I was wrong about donors cutting aid to Rwanda, but they’ll soon see sense

Saturday August 4 2012



Three weeks ago, I optimistically predicted in this column that the recent outbreak of violence in eastern DRC would not affect UK and US aid to Rwanda.

I argued that both countries knew that the issues involved were far more complex than Rwanda’s accusers made them appear.

By then, the more enthusiastic critics of the Kagame government had taken to claiming, for example, that its interest in the DRC boiled down to seeking ways to loot the country’s natural wealth.

Its longstanding security concerns were dismissed as a smokescreen for more sinister motives, among which was the possibility, so it was said, that it harbours a desire to annex the DRC’s Kivu region.

The annexation talk usually comes from commentators who believe that the Kivus are full of Kinyarwanda-speakers eager to facilitate the said designs on the DRC’s territory, and that the annexation is possible.

Under normal circumstances, simple-minded theorising of this sort merits no comment. I raise it here simply to make the point that no serious diplomatic mission in Kigali would pay it any attention.

Thus my argument that the UK and the US would have an appropriately sophisticated and nuanced view of what was happening and that, as a consequence, they would not be rushed into hasty reactions of the kind that address the symptoms rather than the cause of the troubles.

I was right and wrong at the same time. First, where I got it right. Both the UK and the US and in all likelihood other donors, appreciate the complexity of the situation confronting the DRC and its neighbours such as Rwanda and Uganda, whose security to a large extent hinges on constantly keeping an eye on events across the border and reacting promptly when necessary.

Informed diplomatic and other sources suggest that they are sufficiently sceptical of a range of claims made by the UN’s “group of experts” whose report lays out detailed allegations pointing to Rwanda fomenting conflict in the DRC.

Also, the decisions by a number of donors, the UK and US included, to withhold or suspend aid were hardly knee-jerk.

They followed a period of sustained pressure from a number of their own domestic constituencies, to show that, as one source put it, they were not “helping finance Rwanda’s activities in Congo.”

Rwanda’s usual detractors, among them international humanitarian and other NGOs, were working overtime, waving the report in the face of whoever cared to pay attention and churning out articles, blogs, and tweets castigating the country’s friends, sympathisers, and those they labelled as “protectors” and “praise singers.”

The need to respond to domestic pressure meant that at some point donor governments would take some kind of action to demonstrate that they were not being soft on Rwanda.

And this is where I got it wrong. I assumed that donors would not act in ways that fell short of addressing the key question: How to enable the state in the DRC to discharge its functions, including asserting control over its entire territory and guaranteeing the security of all its citizens.

Cutting aid to Rwanda or even suspending it simply does not provide the answer. It, however, carries the potential to be highly damaging to the country.

It is true that those celebrating these actions are a little hasty in their reactions and in reaching the conclusion that a turning point in relations between Rwanda and key donors has been reached.

There is every possibility that the suspension and withholding of aid will be sufficiently short-lived to avoid derailing the country’s anti-poverty and other programmes.

Only if sustained over the medium to long term will the cuts inflict significant damage, especially where the assistance withheld is destined for the social or productive sectors.

In that case, the cumulative effect would be a reversal or stagnation in the achievements the country has registered in recent years.

That can only worsen the quality of life for the millions of Rwandans the same donors have helped lift out of poverty since the genocide.

In that case, the decisions would amount to penalising Rwanda’s poor and vulnerable, the very outcome donors often claim they want to avoid when called upon to justify continued support to other governments their taxpayers may, rightly or wrongly, consider undeserving of assistance.

Indeed, if one were to cite one reason why Rwanda has become such a donor darling in recent years, it has been because of the government’s capacity for managing aid properly, using it effectively, and demonstrating that, given the right context, aid does indeed work.

Here then is the reason why these actions will be short-lived. Rwanda may need donors to help achieve its development goals, but so do they need it to demonstrate how well targeted and well-managed aid can be an effective development and anti-poverty tool.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]