Aid and Conflict in Rwanda

by Stephen Browne

Every ‘conflict country’ is a special case. What distinguishes Rwanda is the intensity of human destruction to which the country succumbed in 1994. One seventh of the population, mostly from the Tutsi minority, was massacred in the space of three months. The academic, commercial, and professional elite was decimated. Nine-tenths of the population was displaced, and basic infrastructure was destroyed.

Prior to the genocide, Rwanda received large amounts of aid. From 1988 to 1991, total official development assistance (ODA) rose from almost $250 million per year to over $350 million (approximately $50 per capita). This aid was supplemented by humanitarian assistance, which increased in 1992 and 1993 as the civil war between the Government, and the Tutsidominated rebels intensified and displaced large numbers of people (refugees from massacres in Burundi also fled to Rwanda during this time). These levels of aid were maintained until the genocide, following which ODA doubled to over $700 million, mostly humanitarian aid. Today, aid inflows total $400 million per year, with development aid in the ascendant.

This juxtaposition of aid and conflict prompts important questions about the power and effectiveness of aid. Before the genocide Rwanda was implementing a programme of structural adjustment, supervised by the IMF and the World Bank. The country enjoyed an unusually good image with the donors, the most important of which had resident missions in Kigali.

Thus, the aid donors had a major stake in Rwanda in the months prior to the genocide, and indeed many saw the country as an African model of development. What seems extraordinary now is that none of the donors appeared to be aware of the Government’s careful preparations for one of the worst massacres in human history. Yet information was available from which the cataclysm could have been predicted.

Indeed, some observers have argued that aid, in supporting the Government’s policies and programmes, may have contributed to the conditions that incubated genocide. Rwandan society has suffered from high levels of ‘structural violence’ - inequality, marginalisation and ethnic bias - which were often rooted in, and exacerbated by, state action. The recently completed UNU/WIDER project on complex humanitarian emergencies highlights the role of unbalanced development as a cause of conflict in Rwanda, and other countries.

The tragic impotence of the donor community in the face of the unfolding genocide has been well chronicled. While the blame has not been clearly apportioned and admitted, it is widely agreed that appropriate interventions by the international community could have prevented the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. In one hundred days, this country - together with its patrimony of aid - self-destructed.

The aid that then poured into Rwanda following the genocide was partial atonement. Whatever its motives, aid helped to rebuild the country, at least its economy and physical infrastructure. By the end of the 1990s, the economy is roughly back to where it was at the start of the decade.

Rwanda is now entering a postcrisis phase. It is in the second year of an IMF Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) BY INVITATION Aid and Conflict in Rwanda by Stephen Browne programme and benefited in 1999 from a new programme loan from the World Bank. The profile of aid is again changing in favour of development assistance.

But donors need to learn from Rwanda’s recent history, if tragedy is not to be repeated. This is especially true in circumstances (applicable to many African countries) in which political, commercial and academic power and influence are again concentrated in a few hands, since aid inevitably constitutes a contentious, and contested, prize.

First, all bilateral and multilateral donors need to agree on the economic, political and social norms that are currently most likely to promote stable, open, and inclusive governance in Rwanda. Currently, donors are divided in their willingness to assist. Some donors, historically close to the previous Hutu regime, are reluctant to become engaged with a Tutsi-dominated Government. Aid should be more objective.

Second, donors must apply stricter criteria to their aid programmes, which must be appraised according to the criteria of reconciliation, not division. Projects that spread their benefits unevenly across ethnic groups, for example training grants that favour one group over another, should be avoided. Donors must never again acquiesce to apartheid in Africa.

Stephen Browne is the United Nations Development and Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Rwanda.

For further discussion of Rwanda see Peter Uvin ‘Development, Aid and Conflict: Reflections from the Case of Rwanda’, UNU/WIDER, Research for Action 24.

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