. The often unsaid assertion concurrent with this legitimization is the idea that desiring democracy in Rwanda would be too aspirational because of the country’s history of authoritarian rule, which dates back to the colonial era. 

In addition to the lack of historical precedence of democracy, the idea of a “benevolent dictator” has moral standing based on a belief in the competency of authoritarianism. This belief rests on the principle that dictators act without controls and, thus, are able to make decisions more efficiently, while democracies are delayed through deliberation. These decisions are usually acknowledged to be unrepresentative of popular will and irrational, however, if a competent and just ruler were to be in power (such as Kagame), that nation would ideally be more successful because of the efficiency of a dictator.

This idea originates from Plato’s Republic, where Plato outlined his conception of a Philosopher King. According to Plato, the Philosopher King combined the intellectual acumen of a philosopher with the political power of a king and, therefore, was the most optimal ruler. This idea can be applied to praise for Kagame, an educated leader who has piloted Rwanda through over two decades of development. 

The idea of a philosopher king, benevolent dictator, or any other that legitimizes authoritarian rule ignores the most basic principle of government: that government exists to protect individual rights. No government, no matter how competent or technologically advanced, can make decisions that reflect those that free individuals would make, either economically or socially. A free society that respects individual rights, in contrast to an authoritarian regime, allows individuals to make decision for themselves that maximize their well-being; individuals have the most knowledge and stake regarding their existence.

Economic and social freedom works together; Rwanda is certainly not as economically successful as it could be due to its social policies that force many to leave the country. The censorship Rwanda employs diminishes potential innovation by disincentivizing its citizens from conveying ideas because of the potentiality of arrest. Authoritarian regimes inevitably destabilize nations as rival factions arise and resist the ruling regime, either through protest or war. As Harvard University Professor of International Political Economy Dani Rodrik explained in a 2010 piece for Project Syndicate, “Authoritarian regimes… ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.”

Western aid freezes and condemnations against Rwanda must become more sustained to showcase the illegitimacy of Kagame’s authoritarian rule; additionally, the logic against “benevolent dictatorship” must be applied to additional authoritarian regimes to showcase their immorality and impracticality.


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