Weighing the Complexities of the Aid Freeze

February 20, 2013 • Online Content, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 977


In early January, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda denounced the unfairness of the Western world. He evoked as an example the recent trend of foreign aid suspension due to allegations that Rwanda has been supporting M23 rebels in the Congo.

Kagame definitely has a point. In a United Nations-commissioned report, experts accused Rwandan military officials of equipping, training, and commanding the brutal M23 forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and although Kagame rejected the allegations, several European States joined the United States in freezing aid to Rwanda. The UN report cited Rwandan soldiers who had defected from the M23 forces—a group made up largely of ethnic Tutsis, like the majority of Rwanda’s leadership.

On the one hand, the use of aid as a political tool is troubling. Rwanda is one of the world’s poorest countries, but it has benefited significantly from decades of donor aid. The US Agency for International Development has supported the growth of the country’s agricultural sector, education system, and fight against debilitating poverty. The foreign aid Rwanda has received has promoted enormous economic growth, but has also unfortunately fostered dependence—today, Rwanda relies on donors for over 40% of its national budget. This dependence on foreign aid means the West does have undue leverage in Rwandan political affairs. When Kagame refers to Western “unfairness,” he is identifying the cruelty of a system that allows the West to assert its moral authority over Rwandan leaders, stripping them of their sovereign autonomy.

Yet on the other hand, perhaps toying with aid is one of the more necessary—and moral—political games that America plays. The M23 force that Rwanda has actively supported has raped scores of women, massacred civilian populations, and committed other brutal war crimes during the rebels’ occupation of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Because of foreign aid, the US can leverage its power to adopt a firm stance against Rwandan support of the M23.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (telegraph)

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (telegraph)

In weighing the troubling injustice of colonialism against the moral necessity to stand against the M23, President Kagame’s former right hand man David Himbara offered Britain powerful words of advice.

“Britain is not funding Rwanda,” Himbara said. “It is funding a dictator. It’s sustaining a bad regime by any measure. Let no British taxpayer flatter herself or himself that they’re helping Rwanda. No, you are merely extending their misery.” There you have it—from a former Rwandan political leader, the argument that European nations do have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to use aid as a tool to assert moral authority and perhaps bring about some measure of improvement to the practices of an abusive government.

Unfortunately, the regime authorities are not really the ones suffering under the current aid freeze. Making up for Rwanda’s massive economic loss, authorities have made cuts to civil servant wages and paused job creation efforts.

Kagame himself recognized that the aid freeze has taken a large toll on low-income communities in stating, “By cutting aid, they are not punishing the leaders but the poor people who can’t afford to take back their children to school.”

The president’s commentary reveals that Kigali’s continued support of the M23 is not only victimizing the Congolese population—it’s also further impoverishing the Rwandan people. Perhaps the unfairness Kagame has identified isn’t entirely a conflict between the West and Africa, but rather between a leader and his own citizens.

Emma Goldberg ’16 is in Saybrook College. She writes on post-conflict politics around the world. Contact her at emma.goldberg@yale.edu.

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