In June I spent two weeks in East Africa networking with investment groups and organizations involved with business. The last destination on my trip was to Rwanda. Most of us know Rwanda from the genocide of 1994 as depicted in the Don Cheadle movie Hotel Rwanda. Since that time Rwanda has seen a dramatic turnaround as the country has consistently grown by 8-9% every year this past decade. Many have nicknamed Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa” because of their small population and significant growth in comparison to the surrounding region. While much of what is going on in Rwanda is extremely encouraging, there were a number of things that my trip revealed about Rwanda that made me a little skeptical.
At one point 90% of the government budget was propped up by aid. Now it is down to 40% but the massive influx of aid has been the driving force of the economic growth. This is revealing for two reasons. First, the “Rwanda Model” cannot be adopted by other countries. Because of its small size and history, it has presented a unique case where a high concentration of aid can be given. Second, the average Rwandan has not been part of his or her own country’s success.
People in Rwanda have not earned jobs, they have been given them. They haven’t built their own roads by tax revenue, it was donated to them. Nothing most Rwandans have done is any different than they have done before yet the country is progressing because of aid. The lesson that we have taught Rwandans is that the only way your country will progress is if the rich countries come in and give you progress.
Gulu, Uganda faces a similar challenge. Due to the civil war waged by the now infamous Joseph Kony, aid organizations have flooded the scenery. Aid organizations as they do everywhere else (and will do soon in Rwanda) is leave and the people know this. This has created a culture of milking the aid for as long as they can with no intention of using it for its intended purpose. Aid hasn’t given people dignity, all it has done is given people a few handouts and the persisting idea that they can’t progress will always elude them.
I am not against all aid. My perspective is that it is not the solution but also isn’t the problem. The chief issue I do have with aid is that it implicitly says that “nothing you do is of worth, so here is a ____”. That is the last thing the aid workers are trying to convey to the poor but intentions matter little. The beauty of business is that it gives people dignity. It says to the poor person “you have skills and talents that people will pay for”. It gives people the ability to contribute to society that everyone (by asserting that money has value) agrees has worth. It gives us the ability to work with the poor rather than helping them. We are able to work side by side rather than a paternalistic relationship that rich are always above the poor.
The culture of dependency is endemic in Gulu and difficult to break. Even in the structure of a business, locals do not immediately take ownership of the business they work for. They see it as a temporary Band-Aid to poverty and will milk it while they can. It is not a complete handicap but instilling the belief in people that they can make something of themselves is a challenge. One that can and will be overcome as long as we continue to treat people with dignity and respect and stop trying to “help” them.